A few years ago, I was struggling with what felt like constant bloating and fatigue. I could tell my digestion was suffering, and after weeks of trying to take Google’s advice on how to fix it—cutting caffeine, adding probiotics, avoiding all carbohydrates ever—I finally decided to consult an expert. Enter: Jennie Miremadi, MS, CNS, LDN, a licensed functional medicine nutritionist and the person who gave me a path to “beat the bloat” without forcing me to forgo all the foods I love. Her first suggestion was mindfulness in the form of mindful eating, and the concept blew the doors off of my understanding of nutrition.
Yes, of course, nutrients matter. Microbiome health matters, too. But there’s another piece to the puzzle, and it’s largely absent in most conversations about gut health: our state of mind. I reached out to Miremadi for her expert take on how mindfulness can impact the way our bodies process food. Prepare to see your next meal in a whole new light.
What is mindful eating, and why do we need to practice it?
At its core, mindful eating reconnects us to our hunger cues. Our bodies have excellent built-in mechanisms to let us know when we need fuel, but many of us learn to overthink and override these systems at some point in our lives because of ingrained food rules or emotional eating. “I see this frequently with new clients who are completely disconnected from their innate hunger signals,” Miremadi explained. “They can’t tell when they are hungry or physically full.”
Mindless eating is more common than you may think. The most common example Miremadi sees is something most of us do on a regular basis. “If you’ve ever been watching TV and eating food at the same time, you might find yourself so immersed in your show that you look down and realize that all of your food is gone, and you don’t even know where it went,” she said. “In these kinds of situations where you aren’t paying attention to your natural hunger signals, you may have eaten more food than your body is hungry for, which can leave you feeling overly full, bloated, and unwell.”
Sound familiar? If you’re having an “I feel seen” moment, you’re not alone! Thankfully, there’s still hope. “Mindful eating is a tool to help you reconnect with your innate hunger mechanisms and, with some practice, you can get this ability back. When you master mindful eating, you are one step closer to ending emotional eating, overeating, and binge eating.”
How can mindful eating affect digestion?
Miremadi explained that there’s a major connection between the digestive tract and the nervous system. When your nervous system is in a parasympathetic (relaxed) state, digestion is enhanced (this is also called your gut being in its “flow” state). “This means that you must be in a relaxed state to properly digest your food. When you are stressed and in ‘fight or flight’ mode, your sympathetic nervous system is driving things. When this happens, your digestion slows way down. If you are stressed out, you’re going to have a much harder time digesting your food.”
“For clients whose digestive issues are being caused by eating in a stressed state or mindless overeating, mindful eating is the key to resolving their digestive issues,” Miremadi said. “I consider mindful eating just as important as diet, labs, and gut supplements. Without implementing it, many of my clients with gut issues cannot receive the complete digestive relief they are looking for.” However, mindless eating is not the sole cause of digestive issues, so if you’re dealing with bloating, stomach pain, etc., talk to your doctor about ways to heal the gut and digestion in addition to mindful eating. “I also see clients whose gut issues involve a multitude of factors. In these cases, eating slowly and mindfully is important for resolving their digestive issues, but it is only one of many necessary changes that they need to make.”
How to start a mindful eating practice
While mindful eating comes down to being more present and intentional, Miremadi recommended a short deep-breathing “meditation” to try whenever you’re eating:
- Before you start eating, sit down in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes. Inhale as slowly and as deeply as possible.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Exhale as slowly and as deeply as possible.
- Repeat this process five times.
- Open your eyes. You should be in a very relaxed state and ready to eat.
As someone who is still benefiting from the mindful eating tools I learned years ago, I can attest to the power of this simple exercise. It may not feel accessible for every meal, but that’s OK. Start small when you’re eating meals alone or at home, and eventually you’ll even start to notice more connection to your food even when you’re out to dinner with friends.
It may take some time to really feel the effects, but don’t lose hope: After regularly practicing this meditation, limiting distractions during meals, and frequently checking in with my body before, during, and after eating, I crave the foods that feel better for my body and I’m able to finish a meal without falling into a food coma or blowing up like a balloon. Turns out, after years of trying to find the right diet, all I really needed was the right mindset.