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Why We Should be Eating Mindfully: The Science

Eating food is about so much more than the energy and nutrients that it delivers. Our mealtimes should be enjoyable, sociable, a time to notice our surroundings and step aside from the activities of our daily lives to take some time out to relax while we nourish. How many times have you eaten whilst working at your desk, scrolling through emails or social on your phone or watching TV? Anything that disengages you with what you are eating will have an impact on your health. Eating mindfully triggers hormonal responses leading to better digestion, nutrient absorption and good gut health. You are also more likely to feel satisfied and less likely to overeat if you’re tuned in and paying attention to what you’re eating.

When we smell, see, think about, and taste food the stomach begins to secrete gastric juices to start digestion. This is known as the cephalic phase of digestion and the secretion during this phase accounts for approximately 20% of gastric secretion associated with eating a meal. This cephalic phase begins when signals are sent from the brain to the stomach via the vagus nerve. If you’re eating in a rush, not thinking about what you are eating, not savouring the food, that’s a pretty big percentage of gastric secretion to be missing out on!

Gastric juices contain proteases to digest protein and hydrochloric acid to inhibit bacteria and provide the optimal pH for the proteases to work. The preparation for digestion by this cephalic phase is vital to ensure when the bolus of food arrives the stomach is ready for it – it is at the optimal conditions for protein digestion to begin and to act as a barrier of defence against ingested microbes.

Imagine if you are not giving your body the opportunity to begin this phase of preparation effectively. Low hydrochloric acid will impact on protein digestion and if large protein molecules pass into the small intestine they may cause an immune reaction and the premise for food intolerances. When there is no preparation the body has not had an opportunity to produce insulin and therefore subsequent blood sugar levels are much higher.

Low hydrochloric acid (hypochlorhydria) may also lead to bloating, flatulence, undigested food in the stool, foul-smelling stools, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation and chronic dysbiosis leading to the overgrowth of Candida, parasites and abnormal gut flora. There is extensive research showing that there is a relationship between hypochlorhydria, Helicobacter pylori and peptic ulcer.

To make matters worse, as we age we produce lower levels of hydrochloric acid and levels are affected by stress.  Stress and gastrointestinal infections induce a leaky gut (increased intestinal permeability) where the small intestine’s tight junctions that normally limit the transport of large molecules into circulation become leaky. This allows the unprocessed proteins to cross into circulation and may result in multiple health problems. When we’re stressed we are less likely to be mindful of what we are eating so you can see the vicious circle happening here!

It’s not all just about gastric juices though, there’s an interplay of hormones that are important here. Ghrelin is a hormone that is made in the stomach that increases our appetite making us eat more. Rising levels in the stomach send signals to the brain that make you feel hungry. Ghrelin levels rise before eating a meal and fall after eating. More ghrelin is released in stressful situations leading to overeating. Ghrelin works alongside the hormone leptin that is made by fat cells and actually decreases your appetite. Receptors for ghrelin and leptin are found in the same part of the brain.

Studies have shown that ghrelin levels can vary depending on mindset. In one study participants were given a less calorific milkshake than they thought they were consuming. It was shown that the mindset of indulgence produced a steeper fall in ghrelin after consuming the shake than when they thought they were consuming a less calorific shake. The participants’ satiety (fullness and satisfaction) was in line with what they thought they were consuming rather than with what they actually consumed. Being mindful of what you are eating would appear to impact ghrelin levels and hence body weight maintenance.

Mindful eating isn’t just the latest trend or a whimsical ideal. The impact on your health from not being mindful can be immense and mealtimes should be enjoyed.


  • Crum, A. J. et al. (2011) ‘Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response.’, Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 30(4), pp. 424-9; discussion 430–1. doi: 10.1037/a0023467.
  • Holzer, P. et al. (2001) ‘The gut as a neurological organ.’, Wiener klinische Wochenschrift, 113(17–18), pp. 647–60. Available at: (Accessed: 7 June 2018).
  • Power, M. L. and Schulkin, J. (2008) ‘Anticipatory physiological regulation in feeding biology: Cephalic phase responses’, Appetite, 50(2–3), pp. 194–206. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.10.006.
  • S.T., W. (2014) ‘Mindful diet and mindful eating’, Annals of the Academy of Medicine Singapore.
  • Smeets, P. A., Erkner, A. and De Graaf, C. (2010) ‘Cephalic phase responses and appetite’, Nutrition Reviews. Oxford University Press, 68(11), pp. 643–655. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00334.x.

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