Mindful Eating: A Simple and Useful Tool for Optimizing Digestion
When it comes to good nutrition and overall health, it’s not just about what we eat but also how we eat.
We could be planning and eating meals that are nutritious and well-suited for our needs, but cannot reap the full benefits of the food on our plates if we are not digesting them properly. So what impacts our digestive system exactly? To be honest, the list is lengthy: the speed at which we eat, how we make our food choices, the environments in which we eat, our stress levels, pre-existing conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or an autoimmune disease, our mood, and many other factors, can all impact how our bodies process food!
Now don’t let this long list intimidate you. The number of factors that influence our digestive health may seem endless but there’s a simple approach that can help you improve your digestion and chances are, you’ve heard of it before. I’m talking about mindful eating. There seem to be countless books and resources on mindful eating these days but what is it anyway?
Mindful eating is rooted in the Buddhist concept of mindfulness which focuses on being entirely aware of “what is happening within and around you” at a given moment (1). It’s truly about being present with yourself when you’re eating and having a non-judgmental awareness of the many things at play during a snack or meal (2). This act of tuning into our bodies and eating without distractions can help us better understand our hunger and satiety cues, lead to healthier eating habits, and reduce stress during meals, all of which can help us improve our digestion (1,2)!
If you are someone that suffers from gastrointestinal issues, is constantly stressed, or manages an autoimmune condition, mindful eating can be a phenomenal addition to your toolkit of techniques for managing your condition(s) (2,3,4). Let’s take a quick look at digestion and how mindful eating can help:
In healthy digestion, our body is in its “rest and digest” state, primarily relying on our parasympathetic nervous system, and the junctions in our gut are tight and intact (2,5). When these conditions are present, we can get the most out of our meals. However, stress, whether it be from everyday life or from managing a digestive or autoimmune condition, can throw us out of this ideal state of digestion. It can trap us in “fight or flight mode,” relying mostly on our sympathetic nervous system (2). In this state, the body is focused on getting you out of a stressful situation, rather than getting the most out of your meal. Additionally, this stress can loosen the junctions in our gut, ultimately sending particles outside the gut that should be kept inside. Aside from not being optimal for digestion, this can also lead to increased inflammation and even an increased immune response, worsening digestive and autoimmune conditions (2).
This is where mindful eating comes in! It can help us optimize our digestion and make the act of fueling our bodies one that doesn’t bring on more stress and pain. In fact, there is evidence showing that individuals suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome have responded favorably to mindfulness-based stress management (2). On top of that, data has shown that mindfulness has the potential to positively impact markers of inflammation and our immunity (4).
Now, if you’re skeptical of how something as seemingly simple as mindful eating could improve digestion and overall health, I completely understand. That was me a few years ago but I’ve seen first hand how helpful it truly is. I had complications with digestion for years and some days, the pain was so bad that I had to leave work but could barely drive myself home. Not only was it painful but it was also taking a toll on my health. I was always exhausted, I had next-to-no energy for exercise, it negatively impacted my mood, I had unexplained pain in my shoulder, and that was just the beginning. So when a professional suggested that I try mindful eating, I nearly laughed at them. I eventually got so desperate to feel better that I begrudgingly gave it a try and now wish that I had given it a chance earlier, not only because it helped improve my health but also because it’s so simple to do!
So how can you start practicing mindful eating? My best advice is to begin slowly, start with one way of cutting out distractions so you can eat more slowly and focus on yourself and your meal. You can always build up and add on more as you go! Also, keep in mind that mindful eating can look different for everyone because we all lead different lives! Here are some places you can start (1,2):
Notice things about the food(s) you’re eating (color, texture, flavor, smell, shape, etc.)
Turn off or put away distracting devices and tasks like work emails, phones, TVs, etc.
Meditate for a few minutes before a meal
Set a timer for 20 minutes and take the full time to finish your meal (remember it takes about this much time for your brain to recognize that you have eaten enough)
Ask yourself what’s driving your hunger/why you’re eating
Sit with the feeling of hunger for a few minutes before eating
Pay attention to what it feels like to be satisfied vs. stuffed at the end of a meal
Eat with your non-dominant hand
Take time to reflect on what went into bringing your food to the table
Take small bites and thoroughly chew each one
Put your utensils down between bites
The list does not stop here. I have no doubt you can think of other ways to slow down and focus on you and your food at your next meal, so what are you waiting for? Give it a try! Remember, the entire purpose behind mindful eating is to reduce stress and distraction to improve digestion and your mind-body connection, so if this process feels overwhelming, reach out to a registered dietitian. They can help you find ways to implement mindful eating, while also helping you optimize your nutrition in other ways!
School, H. M. (2011). Mindful Eating. Harvard Health Letter. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/mindful-eating
Cherpak, C. E. (2019). Mindful Eating: A Review of How the Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate and Improve Gastrointestinal and Digestive Function. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, 18(4), 48-53. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7219460/
Venter, C., Eyerich, S., Sarin, T., & Klatt, K. C. (2020). Nutrition and the Immune System: A Complicated Tango. Nutrients, 12(3), 818. doi:10.3390/nu12030818
Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness Meditation and the Immune System: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 13-24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998
Medicine, T. I. f. F. Rise of Autoimmune Disease Linked to Intestinal Permeability. Insights. Retrieved from https://www.ifm.org/news-insights/ai-rise-autoimmune-disease-linked-intestinal-permeability/