You gobbled down your lunch while scrolling through your social media or watching your favorite show, and now you feel bloated and unsure of what your food even tasted like. Or maybe you feel guilty for eating leftover chocolate cake straight out of the fridge.
These behaviors and mindsets contrast with mindful eating, which means using all your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make without judgment, said Lilian Cheung, a lecturer and director of health promotion and communication in the nutrition department at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, via email.
It “stems from the broader philosophy of mindfulness, a widespread, centuries-old practice used in many religions,” Cheung said. “Mindfulness is an intentional focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the present moment.”
Mindful eating and intuitive eating philosophies overlap, but they differ in some key ways. While mindful eating is about being present to experience your food as you eat it, intuitive eating focuses more on improving one’s relationship with food and body image by rejecting external rigid diet messaging.
Whether one method is better than the other depends on individuals’ needs, said Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, nutritionist in private practice and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at a Time.”
Mindful eating fits with all types of counseling and strategies for eating, weight and health. “It’s more user-friendly for a larger audience because it’s a tool that can be incorporated into a lot of different methods,” Young said.
These experts cautioned that mindful eating isn’t a panacea for food- or health-related issues, but small studies have suggested some benefits of the practice, largely based on its meditative aspects and abilities to help people distinguish physical hunger cues from emotional hunger. Some people have experienced weight loss or stability, anxiety and stress reduction, normalized eating habits, and relief from irritable bowel syndrome and gastrointestinal symptoms, Young said.
If you want to try mindful eating, here’s what else you should know about getting started and potential hurdles.
Practicing mindful eating
The goal of mindful eating is to become more in tune with all your senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and feeling – and thoughts during your eating experiences without distraction, said Teresa T. Fung, a professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Simmons University in Boston, and adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“When I’m going to eat breakfast, I’m not going to be holding my iPad and reading today’s news. I’m not checking my email on that. I’ll just sit in a quiet place – it could be a couch. I don’t have to sit at the dining room table,” Fung explained.
Fung walked CNN through her morning coffee experience: She would pay attention to the sound of her coffee brewing, then the scent. She would notice the color of her drink, its balance between cream and coffee. Then she can focus on whether the coffee itself feels as warm in her mouth as the mug does in her hands, or the liquid’s texture. As she sips, she could mentally note the flavors.
Gratitude is both an aspect and potential outcome of mindful eating. Heightening your awareness beyond yourself while eating, you could also think of “where the food came from, expressing gratitude for the environmental elements and individuals involved in the food’s journey to the plate,” said Cheung, the editorial director of The Nutrition Source, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health nutrition department’s online resource for science-based guidance for healthy living.
You might be used to using your phone, watching television or reading while eating, but you can break the habit by gradually cutting out mealtime distractions. “If you eat dinner while watching TV most nights of the week, can you start by reserving Sunday night to eat mindfully? Then Monday, and so on?” Cheung said.
The same goes for those who have a busy schedule that complicates being able to solely focus on eating. Just try to practice mindful eating as much as you can – whether that’s for five minutes during lunchtime or during each meal and snack, doing what you can is better than nothing at all, these experts said.
If you feel impatient or the urge to grab your phone while eating, that’s OK, Cheung said. Just notice those feelings, take a few deep breaths, and return your attention to your meal. Take small bites and chew thoroughly, too. If you eat slowly, you’re more likely to recognize when you’re satisfied – rather than stuffed – and can stop eating.
“Sharing a meal or eating alongside others is certainly encouraged,” Cheung said, and mindful eating “doesn’t have to mean consuming your food in silence. Rather, aim to set aside a few minutes at the start of the meal: Smile to your peers, express your gratitude for the food and the company of others, and try the first few bites without talking to focus on the eating experience.”
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Once you have been mindfully eating for a while, the mindset can apply to other areas of your life. “It can apply to mindful living and doing one thing at a time,” Fung said. “I’m going to check my emails now; I’m going to watch TV later. So often, we’re doing so many things at the same time that we’re multitasking, and we’re not paying attention to anything.”