Mindful Eating

How to Practice Mindful Eating

Introduction to Mindful Eating

Today, we’re diving into the topic of Mindful Eating. This subject might seem straightforward, but it’s pretty intricate. Let’s imagine we’re having a conversation in a clinical setting. First, I’d ask what our goal is—losing weight, curbing overeating, adopting a healthier diet, or simply living a longer, better life. Focusing on the broader view, it’s crucial to recognize that eating is merely one part of a larger health-focused chain of actions. Regular exercise enhances stress management and sleep quality, improves our dietary choices, boosts our energy levels, reduces chronic diseases, and more. 

What’s the ideal diet if you’re aiming for weight loss? The concept is straightforward: eat less and move more. However, maintaining this balance is challenging in reality. In industrialized nations, we’re constantly tempted by an endless array of affordable, delicious, oversized, high-calorie options. On the flip side, our physical activity has decreased dramatically. Our era is plagued by what’s known as the ‘sitting disease’—with long hours spent watching TV, commuting, playing engaging video games, using moving sidewalks, and predominantly working sedentary desk jobs. Our society tends to opt for convenience rather than effort.

Finally, it’s essential to remember the significance of food beyond nutrition. Food unites families, fosters communities, and nourishes our well-being. So, let’s begin by addressing your questions. I often receive questions about the best weight-loss diet; understandably, it must be clarified. As you watch this video, you might even see a pop-up from the diet industry promoting a new diet, a detox plan, or a superfood, possibly endorsed by a celebrity. However, research has not shown that any commercial diet is superior to others.

The studies indicate that the key to success differs from the diet and how consistently you adhere to it. Instead of hopping from one diet to another in search of a miraculous solution, it’s more about the pattern of eating we adopt. Rather than fixating on the precise contents of a diet, research suggests that the best approach is to choose a diet you enjoy and are likely to maintain. According to a Cochrane meta-analysis, the factors that increased the success rate of commercial weight loss diets were not lower carbs or fats but rather more structured programs and stronger in-person social support.

Diet & Mindful Eating

What exactly is a diet? Essentially, diets are sets of rules about food that help us shape our eating patterns, or what economists might call a “commitment device.” They are tools used by self-aware individuals to manage future impulsive or irrational behaviors better. By moving away from autopilot, you adopt guidelines that gently push you towards making specific dietary choices, usually leading to less overeating. Every commercial diet offers its unique blend of macronutrients—think low carb, high protein, low fat, and varying sugar levels—and often comes with compelling narratives. You might be encouraged to eat like a troglodyte, follow a point system, purchase pre-packaged meals, or adhere to a diet prescribed by a renowned doctor.

When it comes to macronutrients, there are two critical considerations. First, we tend to devote too much attention to them. Second, the focus should be more on the quality of the macronutrients rather than their quantity. For example, carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet from complex sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. On the other hand, simple carbs found in free sugars and refined starches are less healthy. Carbohydrates are delicious, and it’s easy to overconsume them, so people who limit their intake often see weight loss. However, Dr. Celeste Naud and her team systematically reviewed the long-term effects of low-carb diets on weight loss and cardiovascular health. They found that these diets do not significantly differ from balanced weight loss diets when followed for up to two years.

Sugar & Mindful Eating

As for sugar reduction, if I were to choose one word to describe sugar’s role in industrialized societies, it would be “sneaky.” Sugar has insidiously found its way into much of our food, especially beverages containing eight or more teaspoons each. The average American consumes roughly 17 teaspoons of sugar daily, with higher consumption in teenagers and slightly lower consumption in Canada. Sugar isn’t only prevalent in obvious sweets; it’s also hidden in foods commonly perceived as healthy, such as cereals, granola bars, and fruit juices. High sugar intake tends to lead to excess calorie consumption, which can pose health risks.

An interesting observation from my clinical experience is that when patients are diagnosed with pre-diabetes, their initial reaction is often to eliminate sugar from their diet. However, diabetes prevention studies have shown that the key to reducing the risk of diabetes isn’t just about cutting out sugar. It’s more about engaging in a healthy lifestyle that includes regular activity (at least half an hour a day), achieving a moderate weight loss (5 to 7 percent), reducing saturated fats, and increasing fiber intake. These changes have been shown to reduce the risk of progressing to diabetes by 58 percent.

Fat & Mindful Eating

Regarding fats, our understanding has evolved from viewing all fats as detrimental to recognizing a spectrum of effects. Trans fats found in fried foods, fast food, and many packaged baked goods are harmful, and efforts are underway to reduce them. Saturated fats, primarily found in dairy products, red meat, and certain plant oils like coconut or palm, can be problematic in excess but are generally acceptable in moderation.

Then there are monounsaturated fats (MUFA), abundant in the Mediterranean diet—a diet high in avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and dark chocolate and associated with numerous health benefits. Finally, polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), which include long-chain fatty acids found in oily fish, have shown mixed results in studies. Early trials indicated a reduction in cardiac events, though more recent studies have been less conclusive. Meta-analyses still suggest a small benefit with no harm, leading to recommendations of consuming at least two servings of oily fish per week.

People often see health improvements when they substitute saturated fats with monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). As for high-protein diets, the focus should again be quality rather than quantity. Proteins come in various forms, each with different health impacts. For example, a high-salt ham steak versus a salmon steak, lentils, or a handful of almonds offer distinct nutritional profiles. Data suggests that consuming healthy proteins such as white meat, nuts, beans, and fish leads to better health outcomes, mainly when protein intake is distributed throughout the day, starting with a protein-rich breakfast.

Dietary approaches tailored for specific health conditions have also shown promising results. The DASH diet, for instance, can reduce high blood pressure by 8 to 14 millimeters of mercury. Similarly, a low-glycemic index diet has been shown to lower A1C levels—a measure of blood sugar over time—in people with diabetes by about 0.5 percentage points. At the University of Toronto, Dr. David Jenkins and his colleagues have demonstrated that the portfolio diet can reduce cholesterol levels by 30%.

The evidence supporting vegetarianism includes cohort studies and randomized trials, indicating that plant-based, unprocessed diets are beneficial. Such diets are not only healthful but also place a lesser burden on the planet, echoing the benefits of vegetarian, vegan, or locally sourced diets. Reflecting on Brazil’s new dietary guidelines offers a broader perspective. These guidelines have shifted focus from perfecting a macronutrient mix to embracing a holistic approach to food that emphasizes natural and minimally processed foods, highlighting the importance of diet in health and environmental sustainability.

There’s growing awareness of the need to appreciate food more and reconsider our habits, especially as we buy more ultra-processed and packaged foods that can be consumed on the go. This shift provides an opportunity for healthier eating and enhancing relationships by encouraging the preparation of meals with family and friends. The answer is yes when asked if a diet truly works, but it’s not so much a diet as it is a cultural and behavioral lifestyle.

This approach isn’t focused solely on weight loss but on improving health outcomes like reducing cancer risks, heart disease, and dementia and promoting a longer life. The diet with the most substantial evidence supporting its benefits is the Mediterranean diet. Rather than strict food rules or absolutes, it emphasizes moderation—less meat, more vegetables, and fruit as dessert. It advocates for shopping at markets or sticking to the outer aisles of grocery stores, avoiding the processed foods in the center aisles.

Though named after a specific region, the Mediterranean diet embodies a lifestyle that includes lots of physical activity, regular meals, and strong social support. It’s about transitioning from rigid diets to sustainable healthy behaviors that influence our eating patterns. Supporting this notion, data from the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), which surveys over 10,000 individuals—predominantly women—who have lost significant weight and maintained it for more than a year, reveals critical insights. The findings show that 98% of respondents altered their food intake in some manner, and 94% increased their physical activity levels, underscoring the importance of comprehensive lifestyle changes over mere dietary adjustments.

Weight Loss & Mindful Eating

While there is no singular formula for successful weight loss, patterns emerge from the habits of those who have maintained their weight loss. Many people restrict certain foods; some count calories, while others consume all types of foods but in limited quantities. A common habit among these individuals is eating breakfast daily. Most also limit their TV watching to less than 10 hours a week and dine out thrice a week. Furthermore, these individuals typically exceed the recommended half-hour of daily activity, averaging about an hour daily, mainly through walking.

Almost all members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) reported that weight loss significantly enhanced their energy levels, physical mobility, mood, self-confidence, and overall physical health. The importance of feedback loops is also evident in sustaining weight loss. Regularly weighing oneself, for instance, serves as a subtle daily reminder and motivator; 44% of NWCR participants weigh themselves weekly, and 31% do so daily. This practice was especially highlighted in the STOP Regained trial, where daily self-weighing was linked to a decreased risk of regaining approximately 5.5 kilograms (12 pounds).

Another effective strategy is maintaining a food diary. Even a short-term food journal can significantly impact weight loss efforts—doubling them in some cases. Despite its simplicity and the convenience various apps offer, many overlook this tool. However, those who use it find it profoundly effective in making them more conscious of their eating habits. Awareness is a crucial but often underestimated element of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It’s not just about what or how much you eat or how you usually weigh yourself; it’s also recognizing that life requires flexibility and that feeling better usually starts with eating better.

I’m a proponent of initiating change with minor, manageable adjustments, or what I like to call “tweaks.” For instance, consider altering a frequent habit, such as your breakfast routine, snacking habits, or beverage choices. You could swap your usual cereal for something like oatmeal or shredded wheat, replace a bag of chips with a handful of almonds, or substitute several sugary drinks throughout the day with water. While these changes might not seem particularly exciting, this approach—let’s call it the “Dr. Mike Switcheroo Diet”—could help shed about a pound a week and enhance your overall well-being.

Another strategy focuses on adding rather than subtracting. Dr. Sherry Pagoto and her team conducted a study in which metabolically at-risk individuals were randomized to follow a comprehensive American Heart Association diet or increase their fiber intake to 30 grams daily. Whether it was hopping on the bran wagon, a trip to Beantown, or berry picking, both groups experienced weight loss, with the AHA group losing slightly more. Both saw improvements in cardiovascular markers. This method promotes incorporating healthier foods into the diet rather than strictly limiting other options.

Furthermore, research indicates that fullness, or satiety, isn’t solely related to calorie count. Proteins and fibers, for example, can enhance satiety more effectively than other types of food. Social support also plays a crucial role in dietary behaviors. A study found that individuals with the backing of three or more friends or family members were significantly more successful at maintaining weight loss at six months, with success rates jumping from 24% to 66%. This underscores the importance of support in achieving and sustaining health goals.


Access to a dietitian, even online, can be incredibly beneficial. They serve as a “genius bar” for your dietary habits. Additionally, it’s essential to consider the role of physical activity in overall health. Research indicates that active individuals, even those with obesity, tend to live longer than their inactive, lean counterparts. So, when my patients tell me they’ve been active but unsuccessful at weight loss, I reassure them that their activity is a success. While it’s easier to reduce calorie intake through diet, the evidence suggests that people who exercise are more successful at maintaining their weight over the long term.

Healthy Eating

I want to discuss the final two points about healthy eating, focusing on the long-term approach and overall attitude. Restrictive diets are often difficult to maintain, leading many to shift focus from the individual to the environment surrounding the individual. This involves making it easier to make healthy choices consistently, a concept we refer to as “redesigning choice architecture.” This includes two types of nudges. The first is recognizing that our environment is filled with triggers that promote unhealthy eating habits—like tempting, conveniently placed foods, supersized options, and aggressive marketing, as noted by Dr. Brian Wansink. He points out that most of us overeat not because we’re hungry but because of these external cues.

The second type of nudge involves personal awareness. We are creatures of habit, influenced by specific cues, whether pastries at a coffee counter, a particular time of day, or a predictable stressor. According to Wansink, the key is to re-engineer these small behaviors, subtly shifting our daily routines and responses to better support our health goals. Shifting from mindless overeating to mindless better eating often involves tweaking your environment to support healthier habits. For instance, redesigning your kitchen can make a significant difference. If cookies are left out on the counter, they’re more likely to be eaten—the same is true for fruits and vegetables. Using smaller plates and glasses, opting for fewer super-sized containers, and avoiding eating directly from the bag are simple yet effective nudges that help reduce mindless eating.

This process requires self-awareness: Are you a nighttime nibbler or an emotional eater? I, for example, am a grazer—I tend to eat whatever is in front of me. My solution is at the grocery store. While it might seem trivial, buying pre-cut fruit helps me engage in mindless healthy eating by removing the preparation barrier. Similarly, I might advise a smoker not to keep cigarettes in the house, and likewise, I avoid buying super sour gummy candies because I know I can’t stop eating them once I start. The final piece of the puzzle is more about attitude than action. If you’re making healthier choices 80% of the time and your 20% indulgence isn’t excessively high in calories, you should feel good about your balance. Enjoying dark chocolate, a satisfying meal, or a slice of pie occasionally is acceptable. We’re in this for the long haul, not perfection, but consistency.

Conclusion to Mindful Eating

Ultimately, I want to inspire you to think differently about how you approach eating. Rather than committing to a rigid diet, consider a portfolio of behaviors. Minor tweaks, like opting for single-ingredient foods over multi-ingredient and processed foods, enjoying dinner at home, cultivating self-awareness, and depending less on sheer willpower and more on adjusting your environment, can lead to sustainable, mindless, healthy eating.

My final point emphasizes the concept of health at every size. While it’s clear that many people are focused on weight loss, and obesity is recognized as a risk factor for various diseases, the key to natural health lies deeper. Suppose my patients can tune into their body’s natural predispositions—their “factory settings”—and cultivate mindfulness around their eating habits, increase their physical activity, practice self-love, and shift their focus to what they should eat rather than what they shouldn’t. In that case, I’d consider that a significant success.

Now is the perfect moment to begin crafting your version of a better life. It’s about adjusting the scale and making mindful, sustainable changes that enhance your well-being and happiness. This approach isn’t about stringent diets or rigorous routines; it’s about embracing a holistic view of health that supports a fulfilling and healthy lifestyle.

  1. Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with FoodVisit website
  2. The Center for Mindful EatingVisit website
  3. Mindful Eating Programs and WorkshopsVisit website
  4. Harvard Health Publishing: Mindful EatingVisit website
  5. The Mindful Dietitian: Resources for Mindful EatingVisit website
  6. Greater Good Magazine: How to Eat MindfullyVisit website
  7. Mindfulness-Based Eating Solutions – Lynn RossyVisit website
  8. Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating & Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with FoodVisit website
  9. Mindful Eating Articles and Tips – Psychology TodayVisit website
  10. Intuitive Eating Community – Tools and Support for Mindful EatingVisit website

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