While seemingly opposites, both fasting and mindful eating are time-tested approaches to nutrition. Alone, each can provide unique benefits. Together, they work synergistically to improve your whole-body health, with benefits ranging from preventing chronic disease to improving mental health and self-awareness.
Juggling the scope of mindful fasting and mindful eating might seem overwhelming at first, but with the right mindset and foundational tenets, you’ll be integrating both into your routine and improving your health in no time. Let’s dive in!
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is the practice of intentionally focusing one’s attention on the full experience of eating with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. It involves being fully present for each sensation during the process of eating: noting the color, texture, taste, and aroma of food; being aware of the feelings of hunger and fullness; appreciating the complex journey that brought the food to your plate; and eating in response to physiological, not emotional, cues of hunger and satiety. Mindful eating has been promoted as a way to improve dietary habits, enhance enjoyment of food, and create a healthier relationship with food by breaking cycles of mindless eating and overeating.
In addition to improving your relationship with food, studies have shown that applying mindfulness to your eating practices can result in a variety of health benefits. A recent review and meta-analysis showed that mindful eating resulted in similar weight-loss results as traditional dieting. Mindful eating can be a more practical way of eating that doesn’t require the monotonous task of counting calories; instead, over time, you learn how to tune into your body’s natural cues of hunger and fullness, which eventually dictate the quantity (and quality!) of the food you eat.
Why Mindful Eating Works with Fasting
Fasting is a practice with deep historical and cultural roots. Its origins trace back thousands of years across various religions and cultures, where it was often used as a form of spiritual introspection and self-discipline. For instance, during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset as a form of spiritual reflection, appreciation for food, and practice of mindfulness. In Buddhism, the concept of mindful awareness is central, and fasting can be observed as a mindfulness practice.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, intermittent fasting can also take a mindful approach. The term “mindful fasting” can be defined as the practice of intentionally abstaining from food for specified periods, while simultaneously cultivating cognizance of the body’s physical and emotional responses during the fasting process. Similar to traditional practices around mindfulness, it involves recognizing and observing the feelings of hunger and satiety, the mind’s response to abstaining from food, and the body’s physiological reactions. Rather than simply focusing on the act of not eating, mindful fasting emphasizes the importance of being fully present and engaged during the fasting experience, aiming to foster a deeper understanding of one’s relationship with food and eating patterns.
Together, mindful eating and mindful fasting can help you progress in your health journey. Bringing attention to your hunger and fullness cues can tell you when to start and stop eating a meal and also give you direction on when it’s time to begin or break a fast. Mindfulness during a fast can even magnify your senses, such as smell and taste, allowing you to go into your Fast Breaker with heightened awareness and appreciation for the food you’re about to eat. In turn, this can upgrade your mindful eating experience and increase your probability of gaining the many benefits from an intuitive way of eating.
4 Tips for Mindful Eating and Mindful Fasting
Combining mindful eating and mindful fasting not only heightens self-awareness but also promotes healthier eating habits, self-discipline, and a more balanced relationship with food. Below are some tips to help you integrate both mindful eating and mindful fasting into your nutrition routine.
#1) Use the Hunger-Fullness Scale to Decide When to Break a Fast
The hunger-fullness scale is a self-awareness tool often used in mindful eating practices to help individuals identify and respond to their body’s natural hunger and satiety cues. It typically ranges from 1 to 10, with 1 representing extreme hunger, 10 indicating extreme fullness or discomfort from overeating, and the middle range reflecting a comfortable level of fullness and feeling of content.
When eating, the hunger-fullness scale can be a great tool to decide when you’ve had enough to eat. Ideally, you would finish your meal when you are at about a 7–8 on the scale, indicating that you feel satiated, but not overly stuffed.
This tool can also help with your fasting practice. Ideally, you would wait until your hunger levels reach about a 3 until you break your fast (prolonged fasting excluded). This can result in a shorter or longer fasting period for the day, both of which are fine. However, try using this opportunity to build a better understanding of what hunger truly feels like and the signals your body is sending you before you break that fast. You may learn that a little hunger is more tolerable than you thought, or gain insight into how long is too long and when your body truly needs nourishment.
#2) Make Your Fast Breaker a Mindful Meal
Mindful meals, or meals in which you are relaxed, present, and free from distraction, have been shown to yield health and longevity benefits including weight loss and improved metabolic health. Coupling this practice with your Fast Breaker can create appreciation for food and help regulate how much your body actually needs in that moment. It is possible to undo some of the benefits from fasting through a more indulgent eating window; however, a mindful Fast Breaker may mitigate some of that risk. Studies have shown that undistracted eating resulted in fewer calories consumed during the meal or snack as well as the quantity of later food consumption.
So, when you do decide to break your fast, make it a mindful and undistracted experience. You will be able to focus more on nourishing your body, which will help your health down the line. Plus, that first bite after you fast tends to taste the best, so take the time to enjoy it!!
#3) Break Your Fast When You Need To
We often break our fast out of habit; however, it may not be what our bodies actually need at that moment. Breakfast, for example, is a common household tradition — it’s what many of us do when we wake up! However, if we are mindful while fasting, some of us may learn that breakfast is more of an acquired pattern of eating versus an actual requirement for fuel and nutrients.
Our daily fasts can last longer or shorter depending on what our bodies are telling us at the moment. For example, you may have had a tough workout the day before or accidentally undereaten, so the following day, your body may be needing nutrients sooner. On the other hand, you could also have a day where you feel energized, alert, and content. Even if you reached your typical fasting-goal length, you may decide to push your fast a bit longer that day, waiting until your body truly needs food.
#4) Use Mindfulness to Gain a Better Appreciation for Food
Fasting has the unique ability to shift our perspective on food and enhance our appreciation for it. By intentionally refraining from eating for a specific period, we become acutely aware of our body’s natural hunger cues and the sensation of eating when we finally have a meal. This heightened awareness can transform our relationship with food, as we start to perceive it not just as a source of pleasure, but primarily as a vital source of nourishment. We may find ourselves savoring each bite, paying attention to the flavor, texture, and aroma of our meals, thereby practicing mindful eating. This increased mindfulness may lead us to make more conscious food choices, opting for nutrient-dense foods that truly nourish our bodies.
Conclusion: Get Off the Diet Seesaw with Fasting
Eating and fasting seem like simple enough concepts, but being intentional about both can help you get off the dieting seesaw (which has been shown to fail) and see consistent results in the short- and long-term. The goal is not to be stringent, but to tune into your mind and body for greater self-awareness, a deeper understanding of how food impacts your overall well-being, and a healthier relationship with yourself.