What’s the Best Diet? To Not Be on a Diet: Learning to Eat Mindfully

Rania Dempsey, MD, MS | September 19, 2020

“Food is far more than nutrients, far more than calories, and far more than a tool for reversing disease. At its essence, food is relationship. If you think about the relationship we have with the food on our plates, it is a relationship that extends all the way back to the soil that has produced the food. It is a relationship with the sun and the rain. It is a relationship with the farmer and the farm family that planted and harvested the food. It is a relationship with every stakeholder in the process of getting the food to your plate and sharing a meal together.

Our relationship with food and why we eat it not only speaks to our culture and heritage, but it also impacts our mood and the moods of those around us.  And, the food we eat deepens our relationship with the resources that we are stewarding for future generations including the soil, the land, and the waterways. In every way, the food we consume is the essence of relationship.”

 -Adapted from The Plantrician Project

At the deepest level, the body knows when, what, and how much to eat. But modern-day food and eating patterns can override the body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, leading to eating for reasons other than physical hunger, or to eating more than the body needs for energy. Eating healthfully in today’s world requires relearning how to tune in to natural hunger and fullness cues and nurturing a healthy relationship with food. The foundation of this is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from consciously paying attention, without judgement, to the thoughts, feelings, sensations and environment of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced in all areas of life, including choosing and experiencing food, known as mindful eating.

Start with a schedule

It may seem counterintuitive, but a first step toward mindful eating is adopting a framework for eating at specific times during the day. This ensures that you have enough time between meals to recognize the sensation of physical hunger, without waiting so long between eating that you are ravenous and overeat later in the day. The schedule outlines when you eat, but at each meal or snack, you decide how much to eat by bringing conscious awareness to your sensations of physical hunger and satisfaction. A general schedule that works for many is to eat within 60 minutes of awakening in the morning, then eat 2 more meals and 1-2 more snacks at defined intervals during the day. Unless you have been told otherwise by your doctor, try not to eat again after your evening meal, creating a 10-12 hour fast overnight.

Eat whole, real food, and be gentle on yourself when you don’t

Eating foods as close as possible to the way they are found in nature (unprocessed, with nothing artificial added and nothing nutritious stripped away) helps reset the body’s natural mechanisms regulating food intake. When you eat real unprocessed food, your body is able to send accurate signals to your brain about what foods you need and about when and how much to eat.

The focus here is on adding in more whole, real foods at every meal and snack time, not on eliminating or restricting “bad” foods. Evidence shows that adding in more whole unprocessed plant foods, whether or not you try to get rid of junk food, helps regulate hunger cues and establish healthy eating patterns.

And those times when you eat something you think you “shouldn’t”? Be gentle on yourself. Release any self-criticism, shame or feelings of unworthiness that can make it more difficult to trust and listen to your body. Instead, try to embrace the times you choose to have “treats,” and enjoy them fully and mindfully.

Whatever you chose, eat it mindfully

What does it mean to eat something “mindfully”? Eating mindfully means paying attention, without judgement, in the present moment, to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and feeling associated with eating. Here are a few practical tips:

  • Whenever possible, sit down at a table when eating. If you do eat while driving or standing, pause and make a conscious decision to eat with awareness and intention (hint: this generally means not eating directly out of the ice cream carton in front of an open freezer door, or stress eating an entire bowl of popcorn without realizing you’re eating).
  • Turn off the television and minimize other distractions when eating. Don’t eat in front of a TV, computer screen, or while on your phone.
  • Before eating, check in with the sensation of hunger in your body. Is it true physical hunger, or is it an attempt to soothe feelings of emotional hunger? Notice the triggers that make you want to eat when you’re not physically hungry, and acknowledge that you are free to pick a different response.
  • Recognize that food is a source of connection to self, others, and the Earth. Reflect on all the steps and people involved in getting your food onto your plate. Observe how the act of eating connects you to the people involved in growing, transporting, selling and preparing your food, and to the earth from which the food came. Notice how you care for and honor yourself by choosing delicious and nourishing foods you enjoy.
  • Whenever you eat—even just a snack or treat—begin with gratitude.
  • As you begin eating, take a deep breath and be present with your physical surroundings…notice the sights, sounds, smells, and physical environment around you.
  • No matter what you are eating, engage all your senses to savor your food: As you bite, chew, and swallow, notice how each bite looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels in your mouth. Do this intentionally for each bite before taking the next.
  • Notice the sensation of hunger in your body transitioning to a sensation of satisfaction during and after eating. Pause and refrain from eating if you notice you feel “full”.

Bottom Line

Eating mindfully will help improve your relationship with food. The more you practice bringing awareness to the present moment, whether while eating or in other parts of your day, the more natural it becomes.