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From Mindless to Mindful in 10 Simple Ways.

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Learn how mindfulness can transform your eating habits, help you beat stubborn cravings, and improve your health.

What drives mindless eating and food cravings?

When I got into the field of nutrition, I thought I would be asking my clients things like, "Tell me what you eat?" or "What your diet is like?" Soon I realized that in order to better understand a person's dietary choices, I need to ask questions like,

When do you eat?

How do you eat?

Where do you eat?

Why do you eat?

These questions have little to do with the actual diet, so why are they important?

The answers to these questions give clues into our relationship with food which ultimately determines what we eat every day and how it affects our health in the long run.

Our relationship with food can reveal a lot about who we truly are. Are we chaotic and careless, or mindful and aware? Do we have too many rules about food or none at all?

I often hear things like:

"I am an emotional eater",

"When I eat, I am out of control",

" I can't stop eating sweets even though I know they are bad for me",

" I often feel guilt and shame after I give into my cravings, but can't break free from them".

When I hear these statements, I know there is a greater meaning to them. This is not a mere lack of willpower or motivation. Usually, there is something else going on. As I dive deeper, a person may open up and tell me that they often eat not when they are hungry, but when they can't fall asleep, or when they are worried, anxious, upset, lonely, stressed, or sad.

Why does food have so much power over our behavior? Let's explore the effects of food on our physiology.

Understanding Our Relationship With Food.

We live in a society that puts enormous pressure on every aspect of our lives. Day in and day out, we are dealing with various stressors, real or perceived. We may struggle with an enormous workload of school, running a business, or taking care of family. We may feel uncertain and scared about the future or struggle in our relationships. These stressors often translate into our relationship with food. Food becomes a tool to deal with unpleasant emotions, current circumstances, or memories of past events. Food brings a sense of pleasure that relieves stress and anxiety and simply makes us feel good. We tend to food for feelings of comfort and security.

The food industry has long ago realized this fact and has been on the roll producing highly palatable, addicting "comfort" foods that we simply can't resist. These foods are usually high in sugar, fat, and salt, along with other novel lab-produced "tastes" that stimulate our senses and give us a sense of euphoria.

We have a natural tendency towards sweet and fatty foods because back in the day, when our ancestors had to hunt for food, sweet and fatty foods were quite hard to come by. Calorie-dense foods were vital for the survival. Periods of feast and famine kept the balance in check. But now things are much different. Most of us (not all), here in North America, are not faced with food scarcity. Quick energy is available on every corner, from supermarkets to street vendors, gas stations, and drive-throughs. We no longer have to hunt or produce our own food, but we have kept our genetic preference for energy-dense foods. These foods may be cheap, convenient, and satisfying, but eventually, we start noticing their ill effects on our health. We become over-fed but starving for nutrients. The same food that we turn to for pleasure and comfort can also make us feel bad. It becomes a dangerous cycle.

It is important to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying food and getting pleasure from eating. Food should taste good. When we gather together around a big table for holidays, we enjoy all kinds of dishes prepared by the loving hands of our friends or family. Food unites us and brings us together.

Michael Pollan in his book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto", describes the following episode. A group of Americans and a group of French eaters were shown the word "chocolate cake". Both were asked to give their word associations. "Guilt" was the top response among Americans. The French response to the same prompt was "celebration".

Big difference, right?

It is perfectly normal to satisfy your occasional craving, and then return to your healthful pattern of eating. Nutritional health is a reflection of your everyday habits, not a product of what you ate today or yesterday. Stop thinking of food as "reward" or "punishment", and start seeing food as "sustenance", and "nourishment".

Sometimes you eat chocolate not because you are deficient in magnesium, but because you need some chocolate. But If you find yourself consistently finishing a pint of chocolate ice cream every night while watching TV , pause and ask yourself, "How does this serve me?"

Our relationship with food is just like our relationship with family and friends. In a healthy relationship, we feel confident, safe, and nurtured, where there is no place for abuse, guilt, or shame. It is about respect, balance, and love.

How Mindfulness Can Help Transform Eating Habits.

During the sessions with clients, we work on changing destructive thought patterns so that the decisions around food are not driven by impulse, stress, current emotions, diet rules, or outside pressure, but rather by mindfulness.

Mindfulness is defined as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" [2]. Mindfulness is incorporated into many behavior change programs and has helped thousands of people to live more consciously and develop skills to cope with addictions, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and chronic pain.

When we apply mindfulness to food and eating, we learn to "gain awareness of our eating experience" [2]. The practice of mindfulness allows us to examine food cravings or addictions, and eventually develop a response that leaves us in full control and at peace.

Mindful eating is not a type of dieting. Without behavior change, dieting is useless and always fails sooner or later. Mindful eating is a process that changes our overall approach to eating. It is not about counting calories or the macronutrient ratios, it is not about losing weight, it is about savoring the moment, appreciating the food in front of you, and being fully present for the eating experience without self-judgment.

A person who eats mindfully notices his thoughts about cravings, pays attention to his body's hunger and satiety cues, and is aware of his/her emotional state before, during, and after eating. A mindful eater chooses what and how much to consume, and prefers foods that promote desired health benefits. Within a mindful approach, a person's choice is often to eat less and savor more.

Mindfulness to beat the cravings.

If you struggle with food cravings or mindless eating, try incorporating these simple habits that can have big benefits for your health.

  1. Identify your food cravings.

Start noticing your food cravings, and keep a food journal of what you eat and drink each day. Note when you have a craving and what this food is. Do not get upset or judge yourself for feeling a craving. The first important step is to simply notice and accept it. Experience your craving for what it is.

2. Check for other forms of hunger.

Next time the craving hits, pause and ask yourself, what is that you are craving? We are all familiar with the gnawing sensation and rumbling in the stomach when the real hunger hits. But sometimes we crave food not because we are hungry but because we are bored, trying to get away from tedious or boring tasks, or dealing with difficult feelings and emotions. Before you open that bag of chips or cookies, ask yourself, "Am I bored? Tired? Angry? Lonely?"

3. Find alternative ways to ease emotional hunger.

If you realize that your craving is driven by emotion rather than by true hunger, think of ways to bring pleasant emotions that don't involve food. My favorite ways to divert my attention from a sugar craving are to have an aromatic cup of herbal tea, light a candle, infuse essential oil in the room, listen to my favorite music, get outside or go for a walk, connect with a friend (even with a quick text), or take a relaxing bath with lavender essential oils and Epsom salt. If your thoughts keep coming back to food, think of a healthier alternative. Snacks like fresh berries, fruit, and nuts are usually better options to satisfy a sweet craving.

4. Eat balanced meals and stick to a regular meal schedule.

When I analyze patients' food journals and notice frequent snacking, it is often because the main meals are not balanced. Meals lacking in protein, fiber, and healthy fats are almost always followed by a snack to "fill the gap." A balanced meal will keep you satiated longer and your blood sugar steady.

Set aside specific periods for eating instead of impulsive snacking. When a craving hits, your natural response will be to wait until mealtime instead of reaching for a snack.

Mindful eating for a calm mind and improved digestion.

5. Avoid eating when you are upset or anxious.

Stress and anxiety can slow down or even halt digestion. If you find yourself anxious or upset before a meal, the quickest and most effective way to bring balance and calm is to practice deep abdominal breathing. Take at least ten slow deep breaths to calm your senses before you begin eating. Deep breathing will help activate your parasympathetic (rest and digest) system which controls digestion.

6. Appreciate and respect your food.

Before you begin eating, allow yourself a chance to pause and truly appreciate the meal in front of you. Think with gratitude about all the people who have been involved in producing and preparing this food for you. Think about the farmers, fishermen, drivers, grocery store workers, and the hands of the cook who prepared your meal. If you are eating animal foods, thank the animal for giving you the nourishment you need. Think about your food as medicine, as your source of health and well-being. This is a very powerful way to prepare your body for eating. I find that many clients find this strategy to be essential in restoring their broken relationship with food.

7. Say grace before your meal.

In many cultures, it is common to say or sing a short prayer before a meal. Prayer induces feelings of peace, joy, hope, security, trust, and love. Chanting is even better as activities such as singing and chanting stimulate the vagus nerve, the master regulator of digestion. A prayer before a meal can transform a simple meal into a meaningful and mindful event.

8. Chew your food thoroughly.

The longer you chew, the better your food will be broken down. Saliva has enzymes that assist in digesting carbohydrates and small amounts of lipase to pre-digest fats. Try chewing each bite anywhere from 15-30 times. Chew until the food is liquified. It is very beneficial for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation. Notice how slow chewing changes the pace of your meal. This practice will also decrease your risk of overeating. It will also reduce the need to drink water with your food.

9. Limit the amount of water you drink while eating.

If you chew your food well, you will notice that saliva can efficiently moisturize the food in your mouth without the need to drink. Drinking a lot of fluids during a meal will interfere with digestion and dilute the gastric acid needed to break down proteins. Try drinking about 20-30 minutes before your meal, or take very small sips if it is hard for you in the beginning. You can add some herbal digestive bitters to your pre-meal water to stimulate digestion naturally.

10. Avoid distractions and make your mealtime a pleasant and relaxing event.

Eat at the table. Lay a tablecloth or a placemat on the table, and light the candles. Play relaxing music, and use pretty silverware and dishes. Eat with others when possible, and put away your phone and other electronics.

Enjoy your food slowly. Savor each bite. Pay attention to the texture and flavors of the food, the aroma, and the colors. Take time to notice how food feels in your mouth, how it changes when you chew, notice how it feels when the food moves down to your stomach. Notice the feeling of your stomach filling. Stop when you are about 80% full and feel content with just a little room left. You should feel relaxed but not stuffed after a meal.

This is mindful eating. It allows you to embrace the full sensory experience of eating, and enjoy the process. You feel calm, relaxed, and at peace with yourself.

Final thoughts

Mindful eating is a powerful tool that can transform eating habits, repair broken relationships with food, and improve digestive and mental health. Developing mindful eating habits takes time and practice. Start with only one habit per day. Once you master one, move on to the next. Soon it will become second nature.

Did you find this article helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


References and Further Reading:

1. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. An Eater's Manifesto. Penguin, 2009.

2. Nelson J. B. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(3), 171–174.

3. Katz D., Gonzalez M. H. The Way To Eat. A SIx-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control. Sourcebooks, Inc. Naperville, IL 2002.


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