There's a Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Unfortunately, modern society seems to follow this adage: “When walking, check your cellphone. When eating, check your cellphone.” Because our food intake seems to rise as our ability to focus falls, the diet and wellness industries have issued edicts to eat mindfully and eliminate mealtime distractions. Though well-meaning, this advice only adds to the pressure of a fast-paced world in which multitasking (within reason) can help us keep up.
Yes, mindful eating, and mindfulness itself, have value. But do we really need to shut off everyone and everything around us to enjoy their benefits? To answer this question, we need to understand the concepts of mindful eating and distracted eating, how these practices might or might not affect weight, and the role each can play in your daily life.
What is mindful eating, and why do it?
Mindful eating means increasing interoceptive awareness – the awareness of bodily sensations – as you eat. That means paying attention to sensations of hunger and satiety – the reduction of appetite and/or hunger after eating. It also means being aware of other physical sensations such as tension, fatigue and thirst, and emotional states such as anxiety or boredom.
Mindful eating is often promoted as a weight-loss tool. If you've been mindlessly overeating, and being mindful helps you make more attuned decisions about how much to eat, that could result in weight loss. Many studies have shown that eating mindfully helps reduce emotional eating, eating in response to visual cues in the absence of hunger and binge eating. Some study participants also lost weight. But there's no guarantee.
The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindful eating as:
• Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your inner wisdom.
• Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
• Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
• Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide when you begin and end eating.
Nowhere does it say, “eat without any distractions.”
So, where does distraction come in?
Many people seem to assume that mindful eating means eliminating distractions, though that isn't necessarily the case. In fact, for many people struggling with eating disorders or a conflicted relationship with food, mindful eating may increase anxiety during meals, while distraction may be therapeutic.
For the rest of us, research does show that eating while distracted can lead to increased food intake at that meal and the next meal, in part because it affects our memory of what and how much we ate. The reality, however, is that eating completely without distraction is impractical. If you like to fit in a walk at lunch time, you may need to eat at your desk. When you eat with others, it would be rude – and sad – to shun conversation. One of your great joys might be reading a good book or a favorite magazine while dining solo.
One helpful distinction to keep in mind comes from a 2013 study published in the journal Appetite. It found there are two forms of distraction connected with food – distraction from hunger and distraction from eating.
Researchers randomized participants to eat while doing a driving simulation, watching television, talking with a researcher or sitting alone with no distraction. The drivers were so distracted from both hunger and eating that they ate a small amount, mindlessly, while those watching television were distracted from hunger but not from eating, so they mindlessly ate a large amount. Those who interacted with the researchers were distracted from eating but still aware of their hunger. They ate little, probably because it's awkward to eat alone while a stranger watches. Eating completely alone allowed attention to both hunger and eating – in other words, mindful eating.
The value of mindful eating does not lie in its utility as a weight-loss tool. With practice and time, it can be a powerful way to unite the mind and body during the eating experience, creating a more balanced and satisfying relationship with food. Aim to practice without a specific goal in mind – it's about being in the present moment, not crossing a finish line.
At a glance
How to eat mindfully in the real world:
• Whenever you have the urge to eat, ask yourself: “Am I truly hungry or do I want to eat for another reason?” Become aware of non-hunger eating triggers such as thoughts, feelings or environmental cues that prompt a desire to eat. This includes boredom and procrastination.
• Practice noticing bodily sensations of hunger and satiety before and during meals and snacks, including how these sensations change as the meal progresses.
• Decide which meals might be easiest to practice mindfulness. Take a few breaths before starting the meal and make a point of noticing how the food looks and smells. Then, tune into the first few bites, noticing the initial flavor, texture and other sensations.
• While dining, periodically turn your attention from your book, phone or companion, and back to your food. Does it still taste good? When your enjoyment of the food starts to wane, it may be time to stop eating.
• Pre-portion your food if you know you must eat while deeply distracted, such as in front of the television or while powering through work at your desk.
• If you find it difficult to eat without distraction, find a distraction less likely to lead to overindulging. One of my patients broke her habit of mindlessly overeating in front of the TV by orienting her table so she could eat more mindfully while enjoying the view out her window.
• Note your hunger and fullness five to 10 minutes after eating, and for the next few hours.