Mindful Eating: An Approach for Holistic Nutrition
Elena Sullivan, MMSc, PA-C
PA Foundation Nutrition Outreach Fellow
July 14, 2023
Mindful eating is a non-judgmental approach to nutrition that encourages individuals to be fully present in the moment and engage their senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) before, during, and after the eating experience. Mindful eating also encourages individuals to make choices that will both satisfy and nourish their bodies. Mindful eating is linked to increased psychological wellbeing, increased pleasure when eating, and greater body satisfaction.1
Our fast-paced world often prioritizes speed and efficiency rather than presence and patience. As a PA specializing in obesity and lifestyle medicine and a 2022-23 PA Foundation Nutrition Outreach Fellow, I try to bridge this gap by helping patients and community members make nutrition choices that will satisfy their needs for nourishment and sensory fulfillment.
To start one’s mindful eating journey, it’s important to understand the differences between physical and emotional hunger. This promotes interoception, defined as the ability to understand the sensations present in your body, such as internal hunger and satiety cues.2 The key differences between physical and emotional hunger are as follows:
- Physical hunger usually comes on gradually whereas emotional hunger comes on suddenly, often based on cues (i.e. stress, boredom, excitement).
- Physical hunger can usually be pushed off or postponed, whereas emotional hunger often feels urgent or immediate.
- Physical hunger can be satisfied with any type of food, whereas emotional hunger is usually driven by specific cravings (i.e. salty, sweet, savory foods).
- Physical hunger leads to the sensation of fullness and the ability to stop eating. By contrast, emotional hunger can lead to either a) feeling uncomfortably full or b) having trouble feeling satisfied by any foods (i.e. grazing from salty foods to sweet foods to see what satisfies the urge).
- Physical hunger is marked by satisfaction at the end of a meal, whereas emotional hunger can lead to feelings of shame, disappointment, or guilt after eating.
Once aware of the differences between physical and emotional hunger, we can work to incorporate mindfulness to get to the root cause of the underlying hunger. In working with patients, we can encourage them to consider the following questions non-judgmentally:
- What am I feeling, and what do I need?
- Am I tired and need sleep?
- Am I lonely and need to connect with a loved one?
- Am I bored and need to engage in a new hobby?
- Am I celebrating an achievement and need to establish a non-food reward?
- Am I hungry, or am I eating to change the way I feel?
- How hungry am I?
- What do I want to eat?
- Why do I want to eat it?
- What will help me feel good? What does this food do within my body?
- How do I feel before, during, and after my meal or snack?
- How and when do I know I am full?
- How does food feed my feelings?
After reflecting on these questions, we can work to implement behaviors that promote mindful eating. Guide your patients to implement these steps to practice mindful eating:3,4
- Absence of judgment: Remove labels of “good” and “bad” foods and reject diet culture that shames you into feeling like cravings attribute a moral value. What is your craving telling you?
- Have a designated place for eating: Eat in a consistent dining area of your home or workplace as opposed to at your desk, in your bedroom, or in your car.
- Avoid distractions: Abstain from eating in front of the TV, phone, or computer to prevent auto-pilot or mindless eating.
- Engage all senses: Notice the sounds, colors, smells, tastes, and textures of the food that you’re consuming. How do you feel when eating? Pause periodically to engage and register these senses.
- Practice savoring small bites and chewing thoroughly: Put your fork down between bites to fully experience the food’s flavors and prolong the meal to give your body the 20 minutes it needs to register that it’s full.
- Practice gratitude: Offer thankfulness before meals and consider the labor needed for your food to get onto your plate.
- Note hunger and fullness cues: When do you start to feel full? Use the hunger scale below (Figure 1) to rate your hunger at the beginning, middle, and end of your meal.
- Identify responses: Acknowledge your feelings about or responses to various foods without judgment. How are you feeling in your body?
Like any discipline, mindful eating requires practice and refinement. Throughout our lifespan, we acquire many beliefs and habits around what and how we “should” eat. Examples include the “clean plate club” or seeing food as a “treat” or “cheat.” Mindful eating challenges these assumptions by encouraging individuals to turn inward to listen to and trust their body’s signals. We can all benefit from mindful eating when we satiate our emotional hunger and nourish ourselves with tasty foods that provide us with long-lasting energy.
- Warren JM, Smith N, Ashwell M. A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews. 2017 Dec;30(2):272-83.*Disclosure: Study was funded by Mondelez International.
- Mehling WE, Price C, Daubenmier JJ, Acree M, Bartmess E, Stewart A (2012) The Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA). PLoS ONE 7(11): e48230. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0048230
- Nelson JB. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectr. 2017 Aug;30(3):171-174. doi: 10.2337/ds17-0015. PMID: 28848310; PMCID: PMC5556586.
- Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019 Aug;18(4):48-53. PMID: 32549835; PMCID: PMC7219460.
- Dig in to mindful eating: add a pinch of headspace to every meal. https://pa-foundation.org/download/10971/?tmstv=1688653904
- Figure 15 – Use this scale to check in with your body before and after eating. The green zone is the ideal place to start and finish meals.