Mindful eating sounds rather peaceful, healthy and tasty. But be warned: if you're jumping on the mindful bandwagon to lose weight or be trendy, it may end up causing more harm than good.
Megan Blandford

6 Jun 2017 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2017 - 3:37 PM

Mindful eating: it’s an on-trend ‘slow eating’ philosophy that helps you to really reap pleasure from all of your meals – even the ones that taste horrible. All that’s required is to chew your food slowly and repeatedly, while ignoring the rest of the world and concentrating on your physical actions. What’s not to love? 

Experts at the University of Queensland advise that to eat mindfully, you should chew your food slowly (about 32 times per mouthful is thought to be healthy); remove distractions like the television while you eat; and fully experience the colours, smells, flavours, and textures of your food.

“But it goes deeper than that, too,” says Nina Mills, dietitian and nutritionist at What’s for Eats?

“When you’re eating mindfully you can listen to and trust your body to tell you when you’re hungry, and also trust your body will tell you when it’s full and satisfied.

“It can also guide you to making food choices that are satisfying and nourishing.”

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Mindful eating has many benefits

While mindful eating concepts have roots in Buddhist mindfulness practices, mindful eating itself is thought to date back to an American foodie in the early 20th century, Horace Fletcher. Harvard Health says that the philosophy was created when Fletcher decided that eating mindfully could solve a range of physical health problems.

Mills also advocates that mindful eating is linked to a whole range of health benefits.

- It removes the emotion from eating. She explains: “it’s eating without judgement or guilt, and instead eating with the intention of taking care of yourself”.

- Taking away the focus on dress size or the number on the scales. “It removes the external influences from our food and eating.”

- Eating mindfully means we chew our food better and stop when we’re full; these aid our digestion. It’s a benefit we don’t think too much about, however better digestive health is being linked with mental health and brain function.  

- Decisions are clearer. “It gives you a space to pause. So instead of automatically gravitating to the biscuit tin at 3pm, you can consciously weigh up whether you really want that food. You might realise you’re not hungry but you still want that biscuit, or you might decide you need something else.” Any choice you make is valid; mindful eating is simply the ability to make a conscious decision.

- It helps with a variety of illnesses. Research shows that mindfulness eating can be an effective intervention for type 2 diabetes, and it can assist with weight loss and reduce binge eating.

- Mindful eating can help food can become more pleasurable. “It offers some physical, mental and emotional freedom,” says Mills. “It’s empowering, because you become the master of your own body.”

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When mindful eating goes wrong

Let’s not fool ourselves. Eating food slowly while thinking about it won’t necessarily solve all your issues or create world peace.

If you pressure yourself to achieve a perfect life simply because you practice mindful eating, you might end up creating a more problematic lifestyle than initially intended.

“When you put a ‘weight focus’ in front of it, all of those benefits get waylaid,” says Mills. “You’re putting expectations on what will happen, and if those things don’t happen then you think you’re a failure.”

There are potential dangers for some people, too. “People with perfectionist tendencies or who have had an eating disorder might use it outside its intended purpose. When you use it as a way to control your eating, you turn it into ‘the mindful eating diet’ and you stay stuck in that ‘diet’ mindset.”

“The ability to eat intuitively, or mindfully, is already within us and it’s about tapping back into it.”

Eating has always been a cultural activity; whether mindful eating could become an important part of Australia’s eating culture, or whether it’s simply a fad, remains to be seen.

Mills believes it isn’t just a fad, though. “A baby knows when it’s hungry and when it’s full; we’re born with that intuition. We lose that as we get older and external influences come into play – you don’t get dessert until you’ve eaten your vegetables, for example.”

“The ability to eat intuitively, or mindfully, is already within us and it’s about tapping back into it.”

How to eat mindfully (without it becoming a pressure)

Mills suggests the following strategy for successfully eating mindfully:

- Let go of the ‘diet’ mindset

- There’s no right or wrong way to eat mindfully, so let go of the perfectionism

- Realise that if you eat junk food or feel sick from eating too fast, you haven’t failed at mindful eating – you’ve just learnt something

- Start small, perhaps with one meal at the dining table instead of in front of the TV this week

- Be gentle with yourself: changing behaviours is hard

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