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How to be more mindful about the food you eat

And, how to stop mindless eating

This article was last updated on Oct. 14, 2021. 

Being more mindful in our everyday lives has become a popular way to reduce stress and anxiety. The term can also apply to nutrition, as a way to keep our eating in check, without starting a popular diet.

But, what do we actually mean by mindful eating? According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), mindful eating is defined as External Site an approach to food that focuses on an individual's natural awareness of the food and their experience with the food. Mindless eating External Site, on the other hand, happens when we're distracted and not focused on the food we're consuming.  

Mindless eating can derail your efforts to live healthier

“We tend to eat without thinking about it,” says Julie Enga, R.D., employer health and well-being team leader at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Often, it’s truly mindless — as in finding yourself staring into the refrigerator. Other times, it’s out of boredom, stress or restlessness, or to get through a difficult task.”

According to Enga, mindless eating can be a deeply engrained habit, but it can be overcome with some awareness. “The first step is awareness of the problem and recognizing your triggers, or the circumstances that lead to your food choices. The second step is to just stop and ask, ‘Am I actually hungry right now?’ Take the emotion out of the equation.”

Eating mindfully requires focus, explains Enga. “Choose nutritious foods, and eat only when you’re hungry. Take small bites and chew slowly. Avoid using food as a distraction.”

While you can’t control the challenges that life deals, managing the role that food plays in your reaction puts you on a healthy path.

Mood can lead to mindless eating

When you snack, is it because you are truly hungry? Or, are your emotions getting the better of you? If you’re eating because of…

  • Stress: Practice meditation or yoga to curb anxiety. Or, call a friend or family member rather than reaching for a snack. Avoid multitasking during meals, so that you’re aware of what you’re eating.
  • Boredom: Distract yourself until the feelings pass. Spend 15 minutes taking a walk, reading or calling a friend.
  • Cravings: Remove temptation by not buying crackers and cookies in the first place. Or, replace those processed foods with fresh vegetables, fruit, air-popped popcorn or other healthy snacks.
  • Fatigue: Sugar or caffeine may seem like a useful pick-me-up, but you’re better off eating whole grains and fresh foods that keep your blood sugar more stable.
  • Frustration: When challenges feel overwhelming, find friends you can lean on or seek help from a counselor. Avoid using food as a distraction.
  • Sadness: Negative, gloomy or self-critical thoughts can trigger overeating, so take time to understand what’s behind your feelings and focus on what you can control.

Take the quiz: Are you a mindful eater?

Find out by answering each question below with the number that best describes you.

1 = Always
2 = Sometimes
3 = Never

  1. I eat when I’m worried, sad or stressed.
  2. I eat when I’m not hungry.
  3. I keep picking at my food, even when I’m full.
  4. If I'm stressed, I avoid eating, even when I'm hungry.
  5. I eat quickly without really tasting my food.
  6. I rush through meals and snacks without realizing it.
  7. I feel guilty after I accidentally overeat.
  8. I tend to eat meals at my desk or on the go.
  9. I tend to zone out and snack carelessly.
  10. I finish everything on my plate, even if I’m full.

Now, add up those numbers. If your score is:

Between 24 and 30: You’ve established some solid mindful eating habits. It looks like you’re making healthy choices related to your meals and snacks.

Between 17 and 23: You’re making important progress. Continue building mindful eating habits by noticing when and how your emotions influence what you’re eating.

Between 10 and 16: Pay closer to attention to your eating habits. To figure out how to stop mindless eating, try paying attention to when you eat, why you eat and whether you’re really hungry.

How to stop mindless eating

Eating mindfully can be more difficult than you think. But, here's a place to start: 

  • Record everything you eat for a week, noting how you feel, and how hungry you are each time. Look for patterns between food and your mood.
  • Determine if you are a food “moderator” or “abstainer.” Moderators allow themselves an occasional treat; if they eliminate their favorite foods entirely, they’re more likely to rebel and overindulge. Abstainers simply avoid temptations. By keeping favorites out of the pantry, they aren’t inclined to overeat.
  • Instead of snacking at your desk, take the time to prepare a plate and sit at a table. Focus on your meals rather than television, reading or looking at a computer screen.
  • Stock up on fruit, vegetables or other healthy snacks, so you’ll have options readily available if the urge to snack strikes.

Looking for more ways to eat and live healthier? Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members may have access to well-being tips, tricks, and recommendations to keep your health on track — all through the Wellness Center powered by WebMD® on myWellmark® Secure.