Mindful Versus Mindless Eating

Families, Food and Fitness January 05, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

Author: Carolyn Dunn, Ph.D, Family and Consumer Sciences, NC State University, NC Cooperative Extension

Have you ever looked down at a bag of chips you were eating and wondered where the chips went? You don’t remember eating that many chips, yet they are all gone. You don’t even remember if the chips tasted good or not. This is called mindless eating or distracted eating. Eating breakfast while watching the morning news, having a snack while surfing the web, gobbling down a burger at a stoplight, all examples of mindless eating. Many of you are not even aware of the number of food decisions you make in a day. Research indicates that we overlook as many as 200 food decisions each day (1). These overlooked food decisions are made without you even being aware that you are making them. Your decision of what to eat, whether to eat, and how much to eat is based on what you usually do, external cues such as seeing or smelling food, or simply eating what is there. Moving from mindless eating to mindful eating can make a big difference in how you relate to food and ultimately can have an impact on your weight. There is a body of growing evidence that mindful eating is a strategy that can enhance weight loss (2-9).

picture of woman minfully eating

Mindfulness comes from principals found in Buddhism. You may wonder what we might learn from the round-bellied Buddha about healthy eating. When it comes to mindfulness, we can learn plenty. Buddha said that right mindfulness is a step on the path to nirvana. Mindful eating may be a step towards healthy eating. The concept of mindful eating means paying close attention to every detail of the eating experience. Mindfulness is living with greater awareness of moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings, and actions. Being mindful can increase your awareness of the internal and external cues that guide eating behavior. These cues may be physical, emotions, or cognitive. Often we eat almost automatically giving little thought to what or how much we are eating. The candy jar is there so you grab some. You are served a large plate of food and you eat it all. You order the number one combo because that is what you usually eat. Mindfulness can lead to making intentional choices in eating instead of responding to external cues, emotions, or your environment.

The theory of mindfulness is based on several assumptions. Many people operate on auto-pilot. This means that you may be unaware of our moment-to-moment experiences. The mind processes experiences and reacts to them with a specific action or behavior. However you are not fully engaged in the progression of action. It is possible to learn to become more aware of moment-to-moment experiences and cues, and to actively identify the experiences and cues of daily living. Learning to do this will take time and practice. By becoming more mindful, you can make your life better and more purposeful. By no longer acting on auto-pilot, you become more engaged in your daily life. Being mindful helps you gain awareness so you can identify specific cues that influence your eating behavior. Practicing mindfulness can change your actions so that you have a sense of greater control over eating. It allows you to make deliberate decisions about eating instead of acting without thinking.

According to The Center for Mindful Eating, mindful eating includes several principles (10).

  • Allow yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that area available through food preparation and consumption by respecting your own inner wisdom.
  • Choose to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all your senses to explore, savor, and taste.
  • Acknowledge responses to food likes and dislikes without judgment.
  • Learn to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating.

There are some simple steps you can take to begin mindful eating. Eat without distractions - no cell phone, TV, work, computer, newspaper, or smart phone. Don’t eat while driving or working at your desk. Eat sitting down. Eat slowly and enjoy every bite. Try to make each meal last at least 20 minutes. A good way to get started is to try this simple exercise with a raisin. Put the raisin in your mouth and close your eyes. Do not begin chewing yet. Try not to pay attention to the ideas running through your mind, just focus on the raisin. Notice the texture, temperature and taste. Begin chewing now slowly. Notice what it feels like. If you find your mind wandering away from the raisin and on to other things - gently bring your thoughts back to the raisin. Notice how your jaw moves each time you chew. Swallow slowly and sense the movement of muscles in your throat and tongue. Take a deep breath and open your eyes. You may find it helpful to do a similar exercise with the first bite of every meal.


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.