Mindfulness can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. Mindfulness can be practiced either through meditation or other methods which enhance one’s awareness of the present. Mindfulness has been associated with a myriad of health benefits. Cancer patients and people suffering from other ailments such as depression, anxiety, etc. have been found to benefit from mindfulness practices.
A mindfulness meditation session can be structured thus: the agent closes their eyes and sits in a comfortable position. Then the agent is nudged to focus only on their own natural breathing cycle, without purposefully trying to influence it in any way. Even as distracting thoughts occur, the individual is prompted to recognize these thoughts without judgment and return to focusing on their breath. The focus on the now and here, through repeated practice can help the agent deal with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia and other such ailments. Mindfulness is a “process-oriented” practice instead of an “outcome-oriented” one.
This means that theoretically, mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and at any time, eyes closed or open, during lunch or while working.
Food diets traditionally emphasize an outcome, such as weight loss. But these diets are harder to sustain over a long period of time for many people because of the delay in results – they are effective in the short term but long term effectiveness is doubtful because people are unlikely to continue on a diet path unless they see concrete results early on.
Mindful eating does not focus exclusively on weight loss, or any other outcome. It is similar in nature to mindful meditation; it focuses on the sensual experience of eating food without particular regard to caloric intake, protein concentration, etc. Savoring the flavor of the food and being present with it is the aim of mindful eating. The agent purposefully and consciously chooses the food they eat and relishes it. The whole body is engaged in the single act of eating — how the body feels before and after consuming the food, the texture of the food and its effects on the tongue, nose, throat, etc, and the emotions that the food evokes.
This leads to the chances of overeating reducing substantially while also choosing foods which are in line with the agent’s health because of the heightened awareness of what they are consuming and the effects their consumption has on themselves.
As Nelson points out, while studies were not able to conclusively establish a link between mindful eating and weight loss, there is still a strong correlation. Besides, the goal of mindful eating is on the present moment and not on a future outcome.
Mindful eating also differs from “conscious eating”. There are no strict guidelines such as “chew 32 times before swallowing” or “don’t watch TV while eating”. It involves having a presence of mind when eating food. Naturally, this is a subjective experience and each person’s experience of mindful eating will be different from another’s.
What is engaged when eating food is almost all of the senses: touching, seeing, hearing, tasting and this is what is emphasized
These are the properties of mindfulness, as Nelson describes: non judging, patience,a beginner’s mind, trust, non striving, acceptance and letting go.
- Non-judging: This refers to the state of mind one is in when being mindful – they are receptive to new experiences, both good and bad and remain neutral in their judgments of them.
- Patience: In mindful eating, the food that is being consumed is pondered over, thinking about its origins, its taste and texture, its girth, its thickness, etc. Each of these individual aspects of the food is mulled over.
- Beginner’s mind: The food ceases to be viewed with previous experience, instead the agent discovers the food for the first time, letting go of all preconceptions.
- Trust: The nonjudgement involved regarding the experience also allows for self-trust to blossom. The agent accepts the body’s response to the food as it is and validates it.
- Non-striving: There isn’t a specific goal that is sought after, unlike in a traditional diet where the reason for the diet is to reduce weight, lower blood sugar, etc. The process of tasting and enjoying the food is what is important for mindful eating.
- Acceptance: Whether mindful eating resulted in a positive experience, i.e enjoying the taste and the texture or a negative experience, not enjoying the experience are both given equal weightage and both validated. There isn’t a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to feel after mindful eating
- Letting go: This involves letting go of previous associations the agent might have had with the food, i.e a raisin might evoke memories of a lonely childhood. These feelings are acknowledged, but let go in the end in favor of the new relation that the present moment offers to the agent with the food.
What undergirds mindfulness is a mindset of tabula rasa, a blank slate. The agent is required to arrive at the plate with no expectations and memories of the food antecedent to the present. This strips away the preconceived notions of food that the individual might have and opens up a pathway to experience the food free from expectations. Negative and positive experiences that the agent might have with the food at hand is to be received non-judgmentally. This enables thoughtful eating – it allows one to ponder about the origins of the food, who prepared it and how it was prepared. This allows for a deeper and more meaningful connection to what one eats.
Mindless eating on the other hand, which does not involve any focused attention on the food being consumed such as eating while watching television, while driving or while working is associated with a variety of risks such as obesity and depression.
There has been research surrounding the effectiveness of mindful eating to combat eating disorders. Although it does not necessarily help with weight loss, the studies found that participants stopped eating after they felt full and the quantity that they consumed also was lesser.
Another group consisting of obese women incorporated mindfulness practices into their dieting against a control group which didn’t. Over 12 months, the group which practiced mindful eating had a decreased intake of sweets and a maintenance of fasting blood sugar against the control group.
A group of subjects who had type-2 diabetes were subject to a mindful eating intervention and another ‘diabetic-self-management education’ focused on improving food choices. Both groups after 3 months reported significant improvements in their depression, nutrition self-efficacy and controlling overeating. Both groups also reported weight loss but there was no significant difference between the groups.
Mindful eating is open-ended. It is not a one size fits all solution, but there is research to show that it is indeed beneficial. It can also be used in conjunction with other programmes.
Student of Philosophy
Azim Premji University, Bangalore