Mindfulness is gaining traction as a way to improve personal health and wellness, to treat addictions, eating disorders and other mental illnesses, and even to enhance communication and creativity in major corporations. That’s good news. The not-so-good news is that, in all its trendiness, mindful eating has been misinterpreted and applied in questionable ways. Let’s sort through the hype and figure out what mindful eating really is—and is not.
Mindful eating is NOT a diet.
Diets involve deprivation and inevitably lead to weight gain rather than the intended weight loss. Mindful eating, by contrast, is about eating the foods you want and truly enjoying them. Put simply, mindful eating is the practice of awareness—both internally and externally in the environment—without criticism or judgment.
It involves chewing slowly, paying attention to your body’s cues, and taking in the textures, smells, and appearance of your food. You don’t have to ban all junk food or stop eating at restaurants—you just have to take a few moments to be aware of your experience. Rather than eating more, many people are surprised to find that the wisdom of their bodies naturally leads them to make more balanced food choices.
Mindful eating IS an exercise in connection.
Most people know the fundamentals of healthy eating. So why do they eat foods that make them feel sick, or eat more than they really want? Because they’re disconnected from what their bodies need. In keeping with the high-speed pace of modern life, we eat faster and have more distractions while eating such as TV, work, driving or talking on the phone, which typically means that we eat more without ever feeling satisfied.
Mindful eating combats the tendency to eat unconsciously by reconnecting mind and body. It tunes us in with the body’s hunger and fullness cues. For individuals in early eating disorder recovery, the idea of reconnection can be daunting. If you believe your body is your enemy not your ally, you may be reluctant to listen to it. To turn your body into your ally, you must be willing to nurture and take care of yourself—a concept that doesn’t come easy to many individuals who struggle with eating disorders or obesity.
Mindful eating is NOT about what you eat so much as how and why you eat.
America’s diet mentality demonizes certain foods (usually carbs, fat or sugar) and glorifies others. But the reality is that food is neither good nor bad. The focus of mindful eating is not so much on what you eat (go ahead and eat the hamburger or cookie without guilt if that’s what you want, so long as you do so mindfully—letting your body tell you when it needs this food), but rather which part of you wants to eat what you are eating. Is it your wounded child or your emotional or stressed-out self? If so, stop and ask yourself if you want to continue feeding that part of you or if you want to feed your authentic self.
Mindful eating IS beneficial for anyone.
Although the origins of mindfulness trace back to Buddhist tradition, mindfulness practice isn’t limited to monks or nuns. Today, mindfulness has several applications. It has been used to help cancer survivors transition from a feeding tube to eating solids and to help individuals with eating disorders learn skills to manage their symptoms. Some studies suggest mindfulness may be useful in preventing burnout among teachers, physicians and other professionals. It has also helped smokers quit, improved sleep quality, helped students score higher on standardized tests, and relieved a number of physical and mental health problems.
Mindful eating is NOT a one-time practice.
Mindfulness isn’t something you do once and never think about again. It’s a moment-to-moment awareness that must be practiced and cultivated over time. Similar to the way an alcoholic takes recovery “one day at a time,” people recovering from eating disorders must stay aware of cues in their environment that trigger their desire to restrict, overeat, binge or engage in other destructive patterns, and then stop and reach out for support. This support can take many forms, from talking to a friend or calling your therapist to going for a walk or reading an affirmation. The key is interrupting automatic patterns and responding in a way that truly nourishes the mind and body.
Here are a few ways to feed your mind and body so that they will continue to serve you well:
- Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied.
- Treat mealtime as an opportunity for connection, not escape. Sit down in a calm place, limit noise and distractions and focus on the experience of eating. Rather than multi-tasking (working at your desk and eating) just eat when you are eating and enjoy every bite.
- Allow at least 20 minutes for a meal (fullness cues take about this long to register in the brain). Chew slowly and participate in the experience using all five senses.
- Before you eat and throughout the meal, check in with yourself: How hungry are you? Put down your fork, take a few breaths and ask yourself: Am I satisfied?
- Start slowly. Even one or two mindful meals per week can begin to change your relationship with food.
In addition to making meals more enjoyable, mindful eating may allow you to recognize patterns in when, why, and how you eat. Understanding what you’re really feeding can be the first step toward healing.