Truths and Myths about Mindful Eating

By now, you've likely heard the term Mindful Eating, or Intuitive Eating. This concept was popularized nearly 20 years ago by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Mindful eating brings the centuries old Buddhist practice of mindfulness to your table. Let's dig deeper into what mindful eating is, the basic principles, and some misconceptions about this hugely successful approach. 

What is mindful eating? 

Mindful eating is about being more mindfully present and thoughtful about the eating process. People who practice mindful eating try to bring their full attention to the eating experience, as well as a more conscious and intuitive response to food cravings and their physical cues of hunger and fullness.

Basically, when it comes to eating, mindfulness means you're taking yourself off of autopilot, getting more curious about your own body and the food you're putting in it, and learning to tap into your natural food intuition, something many people lose touch with over time. 

The 10 principles of mindful eating

Here are the basic principles of Mindful Eating and how focusing more on your eating and your body's cues can work in your favor: 

  1. Reject the diet mentality. Throw out the diet books that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.

  2. Honor your hunger. Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.

  3. Make peace with food. Call a truce and stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing. When you finally give in to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in “Last Supper” overeating and overwhelming guilt.

  4. Challenge the food police. Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you are “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in becoming an Intuitive Eater.

  5. Respect your fullness. Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or snack and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?

  6. Discover the satisfaction factor. The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence—the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough.”

  7. Honor your feelings without using food. Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.

    8. Respect your body. Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.

    9. Exercise—feel the difference. Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out (such as more energized), it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.

    10. Honor your health. Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters—progress, not perfection, is what counts. 

Mindful eating can increase happiness

Have you ever heard that a wandering mind is an unhappy one? Researchers at Harvard came to this conclusion after studying more than 2,000 people ages 18 to 88. They learned that most people spend almost 50 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they're supposed to be focused on. Study participants reported feeling unhappy during and after mind-wandering. When you are living in the moment (aka being more mindful), a part of your brain called the DMN (default mode network) gets deactivated and you are better able to focus. 

By bringing focus and present thoughts to their eating, many people report more satisfaction, not only with their food choices and meals, but also with their bodies. One of the principles of mindful eating is being more thankful to your body for how it keeps you alive, breathing, and functioning well. 

3 myths about mindful eating

Because of the popularity of the mindful eating approach, misconceptions have arose about what intuitive eating is. Here are some common misunderstandings about it: 

    1.  False: It's a diet. This approach to eating is actual the opposite of a diet, where you ditch food rules in favor of listening to what your body needs and is saying as a response to hunger, eating, and fullness. 

    2. False: It's easier than a diet. While mindful eating is not a diet, it does take time and practice to unlearn some things that have been hardwired into your head about eating. And in that way, mindful eating can be a hard concept for people who are used to more strict diet rules with lists of do's and don'ts.

    3. False: Mindful eating takes too long. Michelle May, an MD who has written a lot about the practice of mindful eating, says that mindful eating doesn't have to take a long time to be effective. You can mindfully consume a slice of pizza, a piece of fruit, or a piece of chocolate in just a few minutes ... and turn those minutes into a mini-meditation that will nourish your body and your soul!

Whether you're new to mindful eating or need a refresher, this concept is a proven way to bring more peace, happiness, and health to your plate. 

Jessie Shafer is a registered dietitian-nutritionist, team member at 
The Real Food Dietitians, former magazine editor, and busy mom of three who has been a long-time advocate and continuing learner of a mindful eating approach.


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