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Is Meditation Necessary for Mindful Eating?

By Rebecca Johnson

Is-meditation-necessary-for-mindful-eatingFrustration and fatigue with diets and the traditional “eat less, exercise more” approach to health seem to be at an all-time high. The upside is that it has opened the door for people to learn about mindful eating as an alternative path to balanced eating, freedom with food, and peace with their body.

There are a handful of quality programs available for individuals who are ready to change their relationship with food and trainings for health professionals who wish to learn and share these concepts with others. These programs and resources have much in common, including a core focus on awareness and non-judgment, and a true desire to improve the lives of people who struggle with food. However, one point on which well-established mindful eating providers may differ is whether or not a sitting meditation practice is necessary in order for mindful eating to help individuals create a sustainable change in their relationship with food.

If you’re familiar with the Am I Hungry? mindful eating model, you may know that sitting meditation is not an integral part of our workshops. Before I explain, let me first say that we in no way discourage meditation. Quite the opposite. There’s some very convincing hard science supporting the efficacy of mindfulness meditation to alter the brain in ways that foster a positive outlook, emotional resilience, focused attention, and other outcomes that are valuable in transforming our eating and our lives for the better.

However, eighteen years of experience has shown us that while meditation is valuable, it is not necessary to have a formal practice in order to effectively practice mindful eating and reap the benefits.

Requiring meditation may be a barrier to individuals who might benefit

While some may be drawn to mindful eating because of other experiences with mindfulness practices such as yoga or meditation, the assumption that meditation is required may create a barrier that prevents some people who might benefit from mindful eating from engaging in the process.

Had I been under the assumption early on that meditation was absolutely essential in order for me to practice mindful eating “right” (whatever that means!), it would have been counterproductive. It’s possible I would have been turned off altogether, overwhelmed at the prospect of developing a daily practice when I had none, or later frustrated at my “lack of discipline” when I did not manage to meditate regularly. None of this would have been particularly helpful in the change process.

I don’t believe my experience is unique.

Many of the thousands of people we’ve helped over the years have been able to free themselves from frustrating cycles of overeating, dieting, and the eat-repent-repeat cycle through a very practical approach to mindful eating that does not require sitting meditation. As I think about the workshops I’ve facilitated in the workplace, I have a clear sense that an early and strong focus on meditation would have prevented some employees from participating in the program. For others, it may have been a roadblock for openness and change simply because of their experiences, beliefs, or societal norms. (One that comes immediately to mind is a group on the front lines of an energy company in a rural part of my state. I’m sure at least a few of those men would have laughed or simply left the room if I had said meditation was necessary!)

Requiring meditation may be a barrier for some who want to teach mindful eating

Challenges with requiring meditation may also apply to health and wellness professionals who want to share these life-changing concepts with others. Since teaching meditation is an entire skill set itself, requiring all of our facilitators, coaches, instructors, and therapists to offer meditation is not realistic and would create an unnecessary hurdle. (Of course, if someone who has completed one of our mindful eating training programs also has training in meditation, they are able to incorporate it into their programs.)

While meditation is highly valuable for some, not everyone is ready to “go there,” at least not in the early stages of the process. Further, it does not seem to me that there is a linear relationship between a regular meditation practice and “success” with mindful eating.

If not meditation, then what?

Working with the assumption that not everyone is ready for, or even interested in, meditation, Am I Hungry? programs initially focus on more in-the-moment and immediately applicable mindfulness techniques, thereby allowing us to reach and stay connected with a more diverse and varied audience. The powerful Mindful Eating Cycle is explored as a way to understand and resolve problematic eating through the lens of awareness, curiosity, non-judgment, and intentional decision-making.

At each of the six points on the Mindful Eating Cycle, participants are offered mindfulness-based tools to experiment with to support discovery, new experiences, and change. Some of these mindfulness-based techniques include:

  • Pausing to become aware of what is happening in the present moment
  • Using a Body-Mind-Heart Scan to develop greater awareness of sensations, thoughts, and feelings
  • Noticing one’s physical state, hunger or fullness level, and other non-hunger triggers that may be present
  • Non-judgmentally weighing the effectiveness of various options for responding to non-hunger triggers
  • Observing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to recognize habitual patterns
  • Pausing to ask themselves questions before choosing food to become aware of preferences, needs, and options
  • Setting an intention for how they want to feel after eating
  • Participating in an experiential mindful eating activity designed to connect them with a richer and more satisfying eating experience
  • Nonjudgmentally deconstructing eating challenges to develop insight for more effective decisions in the future
  • Acknowledging and honoring the body, mind, heart, and spirit as integrated and valuable aspects of their well-being

Mindful Eating as a Doorway

Many of the participants we’ve worked with have their first exposure to mindfulness through our mindful eating programs. As a result of their positive experience, they integrate mindfulness into other aspects of their lives and apply what they’ve learned into their relationships, work, and other forms of self-care.

Their direct experience with the power of mindfulness to affect their relationship with food sometimes opens the doorway to exploring other mindfulness practices such as yoga or meditation. Instead of meditation being the gateway for a successful mindful eating experience, it often works in reverse.

This has certainly been true for me. Even though I have been inconsistent with my meditation practice, I have been able to completely transform my relationship with food and many other aspects of my life through mindful eating. I have cultivated a general state of mindful awareness that now serves as the foundation for my entire existence. Eating with intention and attention also keeps me more connected to my sporadic and valuable meditation practice. In fact, the mindful eating concepts I work with daily are a reminder to reconnect with presence and purpose in all areas of my life, whether through meditation, my yoga practice, a few deep breaths, pausing to respond instead of react, or simply paying full attention while chopping vegetables or playing with my kids.

As with everything in life, there are varied opinions on this subject and many ways to think about it. Our understanding is that a regular meditation practice can be helpful and support the transformation of your relationship with food, but it’s definitely not a necessity.

What are your thoughts?

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of diverse experience in hands-on, management, and strategy roles. She currently serves as the Director of Workplace Wellness for Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training, where she oversees the implementation of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the corporate wellness arena. Independently, she provides coaching and consulting services for organizations seeking to leverage the powerful of organizational development and employee well-being to create a thriving culture. Rebecca lives on the West Coast of Florida with her husband, Greg, and their four children.

View all posts by Rebecca Johnson

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