It happens — you get distracted by a work deadline, a true-crime documentary, or a doom-scrolling session, and suddenly you’re staring at the bottom of an empty bag of chips.
(Pro tip: This is NOT mindful eating.)
If you feel like you’ve been eating on autopilot lately, mindfulness may be the key to getting your healthy eating habits back on track.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is the practice of being fully present in the moment while you’re eating — paying attention to your hunger and satiety cues, choosing foods that nourish you, eating without distractions, and savoring every bite.
This intentional approach is rooted in “mindfulness,” a type of meditation that involves focusing your awareness on the present moment without judgment or distraction.
“Mindful eating is an inward focus on how food makes you feel both mentally and physically,” says Krista Maguire, R.D., Senior Nutrition Manager at BODi.
“It incorporates non-judgmental thoughts and emotions surrounding food, and being fully present every step of the way — from shopping and prepping to cooking and consuming,” she explains.
Focusing on the full sensory experience of eating, rather than stressing about diet rules and restrictions, can help you cultivate a healthier relationship with food — and that can have a positive impact on many aspects of your physical and mental health.
Physical Health Benefits of Mindful Eating
Mindful eating helps you tune in to how your body feels before, during, and after you eat — and that can benefit your physical health in a few key ways.
1. Improved digestion
“Often, in this busy culture, we eat on the go or as quickly as possible,” Maguire says. “This can put our bodies in a state of stress and impact various mechanisms of our digestive pathway.”
But research suggests mindful eating can modulate stress and support a “rest-and-digest” state.
The simple act of slowing down can also promote healthy digestion.
Engaging your senses as you eat helps to stimulate digestive secretions, and chewing your food thoroughly may improve nutrient absorption.
2. Increased energy and performance
“It requires a little bit of skill to dial into what makes your body work at its peak,” Maguire says. “The more you’re in tune with your body, the more you’ll be in tune with how foods impact you and which foods can help support your performance goals.”
So the next time you need a boost, you’ll know exactly which foods you can count on to provide you with sustained energy — no coffee necessary.
3. Weight loss and maintenance
As you tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, you may find you’re doing a lot less mindless snacking and overeating.
“When you bring awareness to what you put in your body and are fully present for each and every bite, you can find yourself satisfied with less,” Maguire says. “Over time, most who follow the practice of mindful eating find weight loss or maintenance as an unintended benefit.”
4. Heart health and metabolic health
Mindfulness can help relieve stress and support healthy eating habits — and that offers some long-term health benefits.
Research suggests mindful eating and mindfulness-based stress management may help to curb compulsive eating and support healthy blood glucose levels in adults with obesity.
And a 2015 study found that mindfulness may benefit cardiovascular health by improving stress response and increasing self-awareness.
Mental Health Benefits of Mindful Eating
Taking the time to practice mindfulness at mealtime can boost your sense of well-being.
Here are a few ways mindfulness can benefit your mental health.
1. Less stress and anxiety around eating
Constantly obsessing over calories, macros, and forbidden foods can be mentally draining.
“When you follow a restrictive diet, you’re adhering to the ‘rules’ of that diet,” Maguire says.
And when you inevitably deviate from those rigid rules, you can end up in a spiral of guilt and negative self-talk.
Mindful eating helps to alleviate those anxious feelings by putting the focus on the sensory experience of eating.
“Mindful eating is about the process, not the outcome,” Maguire explains. “There are no ‘rules’ that can be broken or foods that are ‘off limits.'”
2. A healthier relationship with food
If you tend to snack when you’re stressed, eat until you’re overstuffed, or feel guilty when you indulge, mindful eating can help you create a healthier mindset about food.
“Mindful eating naturally leads to a more balanced way of eating,” says registered dietitian Samantha Holmgren, R.D. “It feels good to eat well — you have more energy, less bloating, and feel satisfied. Mindful eating helps you to notice that pattern so you want to do more of it.”
3. More self-awareness and self-compassion
Research suggests mindfulness strengthens your ability to deal with stressful experiences and dial back your emotional response.
For example, if you’ve had a rough day at work, mindfulness can help you acknowledge that you’re feeling stressed without instinctively reaching for comfort foods.
And if you do occasionally drown your sorrows in a jar of Nutella (oops!), mindfulness can help you be kinder to yourself when things don’t go as planned.
4. Improved body image
Instead of focusing on the number on the scale, mindful eating can help you develop a deeper appreciation for your body and gratitude for the foods that fuel it — and that can be an empowering mindset shift.
“When your mind isn’t set on an end goal like it is with the typical weight-loss mentality, you can tune into what your body actually needs,” Maguire says. “Mindful eating allows you to look inward and realize how fascinating your body is and how amazing it can feel with certain nourishing foods.”
How Are Mindful Eating and Emotional Eating Connected?
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that involves using food to deal with negative feelings like sadness, anger, boredom, or stress.
Mindfulness can reduce emotional eating by helping you identify the emotional triggers that cause you to overeat, or to choose foods that make you feel less-than-amazing.
Remember, mindful eating is a no-judgment zone, so don’t berate yourself — just observe what you ate, why you ate it, and how you feel after eating it.
If you start to notice a pattern of emotional eating, there are a few steps you can take to boost your mood without relying on food:
- Vent to a friend about whatever’s stressing you out.
- Get moving — exercise can boost the feel-good endorphins in your brain.
- Get a good night’s sleep — you’re more likely to reach for high-calorie snacks when you’re tired.
- Try a 10-minute meditation to help you feel more relaxed.
4 Tips for Practicing Mindful Eating
Ready to make mindfulness a part of your meal plan? These simple steps can help you master the basics of mindful eating.
1. Drop the “diet” mentality
Restrictive diets can leave you feeling deprived when you follow the rules and guilty when you don’t — and that can take all the pleasure out of eating.
To reconnect with what your body needs, focus fully on the sensory experience in the present moment.
“Release all expectations and judgment,” Maguire says. “Forget about calories, fat, carbs, and protein, and immerse yourself in the experience. Tune into how foods actually taste because you’ve slowed down and taken the time to experience the joy of eating.”
2. Use a hunger-fullness scale
Before you sit down to eat, gauge your hunger on a scale of 1 (literally starving) to 10 (so full you feel sick).
As you tune in to your body’s hunger cues, try to avoid the extreme ends of the scale: Eat when your stomach starts to growl and stop before you feel uncomfortable.
Pay attention — in a non-judgmental way — to how you feel when you let yourself wait too long between meals or go back for a third helping.
3. Limit distractions
When it comes to mindful eating practices, this one can be the biggest challenge for many people, Maguire says.
Hustle culture has normalized multitasking at mealtime — chugging a latte on your drive to work, eating lunch in front of your computer, or snacking while you catch up on email.
So it’s okay if you need to ease in. “Baby steps are just fine,” Maguire says. “Start with one meal — sit down at the table without the TV on, your laptop open, or your phone on. Take one bite at a time, and finish your meal without any interruptions.”
This may not be realistic at every single meal but try to work your way up to a daily practice.
4. Engage your senses
To keep yourself grounded in the present while you eat, focus on your five senses.
“I like to start by taking a deep breath before a meal or snack,” Holmgren says.
“I close my eyes and notice how I feel. Then I look at my meal or snack and notice the smells and colors. As you continue to practice, take note of the tastes and textures so you can fully enjoy your food.”
You can also use this technique to shop more mindfully.
Instead of rushing through the grocery store, take time to appreciate the colors in the produce aisle, smell the fresh-baked bread, and feel gratitude for all the options you have available to you.
The Bottom Line
Letting go of judgment and learning to eat more mindfully may take a bit of practice.
(And that’s fine — remember, self-compassion is key!)
But mindful eating can be an effective way to tune out the noise of diet culture and tune in to what your body needs.
“Mindful eating is a fabulous way to learn your body’s signals and get insight into the habits and routines that work well for you,” Holmgren says.
“While we can research and learn best practices of what humans need to live healthy lives, there’s a lot of variety within these general patterns. Mindfulness in general — and mindful eating in particular — can help us to uncover what works best for our specific bodies.”