The coronavirus pandemic and associated lock downs have caused seismic shifts in the way we all shop, eat, cook and think about food. Consumer trends such as stockpiling, the renaissance in scratch cooking and baking, the spike in use of home delivered take-away apps and an increase in in-home snacking may be transient but some may be here to stay. The reaction to COVID-19 has prompted some to adopt a healthier diet and lifestyle whereas for others, the temptations and boredom of being at home has led to greater indulgences.
In a BDA public survey (15 May 2020 to 22 May 2020), 130 people shared their stories of how the pandemic has impacted on food and eating in households. In reviewing the comments, BDA officers questioned whether these experiences will lead us to make a new relationship with food and public health. The survey recorded attitudes to the nation’s food habits in terms of the psychology of food. Comments seem to have prioritised food as a comfort, affording an outdated ‘naughty but nice’ mentality during lockdown rather than food culture which nourishes our bodies and minds.
Given the varied shifts in attitudes and behaviours related to food, dietitians and other health professionals have a significant opportunity to provide practical behavioural based guidance where mindful eating has been shown to be an effective approach.
Mindful eating is focused not just on what we eat but raises our awareness of appropriate portions, how we eat and why. Moreover, mindful eating is clinically proven to lead to healthier eating habits and to a more positive relationship with food. This article sets out the emerging evidence base, the key benefits and a practical overview.
Mindful eating is a relevant and universal approach. More and more people are using mindfulness for well-being and to balance their lifestyle, with downloads of mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm increasing five-fold during the first month of the pandemic. The application of mindfulness to eating, so called “mindful eating”,(1 - see references below) can be practised by anyone, anywhere, and by all ages… even during lock-down and beyond! Moreover, mindful eating is weight-inclusive, meaning it is appropriate to all weight profiles while losing weight is not the ultimate goal.2
Because of the positive impact the approach of mindful eating can have, many dietary guidelines now include its behavioural principles to promote overall health. For example, in Germany, mindful eating is included in national dietary guidelines and that by eating slowly and consciously there is a greater enjoyment and promotion of the sense of satiation.3 In Canada’s food guide, being mindful of your eating habits while taking time to eat, noticing when you are hungry and when you are full and enjoying the taste of your food are recommendations included to develop healthy eating habits.4
Mindfulness as a principle is at the heart of Buddhism practice. It can be defined as paying attention to the present moment or purpose while being non-judgmental on thoughts and feelings.5
Historically, the arrival of mindfulness is attributed to Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn. This Professor of Medicine Emeritus was among the first to investigate mind/body interactions in medicine adapting traditional Buddhist principles of mindfulness. He developed a programme to treat chronic pain and stress-related diseases, called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) in the late 1970s.5, 6
In the mid-1990s, Dr Jean Kristeller, Professor of Psychology at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center of Mindful Eating, started exploring the application of mindfulness practice to eating, which will become “mindful eating”.
She described this new behavioural approach in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders in the 12-weeks Mindfulness Based-Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) programme.7, 8
In 1995, another wellness approach was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Reisch, and is known as “intuitive eating”.9 Although these two approaches, mindful eating and intuitive eating, complement each other and have significant overlaps, there are some differences and the terms cannot be used interchangeably. Intuitive eating is considered by Evelyn Tribole herself as “a broader philosophy, which includes physical activity for the sake of feeling good, rejecting the dieting mentality, using nutrition information without judgment, and respecting your body, regardless of how you feel about its shape”.10
In research conducted in people with overweight and obesity, mindful eating is shown to be effective in reducing binge eating disorders, improving emotional regulation related to eating and may help manage body weight.14, 15, 16, 17 Compared to controls, participants in the mindfulness intervention showed significantly greater decreases in food cravings, dichotomous thinking, body image concern, emotional eating and external eating.18
Emerging science tells us for the general population:
Several mindful eating protocols have been developed by clinical researchers, including the following three components that are key to eating mindfully.
1. Focus on your body’s internal cues and why you want to eat
Mindful eating starts off with checking out your hunger level and being aware of your motivations to eat. You will be able to distinguish between physiological from emotional hunger and external cues that can trigger eating – such as social settings, convenience, routine and time of day. After this internal review, tune into your food preferences at the present moment. Scientific evidence has shown that checking for feelings of hunger and satiety can help control snacking episodes.11, 12, 13
2. Portion your food and pay attention to the eating moment
Once aware of your wants and needs, portion out your food, e.g. depending on your hunger level put one or two biscuits on a plate and put the rest of the pack away and give attention and intention to your eating experience. It is important to avoid distractions such as using the phone or watching TV/screens so that you can focus and appreciate the eating experience and give full attention to each bite and sip.
3. Use your senses to savour foods
Focus on the smells, tastes, textures, shapes and colours of foods to savour and enjoy each bite. The pace of eating should naturally slow down while being in tune to your body. The mindful eating experience ends while noticing either fullness or satisfaction cues.
Providing clear and practical guidance on mindful eating is particularly relevant at a time when people’s food choices, patterns of eating/snacking, routines and general attitudes towards food have changed.
There are several guides which have been developed specifically for health professionals to use in practice.