Feelings of stress can lead us to counterproductive activities that may do more bad
than good in the long term. One such activity is stress eating. In a study on stress and
eating behaviors published in Health Psychology Review, researchers found that stress
is associated with changes in food consumption in both adults and children. In fact, an
estimated 35% to 40% of people increase their food intake under stress. As such,
stress eating is an involuntary response that may lead to weight gain and health issues
if improperly handled.
Largely in response to this, people have recently gravitated towards the anti-stress
eating movement called mindful eating. In this post, we’ll look at mindful eating and
its benefits on our mental and physical health. We’ll also include some helpful tips to
enhance your mindful eating journey.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating stems from the practice of mindfulness. Focusing on the present and
practicing awareness not only of what you eat but how you eat is how we can all
practice mindful eating. Unlike stress eating and unhealthy overindulgence in food,
mindful eating focuses on moderate consumption of healthy and tasty foods. Unlike
restrictive diet regimens, to mindfully eat doesn’t mean you should eat less. A literature
review on food overconsumption notes that intuitive and mindful eating relies on internal
motives such as hunger and enjoyment. At the same time, mindful eating also
positively affects eating-related outcomes such as food choice and consumption and
one’s relationship with food.
Developing a healthier relationship with food means you no longer demoralize dietary
choices like categorizing “junk” foods or “guilty pleasures.” Instead, mindful eating
encourages moderate consumption to prevent stigmatization of food that may simply
be less healthy. To practice mindful eating, it’s important to let go of the notion that
eating for pleasure means eating large quantities of extremely indulgent food. Instead,
you eat to enjoy your food instead of eating as a response to external factors such as
stress or distractions. Take it slow and enjoy your food’s flavors, smells, and look.
How mindful eating helps with mental health
Most foods can positively or negatively impact our brain activity and mental health. In
our previous post on food and emotions, we discussed how eating foods lacking in
nutrients could damage our brains and bodies as we deprive them of the fuel they need
to run properly. Conversely, eating foods rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
can keep our body healthy — reducing risks of heart-related illness and cancer — and
our mind as well — improving sleep and health problems linked with depression.
Additionally, practicing mindful eating can help reduce our intake of processed foods,
which have been said to lead to depression and mood disorders, according to a
Cambridge University Press study. While this doesn’t mean you should deprive
yourself of occasionally eating them as a treat or on special occasions, practicing
mindfulness in what and how you eat can help you make better and healthier decisions
that will benefit your physical and mental health. Having a healthier body due to
mindful eating will also positively impact your mental health and overall confidence,
so remember: it’s all connected.
How mindful eating helps with weight management
As discussed above, mindful eating promotes healthier living, dietary habits, and a
healthier relationship between you and your food. This healthy change may support
weight loss and weight management in the long run. A literature review comparing
the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions on food intake found that various
mindfulness groups are effective in improving eating behavior in overweight women.
Mindfulness-based interventions such as mindful eating also help reduce compulsive
and binge eating intake.
The study also mentions that mindful eating programs have become popular in recent
years, offering a cost-effective group format treatment alternative in public health for
people to address being overweight. As an evident-based treatment, mindful eating
programs also shift away from recommending unsustainable diets so that low-income
patients can get the care they require.
Tips to be more mindful when eating
Now that you know the mental and physical benefits of mindful eating, it’s important
to remember that practicing mindfulness may take time and significant effort,
especially if you aren’t used to it. Below are some tips to hopefully help your mindful
Note your eating patterns
Many people — even those not suffering from mental health conditions — may not
eat mindfully or understand the importance of respecting and valuing meals. In fact,
one of the top weight loss mistakes people make when dieting is snacking mindlessly.
While some snacks can add much-needed nutrition to your diet, snacking out of
boredom or feelings of stress can lead to overeating. To avoid this, try tracking your
food intake — not to keep score, but to practice more awareness and mindfulness of
when and why you eat. Understanding your eating patterns and habits can help you
determine where to make changes.
Avoid negative self-talk
Finally, developing a healthier relationship with food doesn’t just mean eating healthy
foods. As discussed above, our mindset can heavily impact what and how we eat, so
developing a positive state of mind can enhance your dietary habits. A study on self-criticism and eating behaviors found that self-criticism is a significant contributor to
binge eating severity — more than depression and anxiety. Past research also suggests
that self-criticism may significantly affect eating disorder symptoms. To become more
mindful, be kinder to yourself. Food isn’t punishment, and it shouldn’t guilt you.