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The Science of Mindful Eating

The science of mindful eating

I am over here just about to faint with surprise! I’m surprised at myself! What!? Tamara is writing about food!? Whaaaa??? (And yes, I did just refer to myself in the third person - cringey, I know).

I’ve had this thing about food. I feel like I grew up surrounded by diets and food restrictions and so many rules around food. This makes me want to scream my head off!! I’ve always felt that life doesn’t have to be that hard. It shouldn’t have to be so hard. Why do we constantly have to deprive ourselves? Beat ourselves up over what we eat? This idea, turns out, was years ahead of the dieting game but just needed some direction. As a result of my attitudes towards food, I rebelled and didn’t care what I ate, when I ate. I grew larger and larger.

I FINALLY found my people who realize that diets are not the ONLY way to go. We realize that there has to be something else. I felt like crying when I took my health coaching classes and Carey Peterson said “HOW you eat is more important than WHAT you eat!” Wow! So amazing! Someone who saw what I felt all these years! Then she laid out how to eat. And how you eat makes a huge difference in your body when it comes to breaking down your food and storing it.

When I was learning about all of this, my mind kept feeling this tug. Something was familiar. Someone else had told me to eat this way too. Only it was different… hmmm… then it hit me. When I did my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR class by Jon Kabbat-Zinn they told us to eat the same way, only their “why” was to be “more present.” Turns out, mindful eating and eating to be healthier have SOOooo much in common!

So here are a few mindful eating techniques and then I’ll tell you the science behind how they work to keep our bodies healthy.

Let’s start from the beginning of our meal.

Feeling Gratitude


When you start your meal, you pause and think about and feel gratitude for all the animals and people responsible for getting this meal on your table. From the cow and lettuce plant that sacrificed their lives so you can to be fed, to the farmer who kept the cows and lettuce, to the truck driver who delivered it, the grocer, the shopper, the cook who prepared it. Everyone who had a hand in this meal, imagine them and give them gratitude.

HOW IT WORKS FOR DIGESTION: When your body is in a state of gratitude, your parasympathetic nervous system takes charge. A parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of properly digesting your food. It’s the nervous system that breaks down your food properly and sends it to the right places. The right places meaning the nutrients go to where they need to go.

On the other side, if the sympathetic nervous system is active, your food will be stored as fat. Your sympathetic nervous system is the one that keeps you safe in danger. It sees there is a threat (even if the threat is just “I have to hurry because we have soccer practice in an hour.”) and it stores your food to conserve energy.

This means the gratitude we feel positions our bodies in the right nervous system to digest our food.

Using our senses


In mindful eating, you are encouraged to use all of your senses at the beginning of your meal. Notice the how it looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds when you chew. You are encouraged to take the time to open up all of your senses to experience your food.

HOW IT WORKS FOR DIGESTION: Research has found that proper food digestion starts when you are preparing your meal. Smelling and seeing your meal first, prepares your saliva for the meal. Your saliva begins to excrete enzymes that aid in digestion. When you take the time to savour the aromas and hear the crackling in the pan, seeing the yummy juices, (sorry if I’m making you hungry! I am making myself hungry too!) these activate the salivary glands to start excreting digestive enzymes in preparation to digest your meal properly. Your saliva is the first step in breaking down your meals to nourish your body.

On the flip side. If you grab a sandwich from the shelves and barely look and it or smell it and scarf if down, you are 1. In a stress response or sympathetic nervous system state & 2. Don’t give time for your salivary system to catch up and start working.

Chewing our food throughly


Mindful eating means trying to chew each bite 20 times while noticing how it feels and tastes. Really linger over what it feels in your whole body to have this food in your mouth. What flavours do you taste, do they change. It’s being completely present while chewing. In the MBSR class, we were asked to eat a raisin really slowly. I didn’t have one so I had a craisin instead. I chewed and chewed that craisin and realized I’d been eating them for years but never really noticed how they tasted!

HOW IT WORKS FOR DIGESTION: One of my favourite things to point out is we have teeth designed to chew meat. I’d you notice plant eaters have different teeth than meat eaters. We have teeth designed to chew plants and meat. However, I constantly forget the fact that I need to chew. Chewing works in tandem with your saliva. It breaks down your food, mixes with saliva and enzymes and ensures your body has the BEST chance to use up the necessary nutrients in the most efficient way. The saliva well mixed into your food allows your body to meter out the different nutrients and put them into the parts of the body that needs it, rather than storing it as fat or dumping it as waste.

The chewing and noticing also keeps you calm. It keeps the parasympathetic nervous system in control. This means once the food gets to the intestines, your body is prepped and ready for nutrients to make their way to the correct places. Is anyone else picturing a factory? One where all gates are open and all systems are go?

On the other side, not throughly chewing your food doesn’t allow your food to be mixed with your saliva and the bigger chunks don’t get broken down into useable parts. Instead it goes to long term storage - yup fat or out as waste.

Putting down your fork and breathing


Slow down is the central tenant to this idea. Put your fork down and breath. Slow your eating down to enjoy it further.

HOW IT WORKS FOR DIGESTION: This absolutely blew my mind when I learned it. Did you know that your respiratory system works in tandem with your digestive system? I still think it’s so cool how this works. I’ve never even thought about it but here it is: the oxygen your lungs bring in, is essential to digesting your food. If you have plenty of oxygen the amount of nutrients your body can extract is significantly higher! Oxygen is an essential nutrient to digesting and bringing all other nutrients to the proper places. In return, the nutrients the oxygen provides fuels the lungs in bringing in more oxygen. Wow! So cool! So worth a few extra deep breaths between bites.

On the other side: if your cells lack oxygen they can’t carry nutrients from your food. Your body will extract far fewer nutritional value from that broccoli you just ate and it will leave as waste. It doesn’t matter how healthy your meal is, if you don’t have the oxygen to ferry it along, then it can’t be used! Wow! Powerful stuff!

20 minute meals

The first time I tried a 20 min meal I figured, this is going to be easy! I am not a fast eater. I always ate slowly. One of our family’s stories is one day we were at my grandparents for dinner. My brother was sitting next to my uncle. He always had a dry sarcastic humour that could be biting but we all absolutely loved (past tense as he’s no longer with us, which makes my story mean so much more to us because it was so quintessentially my uncle). My brother had managed to consume his entire plate of food before my uncle had even finished plating his food. This was a Sunday dinner too. Which, at my grandmas house meant roast, potatoes, noodles, gravy, salad, fried onions and parsley, and a veggie dish. A huge meal! And the way my uncle said, it was so funny! It was like one of those movie quotes you never forget. He looked over at my brother’s empty plate with incredulity asked“what are you!? A vacuum!?” The table erupted in laughter and my brother with his half smile murmured something about Oma’s good food (nice save Aaron!).

Now back tot the regular scheduled programming - my point is, I always thought I was a slow eater but then after trying a 20 min meal I realized I was comparing myself to a hungry teenage boy! When in tried the first time, I checked the clock then ate, put down my fork, breathed, took a bite, chewed. Did what you are supposed to do. I felt like maybe 15 mins had passed. I was almost done, I would make it easily to 20 mins! I checked the clock, you know how many minutes had passed? 3! Three whole minutes! I’d cooked for hours and in 3 minutes I wolfed down my food! Whew! This 20 minute meal was going to be harder than I thought!

HOW IT HELPS YOUR DIGESTION: Our bodies aren’t as quick as our hustle culture. Science shows us that we need at least 20 minutes for our brain to register that we are full. It needs that time to get your food in your belly and sense it and then tell you that you are done.

On the other side, if you eat in three minutes, check in, your body will say “still hungry”. You take more food, eat it in 3 mins (now a total of 7 mins. One minute to scoop out more) eat that in 3 mins, check in, “still hungry” (11 mins) take more food … you get the picture. After 20 minutes your brain says “STTTTOOOOOPPPP!!!!!” By then you are so full you have to roll yourself off the table.

Another anecdote: my hubby and I stared this. We did one plate of food for 20 mins of time. We also ate until we were 80% full. 80% full gives more time for our bodies to catch up and you feel good and energized afterwards and not sluggish. However, we have SO MANY leftovers in the fridge! We are so used to cooking for 200% full and we cook wayyyy to much now! It’s astounding! And neither of us feel hungry or deprived! Wow! What a result!

There you have it! 5 mindful eating techniques and more than 5 scientific reasons how the mindful eating technique work in your body! Are you up for trying one of them?


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