Note: This is the final post in a five-part series on mindfulness and mindful eating.

To wrap up this series on mindfulness and mindful eating, I’ll take a stab at answering some common questions I get about mindful eating.

Mindful eating vs. intuitive eating

Q: How is mindful eating different from intuitive eating?

A: In a nutshell, mindful eating is definitely a component of intuitive eating, but intuitive eating goes much further.

If you’re primarily interested in getting more enjoyment from eating, and practicing tuning into your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, then mindful eating may be the perfect focus for you. But if you struggle with ideas about “good” and bad” foods and/or have a history of chronic dieting that you would like to start to rewrite, then intuitive eating may be a better tool for helping you get where you want to go.

Some people are intrigued by intuitive eating but don’t feel quite ready for it yet. In that case, starting to practice mindful eating might be a better first step.

Mindful eating and living

Q: Should I expand mindfulness beyond eating?

A: There are definite benefits to eating mindfully — and mindful eating can be a mindfulness practice in itself — but intentionally expanding your mindfulness practice beyond the plate has even more benefits.

The more you practice mindfulness — when eating, exercising, meditating, and so on — the stronger your “mindfulness muscle” becomes, making it more likely that you will notice when you shift into autopilot at times when it may work against your quality of life.

(For example, the fact that you can operate an automobile on autopilot is a good thing — do you really want every time you drive to feel like the first time — but operating on autopilot when spending what should be quality time with friends and family is not.)

When you become more mindful, you have the ability to bring yourself back to the present moment when you’re doing something that is meaningful, yet your mind is elsewhere. Creating happy memories of times with people we love or places we enjoy visiting is dependent on being in the present, not reliving the past or projecting what might happen in the future.

Practicing mindfulness in your life has a snowball effect — each time you notice your mind wandering and make the conscious choice to shift your awareness back to the present, the easier it is to do it the next time, then the next, then the next.

Mindful eating science

Q: What science supports mindful eating?

A: As I mentioned in the first post in this series, there’s really no research showing that mindful eating leads to weight loss — not that this stops commercial diet programs from selling mindful eating in that way — the benefits are more subtle than that.

As it specifically related to food, mindful eating can help improve awareness of hunger and fullness cues as well as emotional states, which may help reduce emotional eating or binge eating. It may also help you nourish yourself better because you are tuned into your bodies needs, as well as how certain foods make your feel physically.

Also, as mentioned above, mindful eating is one way to practice mindfulness, and mindfulness itself has a good body of research to support it’s benefits, although it’s still a fairly new area of research and the hope is that in future we’ll have even better, stronger research studies.

Mindful eating and yoga

Q: Does yoga help with mindful eating?

A: I hear that question a lot. The answer is, yes, it can, if you use yoga as another opportunity to practice mindfulness.

Notice that your mind is wandering during Downward Facing Dog? Bring it back to the mat (or the feeling of your tight hamstrings relaxing). This has benefits for both the mind and body. Tuning into how your body feels as you do your yoga poses allows you to adjust as needed to push yourself enough so you progress, but not so much that you injure yourself. This becomes more important as we get older, because what feels like an easy pose one day may feel more challenging the next, and we need to adapt to that (yes, I speak from experience!).

However, some yoga teachers openly advocate for what amounts to a restrictive diet, whether for weight loss or for “health.” Some of my intuitive eating clients who enjoy live yoga classes had to switch teachers, because the diet/wellness talk became a major distraction. Once you see how harmful that type of talk can be, you can’t unsee it.

Mindful eating and stress

Q: Can mindful eating help you reduce stress, and stress eating?

A: Certainly, although results may vary from person to person, from day to day.

Since mindful eating helps you tune into bodily sensations — including sensations that arise from stress — it can have a direct effect on reducing stress, because simply noticing and identifying uncomfortable emotions and feelings can help take away some of their power.

Additionally, when you do have a horrible day and want to soothe yourself with food a bit (which is totally normal), mindful eating will help you hone in on what you need to feel better, and help you tune into the eating experience (instead of tuning out). This increases the odds that your chosen food will have the desired effect without leading to uncomfortable overeating or binging.

Mindful and mindless eating

Q: So, what is mindless eating?

A: Mindless eating is:

  • Automatically grabbing candy from the office stash every time you walk by.
  • Looking down at your empty plate and wondering where your food went. (You may also notice the need to eat something else, even though you feel physically satisfied, because you didn’t get the mental satisfaction of eating and tasting and knowing that you’re eating and tasting.)
  • Being halfway through eating something then realizing it doesn’t even taste good, leading to the question, “Uh, why am I eating this.”
  • Eating free food just because it’s there, and it’s free, never mind if you’re hungry or would normally chose that food on your own.
  • Automatically going back for seconds because everyone else is.
  • Eating to feel numb (this actually goes deeper than mindless eating, although mindlessness is definitely one aspect)
Why mindful eating is important

Q: Why is mindful eating important?

A: Given what I just wrote about mindless eating, why wouldn’t you want to eat more mindfully?

Note: If you struggle with eating disorder symptoms or with anxiety related to food, explore mindful eating with the support of a therapist and/or registered dietitian. Similarly, if you find if very difficult to acknowledge or cope with unpleasant emotions—or feel overwhelmed by any heightened emotion, even “pleasant” ones—consider exploring mindfulness under the guidance of a therapist trained in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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