Mindful eating involves developing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food by experiencing the pleasure of food and being fully present during meals. This article explores how this practice can be used to reduce stress and to improve digestive health and eating behaviors.
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Stress can often lead to unhealthy eating habits and “self-medicating” with comfort foods. Yet, these decisions tend to contribute to even further health consequences. In fact, stressful eating can be a major contributor to weight gain and ultimately, the development of obesity. Additionally, it’s not just what a person eats, but also how a person eats. Eating under stressful time constraints or while multitasking can result in “mindless” eating in which the essential communication between the mind and the body is hindered. On the other hand, mindful eating can be an effective method to reduce stress and improve digestive health and eating behaviors.
From the repeated activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, stress itself can directly contribute to obesity through the hypersectetion of cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”), which can result in increased abdominal adiposity. However, stress can also indirectly result in obesity by triggering cravings for high fat and sweet foods. Overall, because individuals who practice stressful and emotional eating often have difficulty distinguishing between emotional and hunger cues for food, these individuals are especially vulnerable to weight gain in times of stress.
Mindful eating involves developing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food; it is not a restrictive diet, but instead, this practice involves experiencing the pleasure of food more intensely and being fully present at the meal. In contrast to mindless eating, which can often result in people unconsciously consuming a large amount of food but not feel full, mindful eating promotes a psychological barrier to overeating by paying attention to the body’s signals such as hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.
Because digestion is a complex process requiring communication between the gut and the nervous system, it can take about 20 minutes before the brain receives the satiety (fullness) message from the stomach. As a result, eating too quickly and mindlessly can cause one to consume too much food before the message is delivered to the brain.
Based upon Buddhist philosophy, mindful eating can be thought of as a type of meditation. Many different mindful eating techniques exist that can help you become more present while you eat to fully enjoy the benefits of your meal in terms of satisfying your taste buds, hunger, and nutritional needs. Some practices to try include the following:
- Take a small bite of food, close your eyes, and chew it thoroughly (20-30 times) while paying attention to the texture and the taste of the food.
- Instead of attempting to multitask, eat with no distractions.
- For more mindful eating suggestions, visit Mastering the Mindful Meal.
- Clinical Study: Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat Among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study
- Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: Evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People: A Review and Meta-Analysis
- Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity