Much less attention is paid to the question of how we eat it.
Yet a growing body of research suggests that changing our attitudes and practices around meals and mealtime rituals may be every bit as important as obsessing over what it is we actually put in our mouths. Mindful eating (also known as intuitive eating), a concept with its roots in Buddhist teachings, aims to reconnect us more deeply with the experience of eating — and enjoying — our food. Sometimes referred to as "the opposite of diets," mindful eating is based on the idea that there is no right or wrong way to eat, but rather varying degrees of consciousness about what we are eating and why. The goal of mindful eating, then, is to base our meals on physical cues, such as our bodies' hunger signals, not emotional ones — like eating for comfort.
The idea was featured in a New York Times article, in which journalist Jeff Gordinier visited a Buddhist monastery where practitioners were encouraged to eat in silence, and chew every morsel of food as they explored its tastes, textures and smells in minute detail. The article inspired a somewhat skeptical response from our own Robin Shreeves, who noted that in her household full of young boys, the notion of eating in silence seemed like mission impossible, and might even be detrimental, given that mealtimes are often when the family gets a chance to actually converse.
But mindful eating doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair.
In fact, as the New York Times article stated, there are plenty of ways to work mindfulness into your daily food habits without the need to become a fully robed monk, or masticate on a raisin for three days straight.
Making mindfulness work
As a registered dietitian, I am a firm believer that finding ways to slow down and eat intentionally are all a part of developing a truly healthy food culture. And some early research into mindful eating would seem to back this up. One study, for example, tracked more than 1,400 mindful eaters and showed them to have lower body weights, a greater sense of well-being, and fewer symptoms of eating disorders. A 2018 study that looked at people with Type 2 diabetes found that eating slowly was linked to a smaller waist circumference and a lower body mass index (BMI).
But mindful eating will only work for you can make it compatible with your lifestyle.
Here are some of my favorite tips to introduce mindfulness to mealtimes in an easy, accessible fashion.
Eating slowly doesn't have to mean taking it to extremes. Still, it's a good idea to remind yourself, and your family, that eating is not a race. Taking the time to savor and enjoy your food is one of the healthiest things you can do. You are more likely to notice when you are full, you'll chew your food more and hence digest it more easily, and you'll probably find yourself noticing flavors you might otherwise have missed. If you have young children, why not try making a game of it — who can chew their food the longest? Or you could introduce eating with chopsticks as a fun way to slow things down.
Savor the silence
Yes, eating in complete silence may be impossible for a family with children, but you might still encourage some quiet time and reflection. Again, try introducing the idea as a game — "let's see if we can eat for two minutes without talking" — or suggesting that one meal a week be enjoyed in relative silence. If the family mealtime is too important an opportunity for conversation to pass up, then consider introducing a quiet meal or snack time into your day when you can enjoy it alone. The NYT article, for example, noted that one dietitian simply savors a few sips of tea in complete silence when she is too busy for a complete mindful meal.
Silence the phone. Shut off the TV.
Our daily lives are full of distractions, and it's not uncommon for families to eat with the TV blaring or one family member or other fiddling with their iPhone. Consider making family mealtime, which should, of course, be eaten together, an electronics-free zone. I'm not saying you should never eat pizza in front of the TV, but that too should be a conscious choice that marks the exception, not the norm.
Pay attention to flavor
The tanginess of a lemon, the spicyness of arugula, the crunch of a pizza crust — paying attention to the details of our food can be a great way to start eating mindfully. After all, when you eat on the go or wolf down your meals in five minutes, it can be hard to notice what you are even eating, let alone truly savor all the different sensations of eating it. If you are trying to introduce mindful eating to your family, consider talking more about the flavors and textures of food. Ask your kids what the avocado tastes like, or how the hummus feels. And be sure to share your own observations and opinions too. (Yes, this goes against the eating in silence piece, but you don't have to do everything at once.)
Know your food
Mindfulness is really about rekindling a relationship with our food. From planting a veggie garden through baking bread to visiting a farmers market, many of the things we locavores have been preaching about for years are not just ways to cut our carbon foodprint, but also connect with the story behind our food. Even when you have no idea where the food you are eating has come from, try asking yourself some questions about the possibilities: Who grew this? How? Where did it come from? How did it get here? Chances are, you'll not only gain a deeper appreciation for your food, but you'll find your shopping habits changing in the process too.
Like I say, mindful eating does not have to be an exercise in super-human concentration, but rather a simple commitment to appreciating, respecting and, above all, enjoying the food you eat every day. It can be practiced with salad or ice cream, donuts or tofu, and you can introduce it at home, at work, or even as you snack on the go (though you may find yourself doing this less often).
And while the focus becomes how you eat, not what you eat, you may find your notions of what you want to eat shifting dramatically for the better too.
Jenni Grover MS RD LDN is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, North Carolina. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in September 2013.