Blog Post

Mindful Eating: A Dietitian’s Guide

Girl enjoying food

In a world that is always going 100 miles an hour, it can be easy to get caught up in it all and forget to stop and smell the roses. Or in this case, stop to enjoy that delicious homemade stir-fry or the ice-cream sandwich for dessert. Research shows that those who take up mindful eating practices are less likely to binge eat or eat for emotional satisfaction. They are also more in tune with their body’s internal hunger and satiety signals.

Mindless eating on the other hand has been linked to over eating and increased stress and anxiety.

The Difference Between Mindful Eating & Intuitive Eating

Mindful eating and intuitive eating get confused all of the time. This is likely because the essence of these two ideologies is very similar. However, they do have their differences.

The Centre of Mindful Eating defines mindful eating by the following principles

1. Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.

2. Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.   

3. Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.

4. Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

The Centre of Mindful Eating

Mindful eating focuses on the behaviours that reconnect you to your direct sensory experiences whilst eating.

intuitive eating

I like to think of it as doing a wine tasting at a vineyard versus smashing a large glass of cab sav on a Friday night after work. The wine tasting instructor will typically get you to savor the wines and taste all of the different flavor notes. You will also be completely focused on the glass of wine. This is a far more intimate experience with your food than mindlessly drinking whilst watching NCIS.

Intuitive eating is more like a larger framework that includes mindful eating. Coined by dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is based on their work in eating disorder recovery and focuses on a broader relationship with food.

Unlike mindful eating, intuitive eating is more about making peace with food and a complete rejection of diet culture.

The Effect of Mindful Eating on Binge Eating & Overeating

Binge eating and overeating are two completely separate things. Although studies have shown that mindful eating assists with both.

Eating Disorders Victoria describes Binge Eating Disorder as

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a mental illness characterised by regular episodes of binge eating. Binge eating involves eating an excessive amount of food, which may take place in a rapid space of time, or may be more of an extended grazing. These episodes can feel chaotic, uncontrollable and highly distressing.

Eating Disorders Victoria

Overeating is not an eating disorder and is actually a very normal human thing to do from time to time. Overeating is when we eat past the point of being comfortably full. This can happen on purpose when we go to a family gathering for Christmas or by accident when we are mindlessly eating in bed watching TV.

However, both binge eating and consistent overeating can lead to weight gain long term.

mindful eating

Mindfulness practices in general have been a part of binge eating disorder treatment for a long time. Many binge eaters use food as a coping strategy for stress and anxiety. Mindfulness-based practices can help these people reflect and deal with their triggers and outside stressors in more effective ways.

And this isn’t just theory. There have been several studies that show mindful eating and other mindfulness practices can reduce the frequency and intensity of binge eating symptoms and behaviors.

Mindful eating has been shown to slow the consumption of food or a meal.

This is due to the focus on being present with your meal and really enjoying it.

Therefore, it makes sense why mindful eating has also been linked to a reduction in overeating.

Allowing more time to eat your meal gives your body time to present you with the appropriate fullness or satiety cues. Registering feelings of fullness earlier on in the meal is associated with consuming an overall smaller quantity of food, whilst still feeling satisfied. Additionally, awareness of hunger and fullness cues enables people to match their intake to their hunger.

Our bodies do come with a system to regulate the food that we consume. Your brain actually has an in-built MyFitnessPal, called the hypothalamus which regulates appetite in response to energy needs. 

Just like the urge to pee means your bladder is full and the thirst sensation means your body needs water, your appetite is your body’s way of telling you that you need more energy.

However, mindless eating behaviours such as eating too quickly, allowing yourself to become too hungry and eating whilst distracted typically result in a complete disregard of this food regulation system.

big pictures of portions lead to over eating

Overeating may reflect a reliance on external cues as well. A great example of this is packaging size. Instead of relying mindfully on one’s hunger and satiety cues, our food behaviours can be influenced by food packaging and serving sizes. Research shows that:

  • People eat more from large than from small packs, which is known as the pack size effect.
  • Large portion sizes depicted on the packaging has been linked to increased serving sizes.
  • Even the size of our plate can have an impact on the volume of food consumed.

Such as wide range of external cues can affect our food behaviours. However, the use of mindfulness is designed to interrupt these automatic, non-conscious external influences.

So whilst I have always had my scepticism around any practice that seemed a bit too “Live, Laugh, Love”, mindful eating may actually be a great intervention for both binge eating and frequent overeating.

Mindful Eating & Weight Loss

Now getting to the juicy stuff. Everyone always wants to hear about things that are going to result in weight loss or make weight loss easier.

Nonetheless, mindful eating was not designed as a weight loss tool. Like intuitive eating, it has recently been co-opted by diet culture as the next best thing for weight loss.

The research on mindful eating for weight loss in overweight individuals is actually really underwhelming with a mixed bag of results.

So whilst mindless eating can result in weight gain and obesity, mindful eating may not be the solution for weight loss. I think this is because eating to your hunger cues, by definition, should help you to maintain your weight.

During weight loss, it is quite common to feel a little hungry even if you are eating high volume, low calorie foods, drinking enough water and all that jazz. That is because you are quite literally underfeeding your body for weight loss to occur. The practice of mindful eating would tell you to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are comfortably full but that’s not always how weight loss works.

Therefore, I see mindful eating as a practice for weight maintenance more so than a tool for weight loss.

That being said, if you have recently lost a significant amount of weight, it is possible that this process will result in some amount of weight gain. 

This is due to physiological changes that occur during weight loss that causes disruptions to the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. In this situation, your appetite may not be the most optimal way to guide your food intake, particularly, if you want to maintain that weight loss. 

So all in all, mindful eating is not a practice I promote for weight loss with the current research that we have.

4 Steps to Start Mindful Eating

Step 1: Understanding your huger and acknowledging current eating behaviors

Keep a food journal for at least two weeks.  

You will want to keep the following information:

  1. Time of meal or snack
  2. What you ate and estimate the portion sizes
  3. Where you ate the meal & what you were doing while you were eating (i.e. watching TV in the living room)
  4. What level you were at on the hunger scale before eating
  5. What level you were at on the hunger scale after eating 
hunger scale

After keeping this journal for a while, you may see some common patterns. For example, you often allow yourself to become a 1 or 2 on the hunger scale before eating and finish on a 9. Or maybe you eat when you are at a 6 or 7 because you are being cued by a psychological urge to eat such as boredom.  

physical hunger versus psychological hunger

Once you are aware of your current behaviours and have spent some time paying attention to hunger and satiety cues, it is time for step 2.

Step 2: Using the hunger scale to guide your eating behaviors 

To eat in accordance with your hunger cues, eat when your hunger is a 3 or 4 on the hunger scale. This will require consistent checking in with your hunger levels throughout the day. 

If you are someone who often doesn’t notice they are hungry until reaching a level 1 or 2, then checking in with yourself more frequently would be extremely important to managing your appetite more effectively. 

When you do reach a level 3 or 4 and decide to eat, aim to eat until you are a level 5 or 6. You should be feeling satisfied and content but not “stuffed”. 

Whilst you will be using the hunger scale to begin with, over time you will be able to recognise your hunger and satiety cues without it through being consistently mindful of your body and its needs.

Step 3: Being present with your food

mindful eating tips

Being present with your food and savouring it, is a huge part of mindful eating practices.

With each meal, you should aim to:

  • Eliminate distractions. Avoid watching TV or being on your phone while you eat. If you are trying to multitask you won’t be paying attention to your body’s cues. 
  • Eat slowly and chew your food well.
  • Put your fork down between bites.
  • Set your environment up to reduce stress and anxiety. Soft lighting, use utensils that appeal to you, move away any clutter, and sit at a table rather than on a couch.
  • Really experience your food and its sensory effects such as how it tastes, the feeling as you chew it, and how it sits in your stomach.
  • Stop a quarter or halfway through your meal to check in with your hunger. You don’t have to finish everything you served yourself if that does not align with your appetite. 
  • Adjust your portions over time to reflect your hunger levels and the typical among of food it takes to reach a point of satiety.

Here is a simple mindful eating exercise by Eating Disorders Victoria, that you can do at home to practice the skill of eating mindfully.

1. Choose one piece of food. A common one in mindful eating is a raisin.

2. Begin by looking at the food. Examine its shape, texture, and color.

3. Bring the food to your nose and smell it.

4. Place the food on your tongue. Notice the response of your salivary glands.

5. Take a bite and be aware of the sounds in your mouth and the texture on your tongue.

6. Notice how the texture of the food changes as you chew.

7. Now swallow. Pay attention as the food travels down your throat to your stomach.

8. Now say the name of the food silently to yourself.

9. Try practicing a mindful bite at least once every meal.

Eating Disorders Victoria

Step 4: Have well-balanced meals that contain the hunger crushing combo (Protein, Fat & Fibre)

Now that you are in touch with what hunger and satiety feel like for you and feel comfortable using the hunger scale, you can work on regulating your appetite appropriately through eating meals that are truly satisfying.

Even if you are using hunger cues to guide to eating patterns, if you are only consuming calorie-dense fast food with little nutritional value, you are still likely to overeat.

Food volume has a huge impact on our appetite. You could easily eat 800 calories worth of McDonalds and fall into the category of “comfortably full” but eating 800 calories worth of a well balanced, healthy meal may push you into a level 8 or 9 on the hunger scale. 

Volume eating comparison

For your appetite regulation to be truly reflective of your energy needs, you need to eat well-balanced meals. Most meals should contain:

  • Carbohydrates from grains, starchy vegetables or fruit
  • Lean protein from meat, dairy, poultry, seafood, legumes or soy products 
  • Healthy fats from oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds or plant-based oils
  • Fibre from wholegrains, legumes, fruit or vegetables

In addition, your meals should also be emotionally satisfying from a taste perspective.

You could have a well-balanced meal which in theory should satisfy you but if you do not enjoy it, it is unlikely to satisfy your urge to eat more.

This is when you may experience cravings for different types of food despite physically feeling content with your hunger level.

Summary

Smiling and happy woman in the lotus position with fruits and vegetables

Mindful eating is a set of practices that tries to reconnect you with your bodies hunger cues and the sensation of food and eating. In a fast paced world, it can be a very positive thing to just slow down and enjoy the small things. Additionally, mindful eating can be a great tool to manage binge eating disorder, stop emotional eating and reduce overeating.

However, it is not a tool for weight loss and no health professional should be telling you otherwise. Anecdotally, I am sure there have been people that found weight loss success through mindful eating but the research tells a very mixed story when talking about the population as a whole.

My take away is that most people would benefit from mindful eating as it is a practice that can reduce stress, anxiety and potentially weight gain. But as a weight loss tool, probably not.

By Leah Higl

Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting. Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.​