What do your cravings feel like? Like you’re out of control? Like nothing else will cut it? Do they actually feel like hunger? Sometimes what we think is hunger is really just our body needing a release from a negative feeling. But a new field of study on an ancient technique is showing promise for uncoupling our urges from our spoons. Mindfulness training, specifically mindful eating, might just be the tool we need to kick cravings and emotional eating to the curb.
First, how can we define mindfulness?Mindfulness is, put simply, the practice of placing your attention on the present moment. This involves both internal and external experiences – the signals picked up by your senses as well as the state of your emotions and thoughts. Yes, your thoughts! Often, we associate the word mindfulness with meditation, and meditation with the act of clearing our minds. But, in fact, this conception misses the mark.
By acknowledging stimuli around us, we can inherently be rooted in the present moment – focusing our attention on things happening right now keeps us from anticipating the future or dwelling on the past. And with that, we become able to accept the present moment as it is – without judgment or expectation.
So, how can we harness mindfulness at the table (or while we stare into the fridge) to beat mindless eating and unexplained cravings? Let’s dig in.
Well, why do we eat mindlessly?As humans, we adapt according to positive and negative reinforcement: We experience a trigger (restlessness, stress, cravings), we behave in response to that trigger (scroll through social media, go on a rant, eat), and get rewarded for that behavior (momentary relief of the triggering emotion). Our brain then learns that when we experience any trigger, certain behaviors make us feel better. Thus, the relationship between all three becomes stronger over time.
This feedback loop is strong especially strong when food is involved. Research shows that eating is excellent at triggering the part of our brain which signals reward and silencing the part that's responsible for stress.1 So, our brain learns that eating heals all! Sad? Eat. Annoyed? Eat. Stressed? Definitely, eat. It's therefore no wonder that many of us easily get sucked into cravings when we experience negative emotions – we've evolutionarily taught our bodies that, if we feel bad, we'll feel better if we eat.
How to make mealtime mindfulThe key to breaking the spell of emotional or mindless eating is breaking the feedback loop. And how do we do this? Well, we work to decouple the trigger – stress, restlessness, etc – with eating. And this can be done by becoming consciously aware of our triggers, which is where mindfulness practice comes into play. Here are a few priming steps to set yourself up for a satisfying, mindful meal.
1. Explore feelings and emotion with curiosity
When you feel the onset of negative emotion (or any trigger), acknowledge its presence without judgment. As we curiously explore our triggers, we can start to dig down and uncover their sources. If you find yourself mid-craving, take a moment to acknowledge the sensation. Is it really hunger, or is it something else, like stress? When we face our uncomfortable feelings, we can get a better understanding of what our bodies and minds actually need, like a good night's sleep or some fresh air.
2. Set your environment with intention
How often do you eat without distraction? No screen, no multitasking, Preparing our environment for the act of eating can help ground us in the present moment and the experience of a meal; often times, mindless eating goes hand-in-hand with distractions that pull us away from the present.
The simple step of sitting down at a table may be exactly what's needed to help you transition from emotional eating at the kitchen counter to taking bites with intention. It helps us function purposefully instead out of reflex to momentary feelings. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, and redirect your focus on your plate. You may find that you get fuller faster or that unhealthy foods aren't as satisfying as you once thought when you truly pay attention to what it feels like to eat them.
3. Be gentle with yourself
Like any changes we make for our health, nothing is going to stick overnight. Mindful eating isn't a destination, it's a practice which will take a lifetime to develop. So, if you do cross the line and overeat, return to your mindfulness practice. How do you feel in that moment? If you feel uncomfortable and too-full, make a mental note (or a real one!) about the sensations you're feeling – stomach pain, clammy, tired, etc. As you become acquainted with the real physical experiences that come with overeating, research shows you're on the track towards kicking the habit that got you there.
Using mindfulness for cravings and weight lossThe leading researcher on this topic, Dr. Judson Brewer, author and Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, doesn't qualify mindful eating as a weight loss tool. Instead, he says, it's a method for "changing our relationship to eating," of which weight loss is a beneficial side-effect.2
In fact, many different mindfulness practices can help you reach your weight loss goals. Both general mindfulness training and explicit meditation training have resulted in significant weight loss and reduction of binge and emotional eating.3,4,5 We can become disenchanted with the habit of overeating because, when we're mindful of how we feel when we get too full, it becomes clearer that it's really not a good feeling. If you're someone who eats when they're stressed, mindfulness practice as a whole – not just mindful eating – can be especially useful for you.
Watch Dr. Brewer's TED Talk on using mindfulness to break bad habits below.