Mindful eating is rapidly increasing in popularity as a common-sense approach to resolving myriad eating-related issues. It is particularly effective for breaking the “eat-repent-repeat” cycle that so often results from restrictive eating. Ironically, many people filter mindful eating concepts through the conventional diet paradigm and simply turn it into a mindful eating diet—with the same predictable results!
Diets are ineffective in part because they are based on unsustainable rules created by an expert for you to follow. This outside-in approach keeps the dieter focused on compliance with the rules, requiring willpower indefinitely. Diet “experts” who jump on the mindful eating bandwagon often don’t understand the subtle yet meaningful differences between mindful eating and the type of diet advice they usually give. Unknowingly, they turn mindful eating into a diet!
When someone I’m working with is struggling with mindful eating, we often uncover that they have inadvertently made up mindful eating rules. It’s completely understandable since diet-culture teaches us we can’t trust ourselves and trains us to follow rules. Because we don’t trust ourselves, it feels scary when there are no rules to give us boundaries.
The problem is that rules (diet rules and made-up mindful eating rules) often trigger rebellion, resistance, and guilt – all triggers for the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
Let’s highlight some of the most common mistakes that turn mindful eating into a diet–and what to do instead.
Mindful Eating Diet Step 1
Make new diet-y rules like “Only eat when you’re hungry” and “Always stop when you are full.”
Why: The give-away here are the words “only” and “always.” These all-or-nothing rules are typical of most diets.
Feeling guilty if you eat when you’re not hungry or judging yourself for eating past a 5 or a 6 is no different from dieting. This form of restrictive eating will lead to the same eat-repent-repeat cycle.
Instead: When you feel like eating, pause to ask yourself, Am I hungry?—not to decide if you’re allowed to eat, but to recognize why you want to. With this awareness, you can freely choose whether to eat or not. Similarly, noticing when you’ve had enough to eat is a useful skill—but eating more than you need sometimes is part of normal eating—and nothing to feel guilty about.
Mindful Eating Diet Step 2
Think about mindful eating in terms of “Tips and Tricks” instead of a practice.
Why: Tips like “Chew each bite 20 times” do not lead to increased mindfulness, just boredom! And while we’re all used to headlines like “5 Tricks for Sticking to Your Diet,” that short-term “magical” approach leads to short-term behaviors. Like other forms of mindfulness, mindful eating is a practice.
Instead: Unlike dieting which typically becomes harder to sustain over time, eating mindfully becomes more natural with practice. As you learn how to attend to your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings over time, you discover you have an inner expert who guides you naturally toward balance, variety, and moderation.
Mindful Eating Diet Step 3
Mindfully resist the foods you love.
Why: I often come across advice like, “Be mindful of what you eat” or “Be mindful about consuming carbs.” The implication is that you should consciously avoid certain foods or ingredients. How is that different from other diets? It’s not!
This type of restrictive approach to eating doesn’t work long-term because what you resist, persists!
Instead: Am I Hungry? is based on a non-diet approach. That means we don’t encourage restriction or deprivation. Instead, a non-diet approach encourages a more natural, instinctive way of eating by becoming attuned to internal cues. A non-diet approach guides individuals toward a flexible, sustainable, and satisfying relationship with food by re-learning how to make decisions based on their own body wisdom in any situation. In other words, it is an inside-out approach.
Mindfulness teaches you to become aware of what you are thinking and feeling (physically and emotionally). Perhaps you notice you’re craving a favorite food from your childhood. Rather than resisting that food, you become curious about the craving. What does the craving feel like? What, specifically, do you desire about that food? What associations do you have with that food? Do those associations give you any hints about your underlying needs? How might it feel to eat that food? How might it feel if you don’t?
Mindful Eating Diet Step 4
Allow yourself to indulge in your favorite treats by mindfully savoring just one or two bites.
Why: This seemingly permissive advice is still restrictive! The tell-tale words are allow, indulge, treats, and just.
When you need to have permission to eat a favorite food or can only eat it if you follow specific rules, it feeds unconscious feelings of judgment and deprivation that may lead to paradoxical overeating.
Instead: Don’t set arbitrary boundaries around eating that ultimately lead to “cheating” and guilt. With mindful eating, don’t cheat, choose! Learn to trust your internal expert to eat what you love and love what you eat.
Mindful Eating Diet Step 5
Use mindful eating for weight loss.
Why: Mindful eating for weight loss is counter-productive and interferes with the process of learning to listen to, and trust, ourselves.
Instead: One simple definition of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You cannot change your weight in the present moment, so focusing on weight loss keeps you lamenting past behaviors or postponing your life until your body is different.
What can you do in the present moment?
Become more aware of your physical cues of hunger and satiety and how you feel when you eat different types and amounts of food. Tune in to the appearance, aromas, flavors, and textures of the foods you select. Notice how you feel when you move your body. Use your body’s cues to practice self-care, such as resting when your body is tired, taking a break when you feel stressed, connecting with others when you feel bored or lonely, and so on. Moment by moment, notice the effects of the choices you make and allow that awareness to affect the choices you make in the future.