How to Practice Mindful Eating and Understand your Body's Hunger Signals

Published on 
April 26, 2024
August 27, 2018
Marlia Braun, PhD, RD
Marlia Braun, PhD, RD
Marlia Braun, PhD, RD

What is mindfulness?

There has been a growing interest in the practice of mindfulness and mindful eating—especially given the multi-tasking, distracted world we live in today. Mindfulness is more than just turning the TV off and eating really slowly. Mindfulness is deliberate awareness without judgment and criticism. It is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. Mindfulness means we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings and accept them without judgment, without believing there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than ruminating over the past or imagining and worrying about the future.

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is the incorporation of mindfulness into the act of eating food. Mindful eating teaches us to become aware of the choices, options, and solutions surrounding food and eating. Our awareness fosters the choice to eat food that is both pleasing and nourishing to our body by using all our senses. We are present in the moment to acknowledge our response to food (likes, neutral or dislikes) without judgment.

Practicing mindful eating can help you learn to be aware of your body's physical hunger and satiety cues so that you can respond to them more effectively. Mindful eating cultivates becoming grounded in the present moment’s awareness of eating with kindness and curiosity.

What are the goals and benefits of mindfully eating?

Mindfulness is a concept/process, not a diagram or a chart, and it requires practice to be effective. We will focus on two goals when practicing mindful eating.

1) Understanding your body’s hunger signals

As babies, we were quite astute at listening to the messages our body would send telling us when we were hungry and when we were full. This typically continues through early adolescent years where the sole purpose of eating was for fuel. As we got older, eating began to serve a different purpose: soothe, distract, numb, procrastinate, entertain, reward, and punish.

It is easy to confuse physiological hunger with an urge to use food for relief or to change an emotional state. In fact, food cues such as large portions, easy access and sensory attractiveness of food strongly contribute to the urge to eat. The mindfulness work here lies in being aware of the urge to eat, and to observe (without judgment) what is driving your hunger.

After asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” consider the following:

  • Are you feeling tired, angry, stressed, lonely?
  • Are you in need of a break from what you are doing?
  • Are you procrastinating?
  • Are you bored?
  • Are you feeling anxious or depressed?
  • Are you ruminating over an email or text message or something someone said?
  • Are you worrying about your child or spouse or finances?

Upon deciding on an answer, observe and describe the physiological sensations you are feeling and how any one of these sensations might have confused you into thinking you were hungry. Observing with kindness and compassion fosters an opportunity to learn and develop stronger self-awareness so that the next time you feel those sensations, you can realize the true message the body is telling you.

2) Developing awareness of our eating habits and conditioning

Another important aspect of mindful is developing awareness of our eating habits and patterns, also known as conditioning. This is similar to Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. When the dogs were fed, a bell was rung. After doing this multiple times, the dogs would begin to salivate just at the sound of the bell alone even when no food appeared. We too develop similar connections. Our relationship to food is influenced by: our family origin, advertising, television, movies, books, magazines, peers, and culture. We can also have conditioned food patterns around reward, punishment, deprivation, time of day, and mood. Here are a few examples of conditioning:

  • After years of associating meal time with disruption and stress, now as an adult when you have an argument with someone, you may find yourself reaching for food to self-soothe and dissolve the tension and emotions.
  • As a child, after a great report card or an award ceremony the family would go out and celebrate with ice cream. Fast forward a few decades and when you get a promotion or experience a successful celebratory event, you reward yourself with food.
  • As a child food was scarce, and you learned to eat as much as you could because you didn’t know when the next meal would be.
  • As a child you may have been told to “Clean your plate!”

These patterns may have temporarily served us a child and often fade away as we mature. However, some patterns are deeply ingrained and remain unconscious. To unwind ourselves from these conditionings requires awareness. It requires the desire to see our patterns clearly to be stronger than our desire to live on autopilot. This is a decision that will be faced repeatedly throughout a day, necessitating true commitment to break the conditioning.

The benefits from mindful eating are extensive, including:

  • Promoting understanding your true needs
  • Helping you become aware of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations related to eating
  • Helping reconnect to your body’s natural cues regarding hunger and satiety
  • Shifting the locus of control from external cues/triggers to your body’s internal cues
  • Empowering you to make healthier choices to support your well-being
  • Helping bring acceptance and balance to your life.
  • Freeing yourself from habitual, reactive, conditioned pattern
  • Improving feelings of self-criticism and shame around food choices
  • Replacing unconscious eating with conscious eating

How to eat mindfully

While you develop more awareness around hunger and conditioned patterns, consider experimenting with these mindful techniques.

#1. Slow down

  • Actively identify and really experience the food through your 5 senses one bite at a time
  • Make a point to pause, put down the utensil and chew and taste the food.
  • Use your non-dominant hand
  • Why? This supports greater satisfaction from our meal, time for satiety to set in, and usually results in smaller portions

#2. Eat just enough

  • Portion what you feel you need to satisfy you. Eat ⅔ of it, drink some liquid, and assess your hunger
  • Why? This helps us learn to differentiate between still feeling hungry, satisfied, full, and stuffed

#3. Mindful substitution

  • Be aware of the common food pattern of thinking, “I worked hard today, I need a treat!” and mindfully acknowledge the voice
  • In a thoughtful and deliberate way, choose a mindful substitution with a healthy food choice
  • Why? To take good care of ourselves and show ourselves loving kindness.

Mindful eating is a skill requiring deliberate and continued practice, that focuses on the process and not solely on the outcome. This practice might be easy on some days and totally absent on others. Start simple, like focusing on 3 bites at the beginning of a meal, and add as you gain confidence and sustain awareness. You are changing habits, and it takes time. Similar to a muscle, the more you practice the stronger the skill and the easier it becomes.

Mindful eating exercise

Try following along with the recording of our mindful eating exercise below.

#1. Find a small piece of food, such as one piece of cheese or nut.

#2. Begin by exploring this little piece of food, using as many of your senses as possible. (You’re not being asked to think or judge, but just to notice different aspects of your experience, using one sense at a time.)

  • First, look at the food. Notice its texture. Notice its color.
  • Now, close your eyes, and explore the food with your sense of touch. What does this food feel like? Is it hard or soft? Grainy or sticky? Moist or dry?
  • Before you eat, explore this food with your sense of smell. What do you notice?

#3. Begin eating. No matter how small the bite of food you have, take at least two bites to finish it.

  • Take your first bite. Please chew very slowly, noticing the actual sensory experience of chewing and tasting. Remember, you don’t need to think about your food to experience it. You might want to close your eyes for a moment to focus on the sensations of chewing and tasting before continuing.
  • Notice the texture of the food; the way it feels in your mouth.
  • Notice if the intensity of its flavor changes, moment to moment.
  • Take about 20 more seconds to very slowly finish this first bite of food, being aware of the simple sensations of chewing and tasting.

#4. Please take your second and last bite.

  • Chew very slowly, paying close attention to the actual sensory experience of eating: the sensations and movements of chewing, the flavor of the food as it changes, and the sensations of swallowing.

Just pay attention, moment by moment. This is what it means to eat mindfully.

This blog is intended for informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or any advice relating to your health. View full disclaimer

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