Mindful eating is a tool I like to use with my clients. However, it is often misconstrued and poorly understood (looking at you Instagram fitness sphere). Furthermore, it’s something I struggled to get on board with myself, until I started to look into the science behind it and apply it to my own diet. Consider me a mindful eating convert, and catch me furiously meditating into my overnight oats.
As we are very much Team Evidence Based over here, we will be discussing some of the literature, and key concepts. I plan on doing a series of articles around this, so for today we’ll cover some of the basics, and the potential advantages of adopting a mindful approach to your diet.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is defined in literature as “making conscious food choices, developing an awareness of physical vs psychological hunger and satiety cues”. There is no universally accepted definition, but in essence mindful eating involves being fully present with yourself and your food. It involves an awareness of your body, hunger levels and emotions, and the relationships between same.
Now, I was a sceptic of this approach for years. You couldn’t possibly be telling me that to have a good relationship with food I have to enter some Buddhist state of enlightenment before I eat my poxy breakfast? I am not prepared to sing kumbaya with my mates over a Dominos. However, when you peel back the hippie connotations, this method is firmly grounded in science.
The Lady Doth Protest Too Much: Benefits of Mindful Eating
I must immediately declare my bias – mindful eating has worked wonders for me, and my clients. So, I am a convert. As such, I am prone to overlooking the potential negatives or flaws in the research. Thank you cognitive dissonance. Regardless, let’s look at what the literature says about the potential benefits of mindfulness.
Know Thyself: Hunger & Satiety Signalling
When was the last time you felt genuine hunger?
I’m talking stomach rumbling, hangry, dear-God-get-this-giant-six-foot-woman-fed hunger. Not the habitual, I-normally-eat-around-now vibes. Now, think of when you last felt really full after a meal. Chances are, you can only recall being absolutely flat-out stuffed.
Herein lies the huge advantage of mindful eating – it can help us identify what it feels like to be in tune with your hunger. The modern world does not support recognising hunger or fullness. The way we live is designed to (scientific terminology coming up) fuck up your hunger signals. We eat on-the-go, skip meals if we’re busy and crash diet. All no bueno for supporting satiety and our hunger cues.
Satiety, or fullness between meals, is a multi-faceted physiological and psychological process. Satiation (intra-meal) is what causes us to finish eating, and determines the size of the meal. Satiety is the process by which eating is stopped and is responsible for the feeling of “fullness” after a meal. 2REF.
Satiation is the feeling of fullness and satiety is the process by which this occurs.
Satiety is heavily influenced by a litany of physical processes (fat mass, nutrient status, hormones to name but a few). However, it is also heavily influenced by our mental state.
We have our own biases and preconceived notions about what foods “fill” us, or what foods we “can’t resist” consuming in excess. Similarly, our awareness of food availability can influence how much we eat during a meal. Practically, this translates to the real-life setting where you have a big day ahead of you, so you have a huge breakfast. You don’t know when you’ll get a chance to eat again, so you carb up.
There is no hormonal/physical biomarker for such behaviour, it’s just part and parcel of being a human.
Mindful eating also encourages us to slow down when we eat. This can be hugely beneficial to the physiological processes involved in satiety signalling. When we eat, “fullness” occurs through gastric distension. This expansion of your stomach signals to the brain we’ve had enough, and our good pal the vagus nerve communicates this to the GI tract. Similarly, gut hormones are released when we eat, and they communicate fullness to the brain. However, all of this takes time. If you’re shovelling in food (and I am so guilty of wolfing everything down), you don’t give these processes time to exert their effects until it’s too late. You can’t possibly know if you’re truly full unless you’re taking your damn time, and I certainly learned this one the hard way.
In addition, satiety signalling can be disrupted by dieting. During periods of low energy intake (e.g. two week crash-diets) our appetites are elevated, and we are less sensitive to satiety signals. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – your body is trying to keep you alive, so you feel hungrier. However, if you’re constantly on or off diets, bingeing or restricting, you can become desensitised to satiety.
From personal experience, I can attest to this. For years, I only knew starving or stuffed. There was no in between.
Mindful eating gives us a chance not to see the world as black and white, but rather live in the grey bit in between.
We all have emotions. We all have to eat. The two co-exist and influence each other, probably more than we will ever fully appreciate. Mindful eating involves becoming aware of the emotions we feel in response to food. Emotional eating is something we all do. It is not limited to sad white women who just got broken up with crying into Ben & Jerrys, contrary to modern cinema. It’s having birthday cake, a little something to take the edge off or enjoying a roast dinner with your family. None of these behaviours are inherently problematic on their own. However, when the only way you feel your emotions is to eat them, that’s where we may see the seeds of a deeper rooted issue.
Mindful eating has shown incredible benefits in emotional eating populations (this refers to the population we mentioned in the last paragraph). Mindful eating encourages identification of emotional triggers. Awareness is the first step in addressing behaviour. If you don’t know how you feel, how can you change anything?
We can’t stop feeling, nor can we stop eating. By learning more about how we feel and how it influences our behaviour, we can set ourselves up for more healthy relationships with food and ourselves.
Self-Compassion: So You’ve Fucked Your Diet
This. Is. My. Shit. Self-compassion is my buzz when it comes to eating behaviours.
It combines it all: self-awareness, improved mental health and most importantly, Bréne Brown.
Mindful eating is associated with improved self-compassion amongst a variety of populations[9,10]. It encourages us to focus on the moment, without judgement. It’s less to do with calories and macronutrients (although they play a role in our goals and values), and more to do with our experiences.
Mindful eating encourages us to adopt a non-judgemental approach to food. This is where most of us fall down. We are constantly living in the world of “should” – I should be healthier, shouldn’t eat that, should lose weight, etc. Becoming aware of these judgements is a cornerstone of mindful eating practices.
Enter Bréne Brown, queen of shame research. Brown and her Shame Resilience Theory prove just how damaging shame and judgements can be to our sense of self. When we feel shame about our actions, we feel trapped and powerless. If you’ve struggled with body image and food issues, you will likely recognise this in your thought patterns. I’ll never be healthy. I can’t do this. What’s the point in trying to lose weight – I always fail. Mindfulness can help us challenge these behaviours, and ourselves. You can’t hate yourself into positive, lasting change.
In addition, mindful eating focusses on acceptance. Letting go of the “should’s”, and accepting what is. Foregoing our past actions (e.g. the last time I had chocolate I couldn’t stop) and living in the present. That good hippie shit.
I am most definitely not the expect in eating disorders, so take all of this with a pinch of salt. Mindfulness-based dietary interventions have shown huge success in treating a variety of eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorders. Mindfulness may encourage healthier eating habits, and by promoting an awareness of the self and self-compassion, we may see reduction in eating disorders.
Again, this is far beyond my remit, so I’ll leave the deep dives for the experts.
See @break.binge.eating on Instagram for more information!
Ok, so that was intended to be a nice short introduction, but it ended up more like the first chapter of War & Peace. Once again, I took it too far. I hope this has given you an appreciation for the rationale behind why mindfulness has been successful for so many. If you’re a sceptic, I hope you’ll read on in the series for a deep dive into the science, you doubting Thomas.
Mindfulness: not just for hippies.
- Dalen, J., Smith, B.W., Shelley, B.M., Sloan, A.L., Leahigh, L., Begay, D. (2010) ‘Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity’, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 18(6), pp. 260-264.
- Blundell, J., de Graaf, C., Hulshof, T., Jebb, S., Livingstone, B., Lluch, A., Mela, D., Salah, S., Schuring, E., van der Knaap, H., Westerterp, M. (2010) ‘Appetite control: methodological aspects of the evaluation of foods’, Obesity Reviews, 11, pp. 252-270.
- De Graaf, C., de Jong, L.S., Lambers, A.C. (1999) ‘Palatability affects satiation but not satiety’, Physiology & Behaviour, 66, pp. 681-688.
- Benelam, B. (2009) ‘Satiation, satiety and their effects on eating behaviour’, Nutrition Bulletinm 34(2), pp. 126-173.
- MacLean, P.S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M., Jackman, M.R. (2011) ‘Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain’, American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), pp. 581-600.
- Katterman, S.N., Kleinman, B.M., Hood, M.M. (2014) ‘Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge-eating, emotional eating and weight loss: a systematic review’, Eating Behaviours, 15, pp. 197-204.
- Warren, J.M., Smith, N., Ashwell, M. (2017) ‘A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms’, Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), pp. 272-283.
- Kidwell, B., Hasford, J., Hardesty, D.M. (2015) ‘Emotional Ability Training and Mindful Eating’, Journal of Marketing Research, 52(1), pp. 105-119.
- Keyte, R., Egan, H., Mantzios, M. (2019) ‘How does mindful eating without non-judgement, mindfulness and self-compassion relate to motivations to eat palatable foods in a student population?’, Nutrition & Health, 26(1), pp. 27-34.
- Mantzios, M., Egan, H., Hussain, M., Keyte, R., Bahia, H. (2018) ‘Mindfulness, self-compassion, and mindful eating in relation to fat and sugar consumption: an exploratory investigation’, Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 23, pp. 833-840.
- Nelson, J.B. (2017) ‘Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat’, Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), pp. 171-174.
- Brown, B. (2006) ‘Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame’, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 87(1), pp. 43-52.
- Godsey, J. (2013) ‘The role of mindfulness based interventions in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders: an integrative review’, Complentary Therapies in Medicine, 21(4), pp. 430-439.