In recent years, mindful eating has become increasingly popular. In many cases, it is discussed or presented as a strategy that is inherently linked, or even synonymous, with intuitive eating. In other cases, it is framed as being an alternative to structured diets or macro tracking. So, what’s the deal with mindful eating?
Mindful eating versus intuitive eating
First, it’s important to clarify that mindful eating and intuitive eating are not the same thing, and do not necessarily need to be implemented in combination with one another.
According to a systematic review by Grider and colleagues, intuitive eating is “eating with an intentional focus on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than external cues to guide intake.” They further explain that these external cues can include “emotions, food availability, seeing or smelling food, social settings where eating is encouraged or the norm, serving sizes, or food packaging.” These researchers also explain that intuitive eating seeks to train an individual “to focus on responding to physical sensations in order to determine the body’s needs.”
Mindful eating is neither the same nor the opposite of intuitive eating; it is a separate and distinct concept altogether. Grider and colleagues define mindful eating as “the act of paying attention to food during consumption, and having awareness and focusing on the experience with food.” An alternative definition provided by Joseph B. Nelson is “paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment,” which frames mindful eating as “an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food.” Nelson further clarifies that “the intention [of mindful eating] is to help individuals savor the moment and the food and encourage their full presence for the eating experience.”
Clearly, these concepts are not mutually exclusive; there is some degree of conceptual overlap, and they can be (and often are) implemented in combination with one another. However, they are distinct strategies; mindful eating can be used as a standalone strategy, or in combination with dietary strategies other than intuitive eating.
How does mindful eating actually work?
Many books and articles have been written on the topic, but it’s sometimes easier to understand mindful eating by beginning with an example rather than an in-depth explanation. Fortunately, a peer-reviewed article by Joseph B. Nelson provides a step-by-step of mindfully eating a raisin, which I will quote below:
- Get a raisin and set it down in front of you. STOP; do not throw a handful of raisins into your mouth.
- Imagine you have just been dropped off on this planet, and you know nothing about where you are. You have never experienced anything from Earth. With no experience, there are no judgments, fears, or expectations. It is all new to you. Take a few deep breaths and relax.
- Look at the raisin and pick it up.
- Feel its weight.
- Examine its surface—the various ridges, shiny parts, dull parts; really look for the first time at this strange object.
- Smell this object and notice how you react.
- Roll the raisin between your fingers and listen to hear what sound it makes. Notice its stickiness.
- Notice what you are feeling about this object.
- Place the raisin between your lips and just hold it there for a few moments. What do you notice happens inside you?
- Let it roll back into your mouth, but do not chew yet, just roll it around. Is there a taste? Do you salivate? What do you want to do?
- OK, bite down, just once. What do you notice?
- Slowly begin to chew, noticing what each bite brings.
- Chew the raisin until it is completely liquefied before you swallow.
- After swallowing, close your eyes for a few moments to notice the consequence of what you just experienced.
Note that this is not an explicit “instruction manual” for mindful eating. It is merely an illustrative example, rather than the only correct way to implement mindful eating. The general idea is that mindful eating is a very focused form of eating. The purpose is to eat in a non-distracted manner, while intentionally directing your full attention to a number of pertinent focal points. For example, what is your current emotional experience? Are you eating because you’re hungry, because you’re stressed, or because you’re seeking an enjoyable flavor? How does your body feel at this exact moment? What are the physical characteristics of the food? Where did the food come from? Note that this last question goes far deeper than a store, restaurant, or country of origin – what did the process look like for soil, rain, and sunlight to combine to grow a grape, for someone to pick that grape, for that grape to be made into a raisin, and for that raisin to find its way into your hand?
It’s very possible that this approach to eating, and even thinking, feels very unfamiliar to you. For full context, mindful eating is derived from the broader concept of mindfulness, which is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” The roots of contemporary secular mindfulness practices are most directly traced back to Buddhist teachings, and have a great deal of overlap with practices in the Zen school of Buddhism. A deep dive into Buddhist philosophies and perspectives are far beyond the scope of this article, but those who wish to develop a richer and deeper understanding of mindful eating might consider digging into Zen Buddhism.
Within the Zen Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is applied to much more than eating; there are practices pertaining to mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful sitting, and even mindful dishwashing. Mindfulness practice is always anchored by mindfulness of something, and that “something” can be whatever you happen to be doing – mindfulness is viewed as a state of mind and quality of focus that can be applied to virtually all aspects of life. Within this context, mindful eating (or “mindfulness of eating”) is merely one small application of a broader set of mindfulness practices.
Is mindful eating a weight loss strategy?
By definition, no. However, some folks suggest that you can’t use mindful eating in conjunction with an intentional weight loss plan. This is categorically untrue.
We have previously mentioned papers by Grider and colleagues and by Nelson. When discussing mindful eating, Grider states: “The intent is not weight loss or to restrict intake; however, it is believed that if one is mindful of their food experience and consumption, the result can be that awareness of how food makes one feel increases, which can lead to the selection of healthier options.” Along similar lines, Nelson states that “The purpose of mindful eating is not to lose weight, although it is highly likely that those who adopt this style of eating will lose weight.”
Moving beyond the peer reviewed scientific literature, one of my favorite books about mindful eating is called “Savor,” written by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung. Thich Nhat Hanh was a world-renowned Zen Master and Buddhist monk, broadly recognized as the “father of mindfulness.” Dr. Cheung is a registered dietitian, in addition to serving as the director of mindfulness research & practice at Harvard’s Department of Nutrition. In short, their perspectives on mindful eating carry a little more weight than your average fitness influencer.
So, does their book shun the idea of intentional weight loss and offer up mindful eating as a totally contradictory alternative? Absolutely not. For example, one section of Chapter 5 bears the subheading, “To Control Your Weight, Calories Matter.” It explicitly discusses intentional dietary changes one can make to lower their daily energy intake and get to a body weight that lowers their risk of chronic diseases.
It is important to acknowledge these perspectives about whether or not mindful eating can be implemented in the context of intentional weight loss. However, these perspectives don’t provide the empirical evidence required to conclusively assert that mindful eating actually helps with weight loss.
When it comes to the direct scientific evidence, the effects of mindful eating on weight loss are a bit mixed. For example, a meta-analysis by Artiles et al concluded that mindful and/or intuitive eating interventions (note: as previously mentioned, these probably shouldn’t have been combined and treated synonymously) reduced body weight as much as traditional diet strategies did, while a systematic review by Katterman et al concluded that mindfulness-based interventions (which included, but were not limited to mindful eating specifically) had inconclusive effects on weight loss.
Mindful eating was not specifically designed to induce considerable weight loss, and the available research suggests that mindful eating is unlikely to be an extremely effective stand-alone weight loss intervention. Nonetheless, as we can infer from the “mixed” findings, there are documented instances in which mindful eating interventions have induced some degree of weight loss. It’s possible that mindful eating may sometimes facilitate weight loss by encouraging a slower rate of eating, which tends to lead to an unintentional reduction in energy intake. Eating more slowly may give satiety-related hormones more time to convey messages about fullness to the brain before higher calorie intakes are achieved, influence our attentional focus or memory related to food ingestion, or enable us to more fully experience the flavors and aromas of the meal, thereby promoting a greater sense of satisfaction.
Mindful eating strategies may also facilitate an acceptance-based approach to weight management, hunger management, and dietary restraint. Research indicates that acceptance-based approaches to weight control, which involve placing “more emphasis on private experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations,” tend to be quite effective. Rather than trying to change or avoid these experiences, acceptance-based approaches encourage people to “change one′s relationship to them in such a way that the individual can more fully pursue values-based living.”
For an example, let’s consider hunger. Rather than fearing hunger, aggressively avoiding hunger, or catastrophizing when hunger is present, a dieter can mindfully acknowledge the presence of hunger while continuing to eat in a manner that is consistent with their values and priorities. For another example, the arrival of a food craving might be quite stressful to a dieter. However, with an acceptance-based approach to dietary restraint, they can calmly acknowledge and accept the presence of that craving, without allowing it to steer them away from goal-directed dietary choices that are more consistent with their values and priorities.
This general approach has clear parallels to mindful eating, which encourages eaters to become more aware of the sensory properties of food, their internal body sensations, and cues related to eating, while accepting cravings and food-related thoughts and simultaneously decentering themselves from the cravings and food-related thoughts they experience. Such an approach enables the dieter to make important and empowering realizations. For example:
I am experiencing hunger, but it is a temporary experience, and it does not define or control me. I can act upon this experience if I wish to, but I am also free to let it pass.
I am experiencing a food craving, but it is a temporary experience, and it does not define or control me. I can act upon this experience if I wish to, but I am also free to let it pass.
In fact, a published review about acceptance-based weight control strategies discusses mindfulness as a key component, and even includes “mindfulness” as one of only five keywords associated with the article. The mechanisms by which mindful eating may facilitate passive (unintentional) weight loss are presented in Figure 1.
So, mindful eating is not for weight loss, but it may indeed result in weight loss, and there’s nothing wrong with explicitly using mindful eating as part of a well-rounded and comprehensive approach to weight loss. But if mindful eating isn’t for weight loss, what exactly is it for?
What is the intended purpose of mindful eating interventions?
That depends who you ask. If you ask a Zen Buddhist, they might reply that being mindful of the present moment (whether you’re mindfully eating, walking, or breathing) is an inherently beneficial practice for its own sake, which allows us to live life more fully, more clearly, and more deeply from moment to moment. If you ask a nutritionist, dietitian, or psychologist with expertise in eating behavior, they might reply that mindful eating can have beneficial effects pertaining to behavioral and psychological elements of eating, and may help people improve their relationship with food.
Looking at the scientific evidence, mindful eating does appear to elicit a whole host of beneficial psychological effects. For example, a systematic review by Katterman and colleagues indicated that mindfulness-based eating interventions led to reductions in binge eating and emotional eating. In another systematic review, Yu and colleagues reported that mindfulness-based eating interventions were associated with reductions in emotional eating, external eating, binge eating, weight and shape concern, along with potential improvements related to self-acceptance and emotional regulation. Mindfulness-based interventions are also associated with positive changes related to eating behaviors, depression, anxiety, eating attitudes, body mass index, and metacognition outcomes, according to a meta-analysis by Rogers and colleagues. One researcher has also speculated that mindful eating may alleviate stress-induced digestive issues, but more research is needed to rigorously test this hypothesis.
In summary, there is scientific evidence suggesting that mindfulness-based eating interventions can positively impact several psychological outcomes related to eating. Weight loss might occur during a mindful eating intervention, and mindful eating can be used as a supplementary component of a broader weight loss program in order to bolster the efficacy of the program and facilitate better outcomes for participants. However, mindful eating is not explicitly designed as a weight loss intervention, nor is weight loss the primary purpose. Rather, mindfulness-based eating strategies are most effective for improving psychological and behavioral aspects of eating, which may improve an individual’s relationship with food and make self-regulation of dietary habits more feasible and less unpleasant.
Can mindful eating and macro tracking co-exist?
On one hand, you might argue that macro tracking (in combination with weight tracking) is “allowed” for mindful eaters because the definition of mindful eating doesn’t explicitly forbid macro tracking. However, the decision to simultaneously implement macro tracking and mindful eating does not require tiptoeing around definitions or seeking out loopholes for justification.
For example, let’s go back to “Savor,” written by two authorities on the concept of mindful eating. If they merely mentioned that calories matter and that weight loss goals are okay to pursue while neglecting to discuss food tracking or calorie tracking, one might be compelled to insist that this “leaves an opening” for macro tracking. But we don’t even need to work that hard to justify dietary tracking practices in combination with mindful eating – the concept is openly and explicitly embraced within the book. The following excerpts can be found on page 201 of the paperback edition:
“Research has shown that monitoring and tracking one’s weight can help people lose weight as well as maintain their weight, so weigh yourself every morning or once a week to know your weight. Recording one’s eating and physical activity has also been reported to be strongly associated with weight control.”
“Use your daily mindful living log to track your progress… You can also do this yourself online. Many websites offer online food diaries that automatically calculate your calorie intake.”
Categorically and unequivocally, it is inaccurate to suggest that mindful eating and macro tracking are incompatible or can’t be mixed.
As noted previously, evidence suggests that mindful eating can have very positive effects on psychological and behavioral aspects of eating. In addition, evidence indicates that self-monitoring of weight-related metrics and behaviors is helpful for weight management. While many are concerned that tracking calories or embarking on an intentional weight loss program will have adverse psychological effects, research casts doubt on these assumptions (one, two), provided that the individual is using a well-designed tracking tool, is participating in a well-designed weight loss program, is implementing flexible cognitive restraint (more on that here), and does not have a predisposition to disordered eating symptoms or clinically relevant body image concerns.
With these factors in mind, a combined approach that incorporates both macro tracking and mindful eating isn’t merely permissible, but might even be an ideal approach for some individuals.
What does it actually look like when mindful eating and macro tracking co-exist?
When you implement macro tracking, you make note of the foods you eat and the size of the portions you consume. You may be strategically aiming for certain macronutrient or calorie targets, or you might be tracking for purely descriptive purposes (that is, documenting what you eat, but not aiming for a predetermined set of targets). When you incorporate mindful eating, none of this would change.
The inclusion of mindful eating pertains exclusively to the process and experience of actually eating the meal. You consider the conditions, resources, and people necessary for the food to make its way to your plate or bowl, which often elicits a sense of deep gratitude. You focus on savoring the flavors, textures, and aromas of the meal. You take stock of how pleasant it feels to take a flavorful bite of food and to nourish your body with the nutrients it needs. Before and during the meal, you take extra time to evaluate how you’re feeling, both physically and emotionally.
By engaging in this practice, you learn a great deal about which of your dietary habits are helpful, and which ones are a bit counterproductive in terms of enjoying your meals, nourishing your body, feeling great, and meeting your goals. For example, you might find that certain foods are too unpalatable to enjoy, while others are too hyperpalatable for you to regulate your intake effectively. You might find that certain emotional states cause you to over-consume, to under-consume, or to shift your food selection to options that are less compatible with your goals. You might find that you feel fantastic after eating certain foods, and very bad after eating others. Similarly, you might feel that certain foods or portion sizes leave you feeling undernourished, while others make you feel uncomfortably full or sluggish in the hours after a meal. You might find that certain rates of eating or distractions in the eating environment meaningfully impact your dietary intakes or your ability to fully enjoy a meal.
These are all very helpful observations to make while eating, and are fully separate from the decision to track dietary intakes. There is no reason to believe that tracking macros would detract from one’s ability to incorporate mindful eating. In fact, dietary tracking provides access to more quantifiable information about a given meal, which might facilitate additional insights that would be inaccessible without this objective numerical data. However, this isn’t merely a one-way street in which tracking can facilitate greater insights from mindful eating. Conversely, mindful eating can lead to helpful insights that inform the eating behaviors of someone who tracks their diet.
For example, imagine you’re a mindful eater who starts to incorporate macro tracking. While you were previously able to interpret subjective experiences pertaining to your dietary habits, you’ve introduced a method to make quantitative assessments about how certain eating environments, mood states, food choices, and subjective experiences impact your diet.
Alternatively, imagine you’re someone who tracks their diet observationally (that is, you track what you eat, but you don’t intentionally aim for specific targets throughout the day). In this scenario, you have access to quantified dietary data, but you lack the subjective context of how these numbers are being influenced by things like eating environments, mood states, food choices, and the overall subjective experience of eating. In this scenario, the implementation of mindful eating gives you a more contextualized, comprehensive, and well-rounded picture of your own dietary habits. As a result, the subjective data obtained from mindful eating can inform more nuanced insights pertaining to quantitative aspects of your diet.
Finally, imagine you’re someone who tracks their diet and aims for specific, pre-planned calorie or macro targets each day. You might notice that it’s easier to hit your macros on some days, but much harder than others. Or, you might notice that certain food choices make it easier to hit your macros, and others make it substantially harder. The decision to implement mindful eating may facilitate more nuanced insights about how certain eating environments, mood states, or food choices impact the ease or consistency with which you hit your daily targets. You might also come to find that, based on your subjective experiences, it would be advisable to revise your dietary targets to make them more suitable or appropriate for your needs. In this scenario, the subjective data obtained from mindful eating can inform quantitative dietary adjustments.
From these three quick examples, we see scenarios in which macro tracking can facilitate mindful eating, and mindful eating can facilitate macro tracking. These two strategies are not merely compatible, but can even be synergistic in nature. As summarized in Figure 2, observations derived from mindful eating can provide subjective data to inform quantitative dietary insights, while observations derived from macro tracking can provide objective data to inform qualitative dietary insights.
Summary and conclusions
Mindful eating is often conflated with intuitive eating, and it is frequently argued that mindful eating and macro tracking are mutually exclusive. By looking more deeply at what mindful eating is, where it comes from, and how it is actually implemented, we can clearly see that this is not the case; mindful eating is distinct from intuitive eating, and there is no reason to believe that mindful eating cannot be incorporated into a dietary approach that includes macro tracking. In fact, mindful eating and macro tracking can be quite synergistic, as they serve different (but complementary) purposes. Mindful eating is an evidence-based strategy that may have beneficial effects pertaining to behavioral and psychological elements of eating and improving one’s relationship with food. Macro tracking is an evidence-based strategy that appears to effectively facilitate weight management and achievement of specific dietary goals. Furthermore, the subjective data derived from mindful eating can inform quantitative insights related to macro tracking, while the objective data derived from macro tracking can inform qualitative insights related to mindful eating. Why choose one when you can easily utilize both?