In the era of 10-second Snapchats and endless digital notifications, it can be tough to slow down—especially when it comes to eating. We often find ourselves scarfing down some sort of breakfast on the commute into work, only to then devour lunch at our desk between meetings.
No good can come of this. For one, we disconnect from the act of eating, limit enjoyment of our food, and lose the ability to register our body’s appetite and fullness. And this mindless approach can cause us to pack on the pounds over time, says Emily Kyle, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
Enter mindful eating, which promises freedom from diet rules and food stress, and encourages naturally healthier habits, she says. If you can figure out how to do it, that is.
What ‘Mindful Eating’ Really Means
Mindful eating is all about the mind-body connection. By tuning into how hungry you really are, the stimuli around you that may affect your meal, how you’re feeling, and what you really want to eat, you can become a more aware and balanced eater, Kyle explains.
“By turning our attention to how we feel physically and emotionally throughout a meal, we can learn more about what our bodies want and need from the food we consume,” she says. The more aware we become of our eating behaviors and patterns, the better we are able to control portions, keep from overeating, and maintain a healthy weight.
“Mindful eating is not about eating ‘perfectly’ all the time,” she says. “It’s about learning to listen to our bodies’ wants and desires and exploring how those wants and desires make us feel physically and emotionally.” So, when we can quiet our cravings, slow down, and tune into our body, emotions, and the eating experience, we can better approach eating from a place of self-acceptance, health, and positivity.
4 Ways To Eat More Mindfully
Mindful eating sounds pretty great, right? After all, who doesn’t want to feel free and balanced about their food? Here are the experts’ four best pieces of advice to help you get there.
1. Check in with yourself before eating.
That glazed donut in the office might be staring at you, but before you grab it, ask yourself if you need it. If the answer is yes, go for it. If not, keep on walking. Regardless of your decision, asking yourself this question gives you the space to really think about your decisions instead of making food choices based on impulse, explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
“I always encourage my clients to ask themselves, ‘Does my body need this?’ before they eat something,” says Harris-Pincus. It’s okay if you make the choice to eat it, she says. If so, own it, savor it, and move on.
More often than not, though, asking yourself this question will help you make better choices. “It really creates enthusiasm for nutritious foods and discourages us from eating foods with empty calories,” Harris-Pincus says.
Related: Not All Calories Are Created Equal—Here’s Why
A few other questions Harris-Pincus recommends asking yourself before eating: Am I feeling tired? Stressed? Bored? Will I feel better or worse after eating?
One general rule of thumb: If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Mindful eating is all about listening to your body, so you don’t have to eat lunch at noon just because it’s ‘lunchtime,’ says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. Eating only when you feel hungry will help you establish a healthier relationship with food and appetite, long-term.
If you’re ready to eat, continue this evaluative approach throughout your meal. Check in with yourself mid-meal by asking: Am I still hungry? Does my belly feel full? Am I still really tasting and enjoying this food? And, afterward, consider the following questions: Can I step away for 20 minutes to evaluate if I’m satisfied or still hungry? Was that an enjoyable meal?
Asking these questions will help you get into the routine of really connecting with your body and how you nourish it.
2. Eat without distractions.
At mealtime, turn off the television and put your phone down, so you can really focus on your meal and how you feel, says Rizzo. If you need some sort of ambiance, light a candle, put on some quiet music, or enjoy your meal with good company.
“TV and technology keep us from really thinking about our food and hunger levels,” she says. “If we ditch the screens, it’s much easier to listen to our bodies and be mindful about our meal.”
3. Really ‘taste’ your food.
When you sit down to eat, take it bite by bite. “Think of eating like a wine tasting,” says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., author of The MIND Diet. You want to take your time and experience your food.
“Look at the food on your fork, smell it, appreciate it,” says Moon. “Then place it in your mouth and just let it be. Try to identify all the flavors you’re experiencing. Then, chew slowly and completely, noticing how the bite changes in your mouth.” Honing in on each step of the eating process will help you slow down, savor each bite, and better identify when you feel satisfied.
To go even further, put your fork down between bites, she says. Allow yourself to look around, breathe, and be still throughout the meal. Your plate’s not going anywhere!
4. Keep a satiety log.
To really see your mindful eating progress over time, keep a journal of your food, appetite, and satiety levels.
Write down when and what you eat, how hungry you feel before eating (on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being ravenous), how full you feel afterward (on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being Thanksgiving-level stuffed, and what time you feel hungry again, Rizzo suggests.
By laying out all of your eats and satiety levels, you’ll be able to see if and when you eat for reasons other than hunger, like boredom or stress, which can be common, she says. The next time you’re tempted to eat impulsively, ask yourself if an apple would satisfy you. If you still want a chocolate donut instead, it’s a sure sign you’re dealing with cravings, not hunger. In these moments, distract yourself by taking a walk, listening to music, popping in a stick of gum, or calling a friend or family member, Rizzo suggests.
The more you can acknowledge and accept the emotions or triggers that lead you toward food, the more you can separate hunger and cravings, and the more mindful and temptation-free you can become, she says.
Related: Sip away cravings with a mug of soothing herbal tea.