How Long Does It Take to Learn to Eat Mindfully?

By Michelle May, M.D.

One of the questions I am often asked is, “How long does it take to learn to eat mindfully and stop yo-yo dieting (or whatever the challenge is)?” My answer is “It depends,” or “It’s different for each person,” or “I’m still learning!” However, after 16 years of teaching mindful eating using the Mindful Eating Cycle, I’ve noticed that people go through four distinct phases that closely follow a learning model called the Four Stages of Learning.

Learning to Eat Mindfully - graphic - sm

Click to enlarge Learning to Eat Mindfully graphic

Briefly, here are the Four Stages of Learning, then I’ll talk specifically about how people move through these stages as they learn to eat mindfully. (Please note: Don’t get hung up on the word “incompetent.” It simply means you lack knowledge and/or a particular skill. It is not a judgment!)

  • Unconsciously Incompetent – You don’t know what you don’t know (or don’t understand the value).
  • Consciously Incompetent – You know what you don’t know but your awareness may outpace your skills.
  • Consciously Competent – You are practicing what you want to know.
  • Unconsciously Competent – It is, or has become, natural for you so it is generally effortless.

When a person progresses through each of these stages as they learn to eat mindfully, there are common patterns in the following areas (as well as common pitfalls in each stage). Click here or on the graphic to enlarge.

  • Your relationship with food
  • Your eating behaviors
  • How you feel
  • Where you invest your energy and attention
  • What your life looks like

Four Stages of Learning to Eat Mindfully

Unconsciously Incompetent

You feel trapped in the eat-repent-repeat cycle, and you either don’t realize there’s an alternative or you’ve heard about mindful eating and don’t understand how (or don’t believe that) it could help you.

Caution: Mindful eating may sound too good to be true. In addition, there are many myths about mindful eating that could confuse or discourage you from taking the next step.

Consciously Incompetent

You are learning to recognize the decision points in the Mindful Eating Cycle. Your awareness increases faster than your skills so you may feel afraid that it won’t work for you. Mistakes are part of the learning process.

Caution: Out of habit, you may try to apply old “diet-mentality” to mindful eating, for example, using hunger and fullness to control your eating, looking for quick results, focusing on whether you’re losing weight, worrying about whether you’re doing it “right.” This is a time when you are vulnerable to giving up and regressing back to unconscious incompetence. A workshop, retreat, coach, or therapist can be invaluable for guiding you toward competence.

Consciously Competent

You feel free of the bondage that dieting and overeating held over you. As you continue to practice your mindful eating skills, they become increasingly natural. At this point, you could learn how to teach others while you continue to increase your awareness and master your new skills.

Caution: At this point, you can’t “unknow” mindful eating because you’ve personally experienced the benefits. However, you can choose to not do it. Mindful eating is not a linear process so you must continue to cultivate curiosity and nonjudgment.

Unconsciously Competent

You manage your eating effortlessly using mindful eating principles (awareness, curiosity, nonjudgment, acceptance, and so on). You are mindful in other aspects of your life, including your work and your relationships. Your energy is available to invest fully in your life.

Caution: If you have always eaten instinctively and never been “incompetent,” it may be challenging for you to “get” why others struggle. If you feel drawn to help others with lifestyle change, you must become consciously competent by learning the specific strategies that seem so effortless and obvious to you.

No matter which stage you are in, we’d love to help you get to the next level!

 

Want more like this? Free download: 101 Things to Do Besides Eat when you subscribe to our Mindful Eating E-Newsletter!

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