The Benefits of Slow, Mindful Eating

Eating on the ComputerGulping down breakfast while driving to work?  Eating lunch over your computer keyboard? Devouring dinner in front of the 6 p.m. TV News?  Proud of yourself for your efficient use of time?  Yes, I know. You’ve been told that multi-tasking is the key to success in this busy world.  But, if one of the tasks involved is eating, you may be making a mistake.  No, it’s not because eating will distract you from doing the task correctly (though maybe it will) ;  rather, it’s because, according to recent research and ancient philosophy, distraction interferes with getting maximum benefits from eating.  It could be called “mindless eating,” as opposed to the “mindful eating” recommended by both nutritionists and Buddhists. 


Let’s start with a study recently published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and later described in the April issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  A total of 44 participants (half in the experimental group and half in the control group) were given the same meal for lunch.  However, one group was instructed to play online solitaire while eating and the other group just ate.  Here were the not-so-surprising results: The game players ate more had more trouble remembering details about what they ate, and were more likely to be hungry later and crave a snack.  Although this was a small sample, the results suggest that dieters especially would be better off concentrating on what they’re eating.


Now, what about the philosophy involved in this advice?  The February 2011 issue of the Harvard Health Letter ran an article entitled “Mindful Eating” and subtitled,  “Slow down, you’re eating too fast.  Distracted, hurried eating may add pounds and take away pleasure.”  According to this article, “a slower, more thoughtful way of eating could help with weight problems and maybe steer some people away from processed food and other less-healthful choices.”


The idea of mindful eating comes from the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, living totally in the moment and being conscious of and focused upon what is happening within your body and in your immediate surroundings.  In terms of eating, it means noticing the taste, scents, colors, and textures of your food, avoiding distractions, and learning to cope with angry feelings of guilt or anxiety about what you’re consuming. 


Though multi-taskers, in a rush to get the most possible living out of every minute, are bound to hate this suggestion, eating more slowly has advantages, says the Harvard Health Letter.  For one thing, it takes about 20 minutes after eating before the brain registers a feeling of fullness. People who eat quickly may tend to overeat.  Secondly, the article says that eating quickly may slow down digestion which may lead to poor absorption of the nutritive value of the food. In fact, several studies have shown that the strategies of mindful eating might help patients conquer eating disorders or lose weight.


As a multi-tasker and chronic speed-eater, I have some difficulty picturing these slow, silent, thoughtful meals.  First of all, who in the world gets through lunch or dinner without distractions?  In a restaurant or cafeteria, there are distractions galore. At home, crises that disrupt tranquility occur with regularity. The soup runs all over the burners.  The phone rings to bring bad news, the kids throw peas at one another, each family member recites his/her great misery of the day, an argument about something or other ensues, the dog jumps up and grabs the roast.  These are typical joyous interruptions of family dinner time.


 On the other hand, the person who lives and often dines alone may find that lonely; the solution, of course, is to watch TV or read a magazine to consume information and enjoy companionship along with the meal.  So who is it that’s eating in blissful solitude contemplating the color and crunchiness of each bite? I defy anyone who’s not a hermit to be a mindful diner all the time. But, no doubt, it can be done for a few meals a week or even one meal a day. At any rate, it’s unfair to say it doesn’t work without at least giving it a try.


The Harvard Health Letter has these suggestions for the person who wants to strive for leisurely, meditative eating: 


- Set a timer, and force yourself to take 20 minutes to eat a normal-sized meal. (Seems to me it’s easier to eat slowly if you’re engaged in conversation. But, of course, conversation is a distraction.)


- Eat with your non-dominant hand.  (What will that do to my cleaning bill?)


- Use chopsticks instead of a fork.  (That should work.  I’ve never seen a fat Asian except for a sumo wrestler.)


- Eat in silence and contemplate the food on your table. (Like the Christmas colors in my lettuce- and-tomato salad?)


- Take small bites and chew them well. (In the hilarious 1949 film Sitting Pretty, Clifton Webb advises chewing each mouthful 27 times.  I’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.  The food disappears down the throat around chew 15.)


Many studies are underway testing the effectiveness of techniques for using mindful eating to lose weight and keep it off. If you want to learn more about this and other benefits of undistracted eating, check out these print and online materials as well as the ones listed as my sources for this article. 


- Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, a 2010 book by Lilian Cheung, (nutritionist and lecturer at Harvard School of Public Health, and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.


- The Center for Mindful Eating (an organization that offers classes, workshops, and retreats)


- Psychology Today “Mindful Eating: Rediscovering a Joyful Relationship with Food”




Consumer Reports on Health, April, 2011


Harvard Health Letter “Mindful eating” February 2011


You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.