Before you try a restrictive diet or exhausting exercise to shed pounds, you might consider trying mindful eating for weight loss instead. We know what you're thinking: What could practicing mindfulness possibly have to do with losing weight? Granted, saying "om" before you eat a bag of chips or a plate of brownies is not going to instantly cut those extra calories. But don't chuckle and roll your eyes too quickly; a growing body of research supports mindful eating over mindless eating — and for good reason.
What is mindful eating?
To understand what mindful eating means, we must first understand the concept of mindfulness. According to the National Institute of Health, mindfulness is an ancient practice of being completely aware of what's happening around and inside you in the present time. To be mindful means to experience life moment by moment without judgment or preconceived notions. Mindfulness can help you pay close attention to your thoughts, actions, and body as you go about your day — which obviously includes eating.
According to Margaret Chesney, PhD, mindful eating means eating when you're hungry, focusing on each bite, enjoying your food, and — here's the sometimes-hard part — stopping when you're full. In other words, it's the exact opposite of mindless eating, which is a widespread problem. "It is so common for people to watch TV and eat snack food out of the box without really attending to how much they are eating," said Dr. Chesney. Practicing mindfulness during meals involves being aware of tastes, textures, and flavors and truly listening to your body before and after every bite. And for many folks out there struggling with weight, this practice has definitely paid off.
A March 2018 review of research papers on mindful eating and weight loss found that "all studies showed weight loss results" with mindful eating. The review also reported that four of five studies found continued weight loss with participants over a follow-up period. The researchers wrote, "Increased mindful eating has been shown to help participants gain awareness of their bodies, be more in tune to hunger and satiety, recognize external cues to eat, gain self compassion, decrease food cravings, decrease problematic eating, and decrease reward-driven eating." It also cannot be ignored that eating slowly — a major part of mindful eating — has been cited as a possible way to prevent obesity: A February 2018 study of 59,000 mostly obese participants with type 2 diabetes found that subjects who changed their eating speed from fast to slow had a 42 percent lower rate of obesity than the folks who still ate quickly by the end of the study.
Mindful eating for weight loss sounds a little less funny now, right? But don't be too intimidated; mindful eating doesn't have to mean that you think deeply and longingly about every almond you munch on during a healthy snacktime. It simply means swapping certain unhealthy eating habits with healthier ones and gradually making them part of your daily routine — and the experts have great tips on how to start.
How to Practice Mindful Eating for Weight Loss
- Try intentionally setting aside time during the day for mindful eating. If you find yourself losing track of time, Harvard Medical School suggests setting your kitchen timer for 20 minutes, and taking that time to eat a normal-size meal.
- Prepare yourself for mindful eating before you mindfully eat. Prior to filling your plate, stop and ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" It's so easy to mix up boredom or emotional stress with the actual desire to eat; the easiest ways to know if you're truly hungry include physical signs, such as "growling" in your stomach or hunger pangs, along with lightheadedness in some cases. If you're indeed hungry, make your food choices wisely; opt for whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats.
- When you finally dig in, try to avoid distractions. We know it can be tough to stay away the television or the cell phone while you're chowing down, but the Mayo Clinic says it's key to mindful eating to save these indulgences for after you're done with the food. And yes, this includes "old-school" distractions such as books, too!
- Take a moment to truly appreciate your food. Whether this means saying a prayer at the beginning of the meal, thanking a loved one for going to the trouble to prepare a special dish, or simply expressing gratitude to yourself after a particularly delicious bite, you'd be surprised by what a difference this can make for your entire eating experience. It's hard to deny the power of "thank you!"
- Remember to use all your senses while enjoying the meal. Obviously, we all use the sense of taste while eating, but it's easy to miss certain smells, flavors, textures, or even the way the food looks if you don't take the time to experience it all. On top of helping with mindful eating, this practice can also help you refine your palate for making even tastier healthy meals in the future.
- If you find your mind wandering, try a few "tricks" to bring yourself back to focus. One option is trying to eat with your non-dominant hand. (Whether you're a righty or lefty, your less steady hand will practically be begging you to eat slower!) Or you might try eating with chopsticks more often — even if you're not eating Asian cuisine. Experiment until you find a way that works for you.
- Pay attention to your body's signals until you feel full. Without a doubt, this is one of the hardest parts of mindful eating — which is why so many of us end up accidentally eating until we're beyond full and stuffed instead. Take a piece of advice from Mindful magazine and "let your body catch up to your brain." Take smaller bites, put your fork down between bites, and maybe even try chewing for a longer period of time. And when your body says it's full, listen!
Next, learn some easy diet swaps for weight loss in the video below: