Ask the Dietitian: Mindful Eating

October 17, 2016

Q: What is mindful eating? And is it really practical for busy college students?

A: I believe that learning to eat mindfully is the key to lifelong healthy food habits. Mindful eating takes practice but it’s not complicated and it doesn’t require lots of time.

To understand how mindfulness applies to food, it’s important to first define mindfulness itself. There are lots of different definitions, but I like:

Paying attention, on purpose
In the present moment

We can bring mindful awareness to both the internal and external world. For example, we can notice the sound of a friend’s voice, the aroma of the sandwich, the coldness of the plate on our fingertips, the grumble in our stomach. Notice how easily this works with food? Food is a natural fit for mindfulness practice because it appeals to our senses; it’s easy to see, smell, and taste food. In fact, you’ve been doing it since you were born!

Now--here’s the tricky part-- turn inward to the realm of thoughts and feelings. First, simply notice, without getting caught up in them, your thoughts. Think of the thoughts as clouds floating by. Sometimes all we have to do is look at them, and -poof!- they disappear. Other times they’re like an annoying song on repeat, playing over and over. Try to have a light touch as you notice thoughts. Then, if you can, see what’s going on with your emotions. Are you feeling lonely, worried, excited, joyful, a little sad? Simply note the emotion and try not to get caught up in it.

I call this brief check-in with your physical senses, thoughts, and feelings a “mindful moment.” It’s nice to try it before eating, starting with a few deep relaxing breaths. How might a mindful moment change your eating?

Think of what happens when we aren’t aware of the external or internal world when we eat. We’re on autopilot, eating because

  • The food is simply there

  • I want to get my money’s worth

  • It’s time to eat, everyone else is eating

  • I’m stressed and eating helps me feel better

  • I’m sad/scared/angry and food numbs me

  • I have a paper due and eating helps me focus

To be clear, very few people are totally conscious for every bite they take. Occasional mindless eating is inevitable in our modern, multi-tasking world. But so often we’re just going through the motions, not really present for the eating. When we start paying more attention, we have the opportunity to be freed from habitual patterns. We can stop seeking answers from fads, magazines, Instagram nutrition and fitness celebrities, and start tapping into wisdom from the true experts--ourselves.

Try a mindful moment and let me know what you learn!

Related Services

To practice mindfulness in other areas of your life, consider two groups offered by Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)Mindfulness for Stress Reduction & Resilience and From Self-Criticism to Kindness, offered each semester and open to grad and undergraduate students.  

Learn more

To learn more about mindful eating, check out the Center for Mindful Eating and Mindful Eating, a Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD (2009).

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