It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of mindful eating. Research has repeatedly shown that mindful eating helps people make better food choices, stop bingeing, enjoy meals more and naturally eat less.
It can help you break unhealthy eating patterns and replace them with healthier ones.
And it is often the last piece of the puzzle for healthy eaters who still struggling to lose those last few stubborn pounds.
But mindful eating is hard to do. Your brain naturally rejects mindful awareness and desperately seeks to follow your impulses to think and/or judge your current situation rather than simply observe it.
These impulses are STRONG. And fighting them to bring your attention back to the present moment can feel exhausting, especially in the early days of your practice.
This is usually when people start to question if mindfulness is even worth it. Enjoying your food more and eating less sounds great and all, but at what price?
How can you enjoy your meal when you’re in a tug of war with your own mind?
It’s a good question and one I’ve wrestled with myself. Your brain is very clever at coming up with reasons why it doesn’t need to be mindful.
Thinking is useful!
This is my time to relax!
I want to eat with my family!
This is boring!
Let me be free!
If you get caught up in this kind of resistance during your mindful practice––arguing with yourself about why you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing––that’s a sure sign that you need to keep practicing.
Learning to stop clinging to your thoughts and letting them take you out of the present moment is the whole point.
That said, torturing yourself during every meal is also not the point.
While mindful eating (and mindfulness in general) does eventually transition from difficult and frustrating to simple and peaceful with regular practice, being mindful 24/7 isn’t practical, nor is it necessary.
Your brain is right that thinking is valuable. Letting yourself relax during meals is healthy. And eating with people you love is wonderful.
The purpose of mindful practice is to enhance those experiences, not get rid of them.
The question is: how do you find the balance? When should you be actively mindful and when should you just let your brain do its thing?
There are a few things to consider.
Mindfulness is a practice
The first is that mindfulness almost never spontaneously arises on its own. Unless you’re the Buddha, it requires dedicated practice. This is why I recommend setting aside one meal per day for mindfulness practice in the Mindful Meal Challenge.
One meal per day is admittedly arbitrary. Sometimes I find it convenient to do more, sometimes I do less. But it’s a simple benchmark that I find effective. You can adjust it to whatever works best for you.
When you dedicate time to practice a few things happen. A big one is that when you’re eating a meal that isn’t your dedicated mindful practice meal, you don’t have to feel guilty if you aren’t eating mindfully.
Relax. Enjoy yourself. Multitask. Eat a corn dog while dancing the polka and watching reruns of M*A*S*H. It doesn’t matter.
Mindfulness will likely trickle into your other meals if you’re practicing regularly, but there’s no need to force it.
Mindfulness brings awareness to your unconscious habits
Another thing that happens when you practice mindful eating is you learn to observe all the quirky habits you have while you eat.
You learn how your mind wanders, what triggers you to eat quickly, that you actually like Justin Bieber music more than you care to admit, that you have an incessant impulse to look at your phone, that certain things consistently steal your attention away from your present experience, and how long it takes to bring it back.
This awareness is critical because normally all these habits happen unconsciously, dragging you along at their mercy. When you become aware of them through mindfulness you reclaim your ability change your response.
For example, through mindful eating I discovered that having a prepared bite on my fork is a strong trigger for me to swallow what is in my mouth quickly and open it again for the ready bite. This is true whether the food is fully chewed or not, and causes me to eat much faster than I should.
Once I became aware of this trigger I was suddenly able to recognize it during the eating process and resist the urge. I now have a habit of setting my fork down if I catch myself with a ready bite so I can finish chewing before I swallow. My regular stomach aches disappeared shortly after.
The awareness that comes from mindfulness provides the pause you need to intentionally choose your habits rather than follow your impulses blindly.
This is even cooler than it sounds on the surface.
Mindfulness habits also become automatic
There are some habits that tend to go hand in hand with developing a mindful eating practice: making better food choices, avoiding emotional eating, setting up an eating environment that promotes better behaviors (e.g. sitting at a table, turning off the TV), chewing more, eating at a slower pace, stopping when no longer hungry, etc.
The more of these habits you develop, the less damage mindless eating will cause.
Like any habits, the ones you build as a result of your mindful eating practice ultimately become automatic themselves. This means you are more likely to do them during your normal meals without much thought or effort.
Moreover, eating itself eventually becomes a trigger for mindfulness. As you become aware of what it feels like to eat mindfully, many of your more distracted eating habits (like not chewing) start to feel uncomfortable and you naturally snap out of it and adjust.
The end result is that the more you practice mindful eating, the less you need to try to be mindful. It’s a positive feedback loop that makes you more aware of your healthy habits, while also making the process itself easier. It’s almost a mindless mindfulness, although not quite.
Mindfulness is a cultivated skill, like learning a language or playing an instrument. Without practice your skill weakens. With practice it comes to you more naturally.
This phenomenon helps us answer our question of when to actively try to eat mindfully.
The short answer is that you need to practice regularly, ideally one meal per day.
The caveat is that it will be difficult at the beginning and require willpower and conscious effort. Yet as your practice develops, it gets easier and comes to you more naturally.
The cadence of your practice doesn’t need to change, about one meal per day. But over time you will likely become more mindful in your eating and it will require less willful effort.
That said, there is a limit to the magic. You can’t simply instill a mindful eating habit for a few weeks or months then count on your brain to keep it there indefinitely.
Without practice, your mindfulness will fade and more distracted habits will step in to fill the space. Stick with it though, and you hardly have to think about it.