Mindful eating, what is it and why is it important for our health. Mindfulness is about being engaged in the moment, taking notice of your surroundings, emotions and thoughts. In other words being present in whatever you are doing whether that be listening, engaging in a conversation, eating or anything else.
When you engage in mindful eating, you become aware of your food and use all of the five senses; touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste. This has important health benefits because mindful eating impacts both our digestion and our enjoyment of food.
Eating mindfully triggers hormonal responses leading to better digestion, nutrient absorption and good gut health. Suboptimal digestion can leave us with discomfort, acid reflux, bloating, gas, and constipation. You are also more likely to feel satisfied and less likely to overeat if you are tuned in and paying attention to what you are eating.
The very first phase of digestion is called the cephalic stage and is instigated when signals are sent from the brain to the stomach via the vagus nerve. This begins before we even start eating our food. When we engage our senses by seeing, smelling, or even thinking about food, the signals sent to the stomach result in the initiation of gastric juice secretion.
The juices secreted during this cephalic phase account for 20% of gastric secretion associated with eating a meal and are released in preparation for the arrival of food. This is vital to ensure when food arrives in the stomach the conditions are optimal for protein digestion to begin and to act as a barrier of defence against ingested microbes.
Missing out on this stage of digestion because of being distracted and eating mindlessly has health consequences. Reduced gastric juice secretion can result in nutrient deficiencies as well as enabling large protein molecules to pass into the small intestine. Here they may cause an immune reaction and the premise for food intolerances. There is extensive research showing that there is a relationship between low stomach acid secretion, Helicobacter pylori and peptic ulcer.
Mindful eating is also important for metabolic health. When we eat in a rush and do not think about food there is no preparation and the body does not have an opportunity to produce insulin before glucose is released into the bloodstream. The taste of food activates the vagus nerve to instigate the release of insulin from the pancreas.
If eating is mindless and this cephalic phase insulin release does not occur blood sugar levels are higher until sufficient insulin is produced. The impact on blood sugar levels will be higher if sugary foods are eaten as they are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.
Ghrelin is a hormone that is made in the stomach that increases our appetite making us eat more. Studies have shown that ghrelin levels can vary depending on mindset and being mindful of what you are eating appears to impact ghrelin levels.
Have you ever been so distracted when eating that you are still hungry afterwards and actually even wonder if you ate at all? Ghrelin levels should fall after eating but if you don’t even notice that you are eating levels may remain higher resulting in a lack of satiety and leading to overeating.
Ghrelin levels are also increased during stressful situations. So being at your desk, stressed and eating lunch while trying to get that latest report finalised could be more detrimental to your health than you realise!
It might seem odd to talk about the five senses and mindful eating. So far we have talked about sight, smell and taste. Touch and sound also play a part. You can become aware of the texture and sound of food by holding or breaking it in your hands. In the mouth, you can also appreciate the sensation of different textures and the sound from chewing. These appreciations of the senses help us savour the food, slow down our eating and instigate digestion.
Set yourself a challenge to embrace mindful eating.
Instead of scrolling through Instagram, watching TV or working at your desk, take the time to appreciate your food. Be fully present and engage all of the senses; smell, look, touch, taste and even listen to your food and reap the health benefits of mindful eating!