How Mindfulness Can Improve Your Metabolic Health

Mindfulness, the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment, can be a helpful tool for managing emotional eating and promoting metabolic health.

woman wearing denim jacket holding a cup of coffee in a cafe

Mindful eating is an offshoot of mindfulness that refers explicitly to paying attention to the experience of eating. Through positive changes like awareness of portions or examining the reasons for food cravings, mindfulness can lead to weight loss or other improved markers of metabolic health.

The benefits of mindfulness can extend into all aspects of health, but mindful eating is a great place to start. In this article, we'll explore how mindfulness and mindful eating can help improve your metabolic health and how to incorporate the practice into your life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, without judgment. When you're mindful, you focus on the here and now rather than letting your mind wander. 

There's no right or perfect way to be mindful. It's just about being aware of your thoughts and letting them go without getting caught up in what you should or shouldn't be thinking.

In many ways, mindfulness is a response to the disconnect many people feel in the modern world. With all of our technology and distractions, it can be hard to focus on the present. Mindfulness is a way to let go of distractions and focus on what is happening right in front of you.

The practice of mindfulness has a long history in Eastern cultures, but the Western world is just beginning to catch on to the benefits. It's clear from the research that mindfulness is a simple but powerful tool to reduce the impact of stress in our lives while increasing productivity.

And now, researchers are exploring how mindfulness might help improve metabolic health and help us with healthy eating habits and food choices.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/metabolic-health">what metabolic health is</a>.</p>

Is Mindfulness the Same as Meditation?

Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but they're not really the same thing.

Meditation typically involves sitting, or sometimes lying down, minimizing intruding thoughts while clearing the mind and focusing on breath work. Guided meditation is sometimes an easier starting place where the focus is on listening to the voice of someone guiding you through the meditation practice. 

Mindfulness is a state of being that you can practice anywhere, anytime. It can be active as you move around your day, or it can be a part of a formal meditation practice. 

You can be mindful without meditating. For example, you might take a mindful walk in nature or eat mindfully by focusing on the taste, texture, and smell of your food.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating embraces the teachings of mindfulness—staying present without judgment—and applies the practice to eating. This means being aware of your hunger signals, listening to your body, and eating until you feel full and satisfied.

Think of mindful eating as the opposite of the more common practice of distracted mindless eating. Distracted eating is when you eat while doing something else, like watching TV or working at your computer. This often leads to overeating or not enjoying or tasting your food because you're not paying attention.

On the other hand, mindful eating is about being present and aware of what you're eating and how it makes you feel. This can help you tune into your body's natural hunger and fullness cues, so you eat only when you're truly hungry, stop when you're satisfied, and ideally make intentional food choices. 

Plus, when you pay attention to what you're eating and take the time to taste it, you're more likely to actually enjoy your food. Mindful eating is different from being on a typical diet because there aren't any rules about what you can (or can’t) eat. 

Mindful eating is simply about being present at your meal and making choices that feel good to your body at that moment.

woman enjoying lunch at an outdoor cafe

Mindful Eating Benefits

There's plenty of research to support mindful eating practices for health and wellness associated with diet choices, especially for people who struggle with emotional eating or food cravings.

A study examining the effect of an online mindfulness program found that people who completed the online program lost more weight than those who didn't follow it. The weight loss occurred without participants making significant changes to diet or lifestyle.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/how-to-stop-overeating">how to stop overeating</a>.</p>

What Is Metabolic Health?

Your metabolism is the process by which your body converts food into energy. Metabolic health is a term used to describe when this process is working optimally.

Metabolic health can be measured with biomarkers like blood sugar, blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), or blood pressure. These measurements provide valuable information about how well your body functions. 

Optimal metabolic health is essential for maintaining a healthy weight, managing blood sugar levels, and reducing your risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles are often at odds with good metabolic health. As a nation, we eat more processed foods than ever and are more sedentary than previous generations. As a result, metabolic disorders like obesity and type 2 diabetes are on the rise.

That said, healthy lifestyle habits go a long way in optimizing our metabolic health. Diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management all play a role in keeping our metabolism functioning properly. 

If you have a lot of changes to make to improve your metabolic health, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Mindfulness may be the perfect way to ease into those changes with noticeable results.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/ultra-processed-foods">how processed food affects blood sugar</a>.</p>

How Is Mindfulness Related to Metabolic Health?

When you eat mindfully, you're more in tune with your body's natural hunger signals. This can lead to healthier habits.

Let's dig in a bit deeper and explore some of the ways mindful eating can improve your metabolic health:

Mindfulness May Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight 

Our weight is determined by a complex interaction of factors, including our diet, lifestyle, and genetics.

Being in a larger body does not automatically mean someone has poor metabolic health, but it can be a risk factor in some cases. 

As touched on earlier, mindfulness can support a healthy weight by helping you become more aware of what and why you are eating.

Eating mindfully makes you more likely to tune into your body's natural hunger signals. This can help you eat only when you're truly hungry and avoid eating when you're not. As a result, mindful eating can lead to eating fewer calories and natural weight loss over time.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read about </strong> <a href="/blog/set-point-weight">set point weight theory</a>.</p>

Mindfulness Stress Reduction May Reduce Abdominal Fat

When under stress, your body produces the hormone cortisol, which is needed for survival in dangerous situations. It sends signals like increased heart rate, blood sugar, and blood pressure, to tell you that something is wrong or unsafe.

In the short term, this is helpful. But when cortisol levels remain elevated when under chronic stress, it can increase food cravings, interrupt your sleep, and lead to weight gain.

Cortisol is also linked to increased central adiposity or what is often called belly fat. Excess weight around the middle is connected to a greater risk of metabolic disorders like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Since mindfulness helps with stress reduction, it can also support healthy cortisol levels. In one study, people who participated in a mindfulness program and experienced decreased chronic stress had lower cortisol and reduced abdominal fat. The program taught participants to really listen to their body's signals of hunger versus fullness, enjoy the taste of their food, and notice any triggers for emotional eating.

woman practicing aerial yoga and looking out the window

Mindfulness Positively Impacts Healthy Eating Behaviors

Aside from simply eating more than you need, studies suggest that stress and emotional eating are linked to increased metabolic health risk factors like high blood pressure, dyslipidemia (low levels of good cholesterol and high triglycerides), insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. 

But mindfulness is linked to fewer episodes of emotional eating or eating for reasons other than hunger. One study also found that mindfulness-based eating strategies led to weight loss, and participants also had higher self-esteem and confidence in managing body weight. 

In other words, mindful eating can have a positive domino effect. With the right tools, you can improve your physical health and feel better about yourself and your ability to make healthier choices without judgment about cravings or reasons for overeating.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read more about </strong> <a href="/blog/body-positivity-weight-loss">body-positive weight loss</a>.</p>

Mindful Eating Benefits Your Digestion and Hunger Hormones

Taking the time to taste your food gives your body a chance to release the leptin hormone, which signals your brain that you are full and can stop eating.

Ever inhale a meal so quickly that you eventually realize you probably should have stopped before the plate was clean? Mindful eating stops this practice because you may have been satisfied earlier if you gave your body a chance to catch up with satiety signals. On the other hand, eating more slowly is linked to lower total energy intake. 

Plus, slowing down and chewing your food is better for your digestion. Bloating, reflux and other irritable bowel symptoms can be exacerbated by eating too quickly and not chewing enough. Chewing is a critical (but often overlooked) part of the digestive process. When you don't chew enough, food isn't broken down properly, leading to issues further down the line.

Mindfulness Supports Healthy Blood Sugar

Blood sugar is an important marker of metabolic health because it predicts diabetes and other chronic conditions. Mindfulness and mindful eating are linked to better blood sugar control, even without weight loss.

A study on adults found that when participants made diet and exercise changes while incorporating mindfulness training, their fasting blood sugar dropped, along with cholesterol. These changes didn't happen for participants who just followed the diet and exercise guidelines.

Another study found that mindful eating practices were linked to eating fewer sweets and lower fasting blood sugar levels. The benefits continued, so even a year and a half after the intervention started, participants still had lower blood sugar than the control group.

How to Use Mindfulness to Improve Your Metabolic Health

  1. Eat at a slow, mindful pace. To get started, try this exercise: Put a small piece of dark chocolate in your mouth and let it melt on your tongue. What do you notice about the taste and texture? What emotions or feelings arise as you are eating it?  You can apply the same principles to food at meal time. Eating slower is linked to a reduced risk of weight gain.
  1. Chew your food thoroughly. Try taking 15 to 20 bites of your food before swallowing. You don't have to do this every time but try it once or twice to see how it feels to take the time to eat your food. 
  1. Listen to your body's cues and note what it feels like when you are truly hungry versus experiencing cravings or emotions. Consider the hunger scale where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed. Ideally, you stop eating around 6 or 7 before you feel that uncomfortably full sensation.
  1. Avoid distractions while eating, such as TV or work. Sit down and enjoy your food with your friends, family, or yourself.
  1. Pay attention to the taste, smell, and texture of your food. What flavors do you notice? 
  1. Be mindful of your portion sizes. You can always have more food if you're truly hungry, but you might notice that you don't need a second helping after taking your time to eat.
  1. If you notice you tend to eat more or crave certain foods to deal with emotions or stress, start taking note of your triggers. Mindfulness doesn't mean you can't have the foods you want, but it helps you explore the reasons behind cravings. If you ever feel you don't have control of your food intake or experience any feelings of shame after eating, it may be time to reach out for help.

If you have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), try a self-experiment eating the exact same meal on different days to see if mindful eating makes a difference in your blood sugar response. You can eat one more quickly while distracted and the other slowly while staying present and using the tips above.

You Can Start Practicing Mindfulness for Metabolic Health Now

Mindfulness is a tool that can be used to improve many aspects of metabolic health. Other habits like diet, exercise, or sleep are all important too, but you can start working on mindfulness practices as soon as you want to without any special preparations.

If you find yourself intimidated, don't worry. Mindfulness is a journey, not a destination. Start with one mindful eating practice and work your way up. Soon you'll be on your way to better metabolic health.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read more about </strong> <a href="/blog/body-positivity-weight-loss">body-positive weight loss</a> or listen to a podcast about <a href="/blog/kindless-weight-loss-mindfulness">how being kind to yourself can help with weight loss</a>.</p>

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References

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About the Author

Caitlin Beale Headshot
Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.
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