Mindful eating is a practice which can be used every day to learn more about our actions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations in order to cultivate health and contentment. This practice is not just about what we do when we put food into our mouths (although that is a useful examination and often a wonderful experience); it is also about learning how to access our internal wisdom and to use the qualities or characteristics of mindfulness in how we approach food, our bodies, and our entire lives.
Outer v. Inner Hunger Cues
Establishing a mindful eating practice and moving away from the diet mentality is life affirming. However, cultivating such a practice in our fast-paced society can be quite challenging. It requires an intentional shift from using external guidance about what, when, and how much to eat (e.g. diets, provided portion sizes, dress size, the bathroom scale, the size of your plate) to internal guidance (e.g. using your taste buds, your hunger/satiety cues).
In order to achieve an awareness of your internal guidance, a daily formal mindfulness practice is essential. In addition to these formal practices, the attitude with which you undertake the practice of paying attention is crucial. When approaching mindful eating for the first time, it can be helpful to learn about the attitudes of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013) to help transition from an external to a more internal guidance system.
The 7 Attitudes of Mindful Eating
1) Non-Judgment. Most of us are highly critical of ourselves, as well as others. Although some judgmental thoughts are adaptive, our minds often get into the habit of judging all the time—judging how we (or others) should look, what we (or others) should wear, how much we (or others) should weigh, what we (or others) should eat. These judgmental thoughts are painful, often false, and counterproductive to mindful eating. Noticing our judgmental thoughts is the first step toward freedom from them.
2) Patience. We have well-engrained habits and highly automated ways of thinking to overcome. Patience is required to learn the new skill of mindful eating and to realize that you will continue to learn over your lifetime. Mindful eating is not a quick fix.
All too often, we let our thoughts about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they actually are. A beginner’s mind will help us make more intuitive food choices.
3) Beginner’s Mind. According to Kabat-Zinn, a “beginner’s mind” is “a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.” All too often, we let our thoughts about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they actually are. How many times will we automatically dismiss certain food choices as “bad” for us, and then end up craving (and sometimes bingeing on) those very same foods! We often see food with “dieter lenses,” instead of listening to our own bodies. A beginner’s mind will help us make more intuitive food choices.
4) Trust. Many people who want to try mindful eating have lost trust in themselves. After years of dieting, the effects of the restrict-binge cycle creates a sense that they cannot control their eating behaviors. But trust in oneself is a necessary attitude to cultivate when establishing a mindful eating practice. This entails learning to rely on the intelligence of the body about what it wants to eat, and relying on the signals of hunger and satiety when it is time to stop eating. Trusting in oneself develops gradually over time.
5) Non-Striving. How many individuals have started with the goal of weight loss? Yet, the latest research suggests that going on a diet can actually predict weight gain. From a mindfulness perspective, the best way to achieve a goal is to back off from striving and instead focus on carefully seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement towards your goal can take place by itself.
6) Acceptance. We try all sorts of ways to deny food cravings. By accepting the sensation “craving” as it is, and not immediately trying to deny it or give in to it, you can begin to investigate, “What am I really, really hungry for?” Over time, they may find that what they really crave is not food. Accepting a situation is not passive surrendering. It is seeing the reality as it is without turning your head away from unpleasant experiences.
7) Letting Go. Mindful eating encourages the letting go of external cues, our cultural conditioning about what and how much we need to eat and what and how much we need to weigh. By letting go of our reliance on external cues, and cultivating a reliance on our own internal signals, we have the potential to find internal wisdom and peace.
Establishing a mindful eating practice by developing a consistent sitting meditation practice, a mindful eating practice, and the cultivation of these attitudes, is truly the doorway to a more peace in our relationship with food and our bodies. This improved relationship will then begin to impact other areas of our lives. We encourage you to take these practices on for yourself so that you understand them deeply in your own lives and then you will be better equipped to teach them to others.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Bantam Books.
Rossy, L (2016). The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution: Proven Strategies To End Overeating, Satisfy Your Hunger and Savor Your Life. New Harbinger Publications.
Kristeller, J. L., & Wolever, R. Q. (2011). Mindfulness-based eating awareness treatment (MB-EAT). Conceptual basis. Eating Disorders. The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 19, 49–61.