Mindful eating is an approach to food that is rooted in mindfulness, the practice of bringing your full attention to the present moment and being aware of your emotions and bodily sensations.
Being mindful means taking the time to observe the world around you (and within) rather than immediately reacting. It’s an important component of many meditation exercises, but can also be cultivated as a way of living daily life. It’s a mentality that fits well with Christian contemplative prayer.
Mindful eating, as the terms suggest, simply means bringing mindfulness to one’s eating practices by developing habits that include:
- Listening to your body about when to eat and how much — instead of to your emotions or external influences;
- Giving attention to what you’re eating and avoiding distractions (especially screens) at meals so that your senses can be fully engaged by the food’s flavor, aroma, color, etc.;
- Being proactive and intentional about planning meals, preparing them, and sitting at the table to eat them, as opposed to grabbing whatever happens to be in the fridge whenever hunger pangs strike;
- Honoring your body’s need for food, and appreciating the enjoyment of good food, instead of shaming yourself for this human need;
- Cultivating an appreciation of how the food came to your table, and when possible, making food choices that do justice to food workers and care for the environment.
What are the benefits?
Approaching food and eating in a mindful way can have a number of benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is to help those who are trying to lose weight and live healthier. Mindful eating offers a strategy for avoiding binge eating and emotional eating, for starters. And by encouraging us to slow down and appreciate our meals, it can help curb over-eating: it’s been shown that our brains take up to 20 minutes to register satiation, so eating more slowly and intentionally can help us recognize when we’re full.
But mindful eating has more benefits than are associated with your typical dieting plan. In encouraging appreciation for and enjoyment of food, it can bring joy back into our eating. It can help food become more integrated into our lives, rather than a hasty add-on. In short, it can restore a healthy attitude toward food, rather than one laced with shame, avoidance, or other negative reactions.
The lovely 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast brings out this heart-level sense of eating. French refugee Babette comes to live with spinster sisters who lead an austere Protestant sect that frowns on pleasures of any kind. After Babette wins the lottery, she secretly uses her winnings to prepare a sumptuous French feast for the community. Resolved to eat the food without enjoying it, the sisters and their co-religionists gradually realize that sharing these exquisite dishes together enlivens their hearts and even rekindles fractured bonds among them. In short, this feast prepared with love does far more than communicate calories to the eaters — it nourishes their souls.
How do you do it?
It’s hard to see a reason not to try eating mindfully! But how do you actually practice these habits in the midst of demanding schedules, irregular hours, noisy children, or whatever else makes it hard to be mindful about eating? Here are some practical ideas of how to cultivate the habits of eating mindfully:
- Try to get into the habit of pausing when you reach for a snack or open the fridge. Start an inner conversation: Am I really hungry? Or am I tired, angry, upset, lonely, etc.? Seek to get in touch with the root emotion before deciding that food is the best remedy.
- Build time for meal-planning and grocery shopping into your weekly schedule (or perhaps use one of the many meal delivery services if you can afford it), to avoid mindless, reactionary eating. This also helps develops the kind of food knowledge and food preparation skills that build confidence and pleasure in preparing yummy meals.
- Whenever possible, eat with other people — sharing a meal encourages us to slow down and appreciate the meal experience rather than race through it. This can be a challenge for those who are single, but also an encouragement to invite friends over and build community.
- Do some emotional work by looking at what messages about food — good and bad — were communicated in your family of origin. What would you want to change, for example, in how you would teach your own child about food and eating?
- Embrace the Christian rhythms of fasting and feasting. This ancient way of relating to food helps us see meals as having meaning beyond simply consuming calories. Fasting can help us examine our relationship to (and perhaps unhealthy dependence on) food. Feasting reminds us in a vivid way of the joy that food — and sharing it with others — brings to our lives.
- Make your table a lovely place to enjoy food: make it a no-screen zone, put some flowers in a vase, find an attractive tablecloth, etc.
- Cultivate gratitude for your food, perhaps by making prayer a part of every meal and by remembering those who don’t have secure access to food.
- Learn about the ethics involved in food production, such as treatment of workers, fair wages, and care for the environment, and look for ways to give your food dollars to ethical companies.
- If possible, grow some food yourself. Tomatoes and herbs are easy plants to grow, even in containers. It’s hard to top the enjoyment of eating something you grew yourself!
- And finally, be gentle with yourself! Mindful eating is about releasing shame around food, so if you end up in the drive-through lane from time to time, or get super busy and scarf some chips and salsa, it’s okay. Have a sense of humor about your limitations and try again tomorrow.