Eat Mindfully in 5 Simple Steps

Rethinking your meals could be the key to slimming down.

Medically reviewed in February 2021

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If you’ve ever sat eating a bag of potato chips while watching television or devoured lunch as you viciously typed away on your computer, you know what it’s like to chow down without even realizing how much you’re eating—or really noticed what you’re eating. Mindful eating can change this. 

Mindful eating is derived from a Buddhist concept known as mindfulness, which involves a full awareness of what’s going on within you and around you. To eat mindfully, you must bring these principles to the table—pun intended—leaving distractions elsewhere. “It’s important to be fully aware of eating and enjoying the food that's right in front of you,” says Frank Chae, MD, a bariatric surgeon with Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado.

Mindful eating gives you the power to eat less and savor the foods in front of you more. Find out just how mindful eating works, and learn ways to eat more consciously, enjoy your food more and—bonus—lose weight.

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The Benefits of Being Present

Mindfulness puts an emphasis on relaxation and alertness, which you can achieve by paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings in the present moment.

There are a number of ways to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is the act of sitting quietly, breathing deeply and allowing your thoughts to pass, without judging the thoughts—or judging yourself for having them. Accepting emotions of anger and frustration, and allowing them to pass and paying close attention to sights, smells and tastes, particularly when you’re eating, are also ways to practice mindfulness.  

It’s important to remember that there is no wrong way to practice mindfulness. If you’re sitting quietly and observing what’s happening around you in that moment, you’re doing just fine.    

Mindfulness might improve aspects of both your physical and mental health, including:

  • Stress levels
  • Sleep
  • Cognitive focus and memory
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

When applied to your food and eating habits, mindfulness can make you more aware of what you are putting in your body, and may even help you slim down. To make the most of mindful eating, Dr. Chae recommends practicing other types of mindfulness, like meditation, prayer or yoga. “I think these go with mindful eating habits, they're all complementary,” he says.

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Start With a Shopping List

To harness the power of mindful eating, start by taking steps long before you sit down at the table.

Shopping on an empty stomach is a surefire way to blow your diet, but navigating supermarket aisles without a grocery list might not be much better. Results from one 2015 study of almost 1,400 mostly overweight and obese people suggest that those who shopped using a grocery list routinely made better food choices and had a lower body weight than those who didn’t. 

The first step in eating mindfully is thinking about the wholesome foods you want on your plate. Check online blogs and healthy cookbooks for the most nutritious recipes, and be sure to add those ingredients to your shopping list. A healthy diet, and one that’s best suited for weight loss, includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, and is light in saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.

Next stop: the grocery store. With your list in hand, take a stroll around the perimeter of the store first, where the freshest, healthiest options are typically located. Load your cart with fresh produce, low-fat dairy, like plain Greek yogurt, and lean protein sources like eggs, chicken breast and ground turkey, before heading down the center aisles for healthy picks like beans and nuts.

The candy aisle can be tempting, but before making an impulse buy, slow down and make a conscious choice to stick to the items on your list.

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Measure the Perfect Portion

How you serve your food and what you serve it on may impact just how much you eat. According to a 2015 review of 72 studies, when offered larger sizes of portions, packaged foods and even dinner plates, people will consume more than they would if they were given small options.

This small plate strategy can be applied to all your meals, which can help you eat less. But, there’s more. Add the proper portion size onto your plate, then leave the serving dishes off the table. This is a practice research also suggests can help you eat less, since you’ll be less inclined to go back for a second (or third) helping.

Where you eat may affect how mindful you are, too. Dr. Chae recommends keeping your meals “confined to the kitchen or dining room, and not spilling into the living room, bedroom or the family room.”

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Go Slow and Steady

Don’t race through dinner time. In fact, eating more slowly and deliberately may help you consume fewer calories in a sitting. Results from one study of 30 healthy women suggest fewer calories were eaten, and more water consumed, when meals were eaten more slowly. Feelings of satiety and satisfaction were also higher after having enjoyed a slower-paced meal. 

Dr. Chae agrees. “I think most of us fall into patterns of being in a rush. If you have 10 minutes to eat, there’s a tendency to wolf it down in five,” he says. “I think sitting down and focusing on tasting the food goes a long way,” Dr. Chae adds.

If you’re new to mindful eating, here are simple ways to put on the brakes during mealtimes:

  • Eat with your non-dominant hand
  • Try using chopsticks
  • Use a smaller utensil, or take smaller bites
  • Chew your food well
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Savor the Flavor

Sensory awareness, taking special notice of sights, smells and tastes, is another form of mindfulness that can make mealtimes a real pleasure. Your eyes in particular may be more powerful than you think.

Results of a 2013 study by Terry E. Acree, PhD, a professor at Cornell University, that were presented at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society suggest people see the flavors of their meal even before the food has passed their lips.

The aroma of a dish can also influence the way we perceive the taste. In one study, participants who smelled sweet foods, like caramel and strawberries, before drinking plain water were more likely to taste sweetness in the sip than those who sniffed non-sweet foods. Taking the time to observe your foods, which can be a mindful practice, may up your eating pleasure. 

A helpful hint for savoring your food’s flavor: Hold the food in your mouth until you are able to identify each of the ingredients.

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Avoid Distractions

It can be tough to pay attention to the tastes and textures of the food you’re eating if your attention is focused on your cellphone or TV.

“When you’re eating, just eat; don't multitask,” Dr. Chae says. “Don’t answer your cell phone, reply to emails, make phone calls or watch TV.”

Research conducted by a team at the University of Birmingham and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests mealtime distractions can cause you to eat more. Fewer distractions, on the other hand, were linked to eating less. A 2013 systemic review of 24 studies suggests attentive eating can aid in weight loss and management, without having to count calories.

Before you pick up your fork, set down your cell phone, put the book back on the shelf, step away from the television and remind yourself to eat more slowly and carefully.

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