What is mindful eating, and is it good for you? We explore the science behind it
From weight loss to digestive health, could savoring every mouthful have a positive impact on wellbeing?
Mindful eating is a practice that encourages people to focus on enjoying food while utilizing all of the senses, according to a 2015 review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Unlike so-called "mindless eating," which usually involves consuming meals quickly and without paying attention, there are some basic principles to mindful eating.
"The focus is really on the meal," said Laura May Janse Van Rensburg, a dietician in England who specializes in eating disorders. "[Factors include] looking at the food and how it is presented on the plate, taking time to enjoy the smell of the food, listening to the sounds of food being served, picking up a fork or spoon and feeling the weight of the cutlery in the hand and then finally eating the food and tasting every bite," she told Live Science.
Mindful eating has become increasingly popular over the years, with proponents claiming potential benefits including improvements in digestive health and weight loss. So could savoring every mouthful have a positive impact on health? Or is mindful eating just another fad with no basis in science?
What is mindful eating?
The main aims of mindful eating are to reduce overeating, eating too quickly and eating to deal with difficult or unwanted emotions, said Sam Jahara, a psychotherapist at Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy in England.
"Mindful eating requires slowing down and paying attention to our food and eating in a relaxed, stress-free environment," she told Live Science. "In practice, it means we can manage our feelings of stress and anxiety by not resorting to overeating or over restricting."
Mindful eating is not the same as intuitive eating, another popular dietary approach. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, intuitive eating is about trusting the body to make food choices that feel good for it, without judgment, and is a part of a broader framework that listens to appetite, rejects external diet messaging and encourages a more balanced relationship with food.
People’s eating behaviors are rooted in early infancy and childhood experiences, Jahara said.
"How we were fed and nourished by our primary caregivers will impact how we nourish and feed ourselves in later life. Our early experiences in the family home shape who we are in many ways and this applies to food and eating as well," she said.
Practicing mindful eating therefore often involves breaking lifelong dietary habits.
The approach may have an effect on disordered eating behaviors too. According to a 2017 review published in the journal Nutrition Research Reviews, mindful eating and other mindfulness-based approaches may particularly help with binge eating, emotional eating and excessive eating in response to external cues (such as food smells, food advertisements or observing other people eating). All of these behaviors are rooted in problems with emotion regulation and impulse control — two aspects that mindful eating has been shown to improve.
However, the success of mindfulness-based eating interventions may depend on their length. Results from a 2021 meta-analysis published in the journal Appetite suggest that to significantly reduce binge eating behaviors, interventions need to last 24 weeks or longer, the researchers wrote.
Mindful eating may also be linked to improvements in mood disorders. The nature of this association is not well understood, but it is likely due to the effect of mindful eating on a person's stress responses, Jahara said.
"Slowing down any task or activity makes us more aware of how much anxiety and stress we carry, and speeding up activities is a strategy that many of us employ to run away from difficult feelings," she said. "Therefore, the prospect of slowing down goes against our 'fight or flight' responses, designed to get away from internal stress or perceived danger. Eating slowly requires a state of relaxation and calm."
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that participants who obtained higher mindful-eating scores had a much lower risk of developing depression or depressive symptoms.
Another study, published in 2019 in the journal Appetite found that an improvement in depressive symptoms could be detected almost three years after completing a mindful-eating intervention. However, it is unclear what the underlying mechanisms are between these associations.
Some people start practicing mindful eating in the hope that it can help them lose weight. However, the evidence behind this claim is mixed. Mindfulness-based interventions do not appear to make a significant difference to energy intake or diet quality, according to a 2020 review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Studies into the effects of mindful eating on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference also do not produce any conclusive results, according to a 2019 meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity Reviews.
However, more research is needed on the effects of mindful eating on weight. A 2022 review published in the journal Mindfulness pointed out that such conflicting study findings are likely to be a result of poor study design and a lack of consistency between different mindfulness protocols.
Reema Patel, a dietitian for Dietitian Fit and Co in England, told Live Science that weight loss should be viewed more as a possible by-product rather than a primary outcome of eating mindfully.
"If you approach mindful eating with the focus on weight loss, this is unlikely to be the main outcome," she said. "This is because aiming for weight loss often involves other factors such as emotional eating, which can make mindful eating harder. However, there are certainly aspects of mindful eating that can be used to help assist with the weight loss journey."
According to a 2019 review published in the journal Integrative Medicine, mindful eating may help improve digestive function. The researchers suggested that stress, digestion and mindfulness are closely interlinked and that eating mindlessly may lead to disruptions in the gut-brain axis — a communication pathway between the gut and the brain. Paying more attention to food and eating helps regulate an overactive nervous system, the researchers suggested, which in turn may lead to fewer symptoms like bloating and indigestion.
However, it is unclear whether mindful eating could be a useful tool for managing more chronic digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
Some early evidence suggests that mindful eating could lead to better cardiovascular and metabolic health too. For example, mindful eating interventions may improve blood glucose levels among pregnant women, inflammatory markers among obese postmenopausal women, as well as lipid profile — levels of blood cholesterol and blood triglycerides — and blood pressure in overweight adults, according to a 2021 review published in the Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine. However, more research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind these findings.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.