Our resident expert, Dr Francis Quinn (lecturer in Psychology, School of Applied Social Studies), writes about the difference between eating mindfully, or mindlessly, and how to recognise the difference:
What we eat, and how much, comes as much from our minds as the body. Eating is a behaviour, and research in health psychology (the science of mind and behaviour as it relates to health) has found many factors that affect our eating that have little to do with being hungry. It is a product of our beliefs about foods, mental processes such as planning and self-control, learned associations that each food has from childhood or adulthood, the cultural, family and personal meanings we give food, and ways we have learned to use (or mis-use) food for purposes other than nutrition – such as to escape from or deal with difficult feelings or stress (1).
Many people eat at the same time as another activity, such as watching TV, talking to someone, or watching a movie. When eating on autopilot and distracted by TV or conversation, we easily lose touch with the sensations within us. These include reasons for eating (e.g. for reasons other than nutrition), taste, and the satiety signals our body sends that tell us we do not need to eat any more. This mindless eating parallels how many of us live much of our lives. Unless an experience is novel or purposely savoured, we are often on autopilot, not paying much attention nor having much awareness of our everyday experiences.
Research shows that, when eating mindlessly, people eat more than they need (2) partly because we don’t notice these signals of taste and fullness, and because we eat when we don’t need to for nutrition (e.g. to escape from emotions or stress). It also makes us eat more later on because we don’t remember how much we ate earlier. In one study, participants were given a free lunch while watching TV, or in a quiet room (chosen at random). A few hours later they were asked about their memory of the lunch, how much they ate, and how vividly they remembered. They were also left with cookies. Those given the TV lunch did not remember how much they ate as accurately or as vividly, and also ate significantly more cookies (3).
There is an opposite – we can learn to re-engage with the experience of eating: from automatic, mindless eating to being conscious and aware. Health psychologists call this mindful eating. Mindfulness is a way of being that has been researched extensively in the past ten to twenty years, and found to be associated with numerous benefits to health and well-being (physical and psychological). It involves cultivating a full awareness of all our experiencing (internal and external), accepting and focused on each present moment. This way of being can be developed by mindfulness meditation, which involves learning to direct our attention to “observe thoughts, emotions and other present-moment experience, without judging or reacting to them” (4). Programmes that develop mindful eating can have major effects on eating patterns of people who consistently overeat or who eat primarily for emotional reasons, as well as for people who are obese (5). But all of us can benefit.
Although mindfulness is not a quick fix and takes time to develop, you can start in a small way by paying more attention to food. One strategy is to turn off the TV and to purposely focus on what you are eating. It can help to put down the knife and fork between bites, to allow you to focus on the taste and flavour of the food, your feelings about eating it, and your internal sensations. When you notice your body telling you that you can stop, that is a good time to stop (whether you have cleared the plate or not – we tend to eat everything on our plate even if the portion size is too large, as it often is).
Personally I have been trying to eat mindfully with ice cream. I feel happy and satisfied without eating so much, and I enjoy it more. But it applies equally to mundane, everyday foods. So next time you have a meal or snack, try to focus your full attention on it. You don’t need the TV, or the internet, or anything to read. If you have good food, you and it are all you need.
Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful Eating: How to really enjoy your meal. [Blog post]. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindful-eating/200902/mindful-eating
Novotney, A. (2012). Bite, Chew, Savor [magazine article]. APA Monitor on Psychology, 43 (10), 42-44. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/bite-chew.aspx
In addition, there are a number of books about Mindful Eating, including Mindful Eating for Dummies by Laura Dawn (2014), among others.
- Ogden, J. (2010). Psychology of Eating (2nd ). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Stroebele, N. & de Castro, J. M. (2006). Listening to music while eating is related to increases in people’s food intake and duration. Appetite, 47 (3), 285-289. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2006.04.001
- Higgs, S. & Woodward, M. (2009). Television watching during lunch increases afternoon snack intake of young women. Appetite, 52 (1), 39-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2008.07.007
- Mindulness (2007) – APA Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- O’Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D. &Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15 (6), 453-461.