Halloween is around the corner and if you don’t have a stash of candy squirrelled away in your home, chances are you will soon.
How do you feel about Halloween candy? Pass altogether in favour of the good stuff? Sample a few and it’s no big deal? Or does one lead to another, and another, and more, until you’re feeling stuffed and remorseful?
If it’s the latter, let’s see if we can dial down the power of that chocolate temptation, and put you back in the driver’s seat.
With this and a bunch more holidays right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to talk about mindful eating, which I’ve never explicitly discussed on the blog.
What is mindful eating?
Eating mindfully is simply the practice of really paying attention to the experience of eating, physically and emotionally, without judgement.
It’s pretty much the opposite of the multitasking, inhale-it-on-the-go, barely-noticed-the-taste style of eating so many of us often practice. (Often myself included!)
Mindful eating is applied mindfulness, as famously described by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
It involves noticing all the sensations involved in eating, from how the food looks and smells to how it feels in your mouth, how it sounds when you bite, to (of course!) how it tastes.
You also take note of feelings related to hunger and fullness, as well as how your body feels afterwards: Bloated or sluggish? Energized? Pleasantly satisfied?
In addition, the idea is to also pay attention to the emotions and thoughts brought on by certain foods. But the goal is to just observe. No good/bad judgements. If you find yourself thinking “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “I have no willpower,” or similar negative, unhelpful thoughts, gently move your focus back to the eating experience.
Acceptance and simply being present while eating are the goals.
What mindful eating is NOT
Don’t confuse mindful eating with being “careful” about food. We’re not talking about mindful as in “mind your manners.”
I took a peek at Merriam-Webster’s list of synonyms for mindful. The ones that apply here include “aware,” “cognizant,” “conscious,” and “sentient,” but not “sensible” and definitely not “apprehensive”!
Eating mindfully doesn’t mean conscientiously following rules, eating less, or eating certain foods, but rather simply paying attention to your experience of eating. It might help you to feel satisfied with less food, but that’s not the focus.
And finally, mindful eating is also not necessarily slow or distraction-free, although those can help, especially for us novices (re)learning to eat more mindfully. You don’t have to eat every meal or snack in silence, over 20-30 minutes, to practice it. (Phew!)
If heart health is a priority for you, how can mindful eating help?
In terms of research, which is relatively preliminary in nature, the best evidence for mindful eating is around binge eating, reducing the frequency and severity of binging episodes, a compelling benefit for many of my clients.
There’s also some evidence that it helps with emotional eating and what researchers call “external” eating — eating in response to the sight, smell, and taste of food as opposed to a physical need for food. Neither is necessarily a problem, but you may get to the point where you want to do it less often.
All three of those behaviours have been linked to weight gain, so addressing them may help prevent or slow it down, but there isn’t clear and consistent weight loss tied to mindful eating. Participants in some studies lose a bit, on average, at least in the short run, some don’t. It doesn’t appear to be any better for weight loss than conventional approaches, which isn’t saying much.
What about type 2 diabetes? More research is needed, but in one study, it worked as well as (but not better than) intensive dietary counselling for weight and blood sugar control, so it could be an alternative for those who would rather not count every calorie. At the very least, another tool in your toolbox.
Mindfulness and mindful eating have also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as symptoms of depression (here and here), which may improve the long-term prognosis for people with heart disease, and lower risk for those without. Emotional health drives heart health (and vice versa), so let’s not undervalue that! (It also may help with stress-related digestive problems.)
I should say though — full disclosure — that these benefits were seen in research settings where participants typically participated in structured multi-week programs led by a trained professional.
Can you get the same results on your own? Maybe. It’s worth a try. See resources below. Plus, you may find it helps you in more subjective ways that are less likely to make it into a medical journal, but perhaps are as impactful for you personally.
I often say that food is one of life’s great pleasures, but not if it’s just another thing to rush through on our to-do list.
Really paying attention to the taste and texture of our food can heighten our enjoyment of eating. (And the resulting sense of satisfaction might just keep you from rummaging around the kitchen for more.)
For some, gaining insight into how your mind and body respond to certain foods and eating habits can be empowering. You may start to really trust your wisdom and your decisions around eating, rather than relying on a diet or (dare I say) a dietitian to tell you what and how much to eat.
I had a client tell me once that food was the four-letter “F word” in her life. If food causes you a lot of grief too, mindful eating might just help you build a better relationship with it. It’s hard to measure, but beneficial nonetheless.
Programs used in the research
The structured programs used in research settings can be expensive and tough to find, but it’s not impossible. Search for MB-EAT (mindfulness-based eating awareness training) which is one of the widely studied approaches, and the name of your city, to see if anything comes up. There are more and more online courses as well.
MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) is also well researched. It’s not specific to eating, but was was used alongside mindful eating practices in many of the studies I cited above. It’s been shown to reduce stress and emotional reactivity, as well as improve mood, focus, and memory. Uh, yes please.
Less formal approaches
If participating in a program like that isn’t going to happen for you, you can still practice mindful eating!
Take a peek at The Center for Mindful Eating online. They have many excellent free or low-cost recordings and webinars.
Calgary dietitian Vincci Tsui, RD wrote The Mindful Eating Workbook, which I found quite helpful. As the name implies, it’s a workbook, so instead of just reading, you do thoughtful exercises and write down your insights. She also offers a free 7-day mini-course “Introduction to Meditation & Mindful Eating.”
Michelle May, M.D. and Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RD, CDCES are also well-recognized leaders in this field, offering (paid) online courses in mindful eating, including for those with diabetes/prediabetes and binge eating. But their website also offers free resources and a series of books (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat).
There are lots of other professionals offering mindfulness and mindful eating instruction, but these are ones I’m familiar with. Whatever approaches appeal to you, the key is that “a mindful state develops over time and with regular practice, both formally and informally, on a daily basis.”
Even if you don’t tackle a formal mindful eating course or book, you can commit to simply taking a couple of deep breaths before you eat, focusing your attention on at least the first bite, and trying to eat more slowly. It’s not easy when you have a lot on your plate I know, but the benefits are compelling.
Want to try it? Experiment with that Halloween candy
While it might take a bit of a commitment to see the benefits mentioned above, this exercise can give you a taste of mindful eating, so to speak. Grab a few raisins, a piece of Halloween candy, or any finger food you’d like to experience more mindfully.
It’s a reading from Vincci Tsui’s Mindful Eating Workbook.
As I described above, it leads you through really experiencing the food with all your senses, letting it linger in your mouth, nonjudgmentally considering how it differs from your typical eating experiences.
Either way, relax, enjoy, and let me know how it goes!