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 eating journey:
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.