Mindful eating (also known as intuitive eating) aims to reconnect us more deeply with the experience of eating — and enjoying — our food. Mindful eating is based on the idea that there is no right or wrong way to eat, but rather varying degrees of consciousness about what we are eating and why. The goal of mindful eating, then, is to base our meals on physical cues, such as our bodies’ hunger signals, not emotional ones — like eating for comfort.
Watch the video below or read the transcript that follows. View our YouTube playlist of videos on how to change how you eat, move, and sleep by changing one small thing. Learn more about mindful eating by reading this article.
About the Instructor: Roz Grossman, MA, Mindfulness Practitioner, teaches mindfulness for patients and staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She has been meditating for over 20 years and offers a gentle approach through her business Mindful Stress Relief.
Roz Grossman: Welcome, and thank you for joining me today to talk about mindful eating. I am Roz Grossman, and I have been meditating and doing mindfulness for about 20 years. I had a diagnosis of breast cancer about 20 years ago, and that was really scary for me. I decided to learn to meditate, and I did, and I found it really helped me, helped me in my just general stress, from difficulty sleeping, and just to feel better about the whole situation that I was in back then.
I have a nursing background and a health care educator background, and so about 10 years ago, I decided I really wanted to teach this. That’s what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work here in Burlington at the University of Vermont Medical Center. I’m working a lot with cancer patients, and that … I’ve just been so grateful to be able to do that. I also have my own practice and business called Mindful Stress Relief. You can find that. That’s the website, if you’re interested. I do some classes in the community, too.
What is mindfulness?
Mindful eating is a great topic, but I want to start by just talking a little bit about what is mindfulness, because mindfulness is so popular right now. It’s really gone mainstream. You hear it in the news. You see it on magazines, and maybe your kids are learning to be mindful or have mindfulness practices. They may even be bringing it home to you, because there’s a lot to it, and it seems to work to really help people to reduce their stress and anxiety and just encourage them to have a quality of life that is easier for them.
Mindfulness. My definitely of mindfulness that I use is being present, just being present in every single moment, which is not so easy. That’s something that all of you already have the ability to do. I can’t give you that. We all can be aware, but there’s practices, and mindful eating is a good practice for it, or mindful breathing is another one.
Neuroplasticity: Changing the Brain
There’s also some great science that’s out right now from the neuroscientists. There’s something called neuroplasticity, which in my lifetime, they discovered that we can make new neurons. Our brains make new neurons. We can do that our whole entire life, and this is really good news, because that means we can create new pathways in our brains and maybe learn to change some of the difficult habits that we have. We have some habits even around mindful eating.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is simply paying attention to what you eat. I brought with me today … I’m going to demonstrate for you a little mindful eating, and perhaps you’re sitting at your desk, and you can come along with me and do this for yourself, too, or just watch. I brought my favorite snacks with me. There’s a bowlful of almonds, a clementine, some clementine pieces, and a bar of chocolate, and yes, you can eat chocolate mindfully.
Awaken the Senses
I’m going to start, and maybe you’d like to do this with me. Just take a comfortable seat. Put your feet on the floor, if you can. Take a breath. If you’d like to close your eyes you can, but you don’t have to. I’m going to ring my bells, and then we’ll do the demonstration.
Thank you for doing that with me. I’m going to pick up this clementine and just look at it. I’m going to explore this with my senses. Looking at it, I see that it’s round like a ball. It has a place, a stem, a place where it was picked from the tree. It has bumps on it, wrinkled but also kind of smooth and easy to hold in my hand. I peeled the clementine beforehand, so I feel like I’m on the cooking channel, but here we go. Here’s a little slice of clementine. I’m going to hold it in my hand and take a look at it. It’s interesting. It has some bumpiness to it, some pieces of white. I guess that’s the inner skin of the clementine, and there’s a hard surface covering it.
I’m going to break it in half, hopefully not squirt all over the place. It’s juicy inside. I’m going to put down a half and just really look at it. It’s pretty interesting looking. You can see it, maybe, from there. I’m going to bring it up closely to my nose, and it smells fruity, pungent. As soon as I do that, as soon as I bring it close to my nose, my mouth starts to water. I want to pop this little clementine right in my mouth, but I’m going to do something fun with it, too. I’m going to take it and hold it up to my ear and see if this clementine has anything to say. No, not today. It really doesn’t.
I’m not going to eat it right now, but maybe a little bit later. I know, because I had a clementine this morning with my breakfast, that they’re juicy. They’re juicy inside, and there’s this full burst of flavor.
What I’ve just done is use my senses to look at my food, to touch it, to bring it close to my nose and smell it. Smelling is one of our earliest senses. There’s a big connection between smelling and the food that we eat. I even brought it close to my mouth enough so my mouth started to water, salivate. You know this feeling. And, of course, I listened to it. It just didn’t have anything to say.
I can also do another thing. I can take this clementine and look at it and think about where it came from, what it needed to grow. It needed somebody to plant a tree, a farmer, somebody to tend it. It needed soil, water, the sun, and maybe a little food for it. Then it needed somebody to pick it when it was ripe, put it in a box, ship it off to the market, and somebody in a store to take the clementine, put it in a display, and then somebody like me or you to go and buy it. You can also even think about what it takes for you to do the work that you do in order to have the funds that you need to buy food. So there’s a lot that goes into this little clementine.
How often do we eat mindlessly?
We have really busy, busy days. I know people are busy today. We’re on a 24/7 kind of a schedule these days, and so what do we do? We eat at our desk. We were just talking about that before I started. We eat in the car, so that’s something that I am known to do, and I’m actually trying to stop that or cut it down, at least. We eat watching TV, reading paper, catching up on some important task that we have to do, looking at our phones, looking at our email, and so we’re not paying attention at all to what we’re doing.
I listened recently to a radio interview called The Food We Eat. It was a TED Radio Hour, so you can look that up. One of the people being interviewed is a writer, a cookbook writer, and his name is Mark Bittman. I had never heard of him before, but he writes a cookbook … It just came out in a new edition … called How to Cook Everything, and it’s huge. I bought it, because I was so interested in it. It’s a big book. You could use it to even do some exercises. One of the things that he did was define food. What he said food is is … This is actually from the dictionary … something sustains and nourishes us. It also increases our health.
He also said, and I found this fascinating, that approximately 40 percent … And I don’t know where he gets this percentage … of the food in our supermarkets don’t actually fit that definition. Think about that. We have so much processed food right now. Some of it’s fun. We like it. It’s comforting, but it may not fit this definition so well, and certainly in the supermarket, there’s a whole lot of things that are in there that are non-food items, too. I’m guessing that he’s counting that, too.
Choosing our food is complicated.
It’s not an easy thing to do, and there’s many factors to it. I think about the food that I ate growing up. Some of it I liked, and some of it, I didn’t like. I didn’t like those canned peas that I ate growing up. It’s connected to our ethnicity, the food that our family ate and our relatives ate. It’s connected to holidays, and it’s also connected to availability.
What food do we have? Some people have a lot of choices in their life, and there are people in the world that don’t have much choice at all. Also, to personal likes and dislikes. It also is connected to whether you like to cook or not. I’m somebody that likes to cook, but I don’t always have the time. When I can take the time, I really enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to looking into Bittman’s book a little bit more and finding some new recipes. I like cookbooks.
Eating can be problematic, too.
We all know that. In choosing food, sometimes we go for food out of our emotions and sheer comfort, and that’s not all bad. There is some good comfort food out there. In preparing for this, I’ve been doing some mindful eating practices myself. Yesterday, I made my all-time comfort food, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is something that I took, I think, every day to lunch just about growing up, in my little bag. I made it. I toasted the bread. The bread was just toasted perfectly right. The peanut butter was nice and creamy. I choose a natural peanut butter that doesn’t have sugar in it, and I had some grape jelly, also, that is sweet enough. It didn’t need extra sugar.
I sat down at my table, and I ate that peanut butter sandwich mindfully. Somewhere along in eating it, I realized I wanted some milk with it, too, so I went and got myself … I don’t drink cow’s milk that often, so I went and got myself a little glass of almond milk, and it was wonderful. It was really comforting to me. I like potato chips, too, and french fries. There’s all kinds of comfort foods that we may choose.
The Role of Emotions
This is a time when we’re choosing to eat something from an emotional place that we can use mindfulness. We can take a breath. This is a really nice book, too, called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. In this book, she suggests that we just notice when we have that “gotta have” moment, and we’re heading for the refrigerator without thinking of it or the candy on our desk or somebody else’s desk or stopping at a Quik Stop for something to maybe just pause.
Take a moment and breath in and out, and then make that decision. Maybe you want it, and that’s fine. There’s no judgment here about that, but we can use mindfulness to make good choices for ourselves. That’s really one of the benefits of being mindful. It’s about noticing what is … It could be the food. It could be our emotions. It could be a lot of things … and then making choices. Making choices that are good for us, that are healthy for us.
I’m not going to eat my almonds or chocolate. I’m going to save that for later, but I’d like to leave you with some suggestions to consider about mindful eating. One, mindfulness is about paying attention. You already know how to do that. You can do that, but you can practice it. Two, you can practice it through mindful eating, because we need to eat to live and eat regularly. Three, try eating a meal or a piece of fruit, like the clementine or a snack that you like, mindfully, without reading. Just putting everything aside, shutting the TV off or even the radio. Use your senses like I did to notice something. Do something like I did. You do not have to eat slowly to eat mindfully. You can do this quickly. I have eaten mindfully in my car, I must admit.
I hope that you will choose to take some of this information and think about the food that you eat, maybe appreciate the food that we get. I have one little quote to end with, and this is from another book How To Eat, by a very famous well-known mindfulness teacher whose name is Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a Vietnamese monk who has taught mindfulness to many, many Westerners. This is one of the things he says. I’ll read from the book. “When we eat our meal, we should show up for that meal 100%. Eating mindfully is a practice. If we choose to drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, the pleasure of drinking tea will more than double because we are truly there, and the tea is also truly there. Life is real. It’s not a dream when mindfulness is there.”