While mindful eating, along with mindfulness, has been growing in popularity over the last few decades, there are always spikes in interest around this time of the year.

Unfortunately, much of that spike is because diet culture, driven by the diet-and-“wellness” industry, has tried to co-opt mindful eating for its own devices.

In the process, it has twisted mindful eating into “careful” eating and “mind full” eating.

Mindful eating vs. careful eating

Advice to be “mindful” about our food choices abounds, especially coming from people who don’t fully understand mindful eating and from those who willfully misunderstand it. This advice often translates to researching the origins of your food and studying food labels or keeping track of your portion sizes or how often you consume sugar.

But these practices are really about stamping external rules onto your eating. And when you do that, you’re not being mindful, you’re being careful.

Careful eaters tend to be vigilant about their eating, spending a lot of mental time and energy worrying about what foods to eat and how much.

Mindful eating isn’t the same as thinking more about food and eating, because thinking isn’t the same as noticing and experiencing. Whereas careful eating is rigid, mindful eating is flexible and adaptive. True mindful eating is about checking in with our senses and our bodies to decide what will satisfy us on a sensory and physical level, and maybe be compatible with what our energy levels are at the time.

While mindful eating may certainly involve making informed food choices by thinking about what’s worked well for you before, too much thinking puts you in your head and pulls you out of your body. Your thoughts are not your experiences, and your thoughts are not who you are.

If you tend to be a careful eater, rest assured that mindful eating makes it easier to choose foods you truly want and leave the rest, ultimately increasing satisfaction and reducing overeating.

Giving yourself permission to mindfully eat favorite “forbidden” foods can also take the power back from those foods. For example, if you bake cookies for your family and allow yourself to enjoy some, you’re less likely to inhale a dozen cookies later in secret.

Principles of mindful eating

The Center for Mindful Eating, which offers training and resources for professionals like myself, as well as anyone who wants to start a personal mindful eating practice, says mindful eating is:

  • Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom. 
  • Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.   
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

And, someone who eats mindfully:

  • Acknowledges that there is no right or wrong way to eat but varying degrees of awareness surrounding the experience of food.
  • Accepts that their eating experiences are unique.
  • Is an individual who by choice, directs their attention to eating on a moment-by-moment basis.
  • Gains awareness of how they can make choices that support health and well being.
  • Becomes aware of the interconnection of earth, living beings, and cultural practices and the impact of their food choices on those systems.

Can you be mindful when your mind is full?

When mindful eating is presented as a way to help you control or restrict your eating, this makes it all but impossible to truly eat mindfully. Why? Because your mind will be full of whether mindful eating is “working.” In other words, whether it’s actually helping you eat fewer calories, or avoid “toxic” foods, and whether that will translate to weight loss or perfect health.

(Here’s a tip: food isn’t toxic, and “perfect” health is unattainable. Sorry.)

Of course, it’s possible for anyone to eat when their mind is full. I suspect most people are doing that most of the time, even if they aren’t trying to follow any food rules. Something I often hear from new mindful eaters is, “I’m slowing down, and eating without distractions, but other than that things don’t feel different.”

Here’s the problem: mindful eating isn’t just eating slowly or eating without distractions. Yes, slowing down your eating and eating without watching or reading something can make it easier to eat mindfully — even though you can make those activities part of an overall mindful eating experience.

However, it’s possible to eat slowly yet remain unaware of the experience of eating or the transition from hunger to fullness and satiety. That’s because you can eat slowly without any external distractions, yet be lost in thought.

No matter what the reason your mind is full, if it is, you probably aren’t being mindful. In fact, when the volume on your thinking is turned up, your awareness is turned down. What your mind is doing while you’re eating is more important than eating speed or the presence or absence of distractions. Have you ever driven home on a very familiar route and realized when you got home that you didn’t remember most of the trip?

Intention and attention

Just as you can walk or drive a familiar path while thinking about something else, you can eat while thinking about something else. After all, you’ve been eating solid food since before you can remember, so you’ve had a lot of practice. You don’t have to think about eating in order to eat. You can do it on autopilot. You can do it mindlessly.

Now, there are certain advantages to being able to perform familiar and essential activities on autopilot — would you want every time you drove a car to feel like the first time? — but it’s a shame to miss out on life’s pleasures, such as a pretty landscape or tasty food.

This is where setting your intention before you begin to eat and renewing your intention each time you pick up your fork, can help. Your intention will probably include satisfying hunger — but it could be to comfort or distract yourself. (If so, that’s important information you can use to make a conscious choice about whether to engage with food that way, or to find a non-food way to meet your needs.)

Your intention may also include noticing when you are comfortably full and ending your meal there. It may include fully savoring your food. That’s why intention goes hand-in-hand with attention. In other words, paying attention to things like your hunger level before you begin eating, and partway through the meal, as well as how the food looks, smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth.

“But what if my mind wanders?”

Paying attention is easier said than done, because the human mind is prone to wander, prone to get hooked by thoughts. So when your mind does this, you aren’t failing at being mindful, you’re simply being human. (Congratulations!)

When you notice your mind wandering, you can gently, compassionately bring it back to what you were intending to pay attention to. Kind of like you would gently redirect a puppy that keeps wandering off. (Yes, that’s why there’s a photo of a puppy.)

At your next meal, when you notice that you’re thinking as you eat rather than paying attention to your food, stop and reflect on how much pleasure you received from the last bite you took before you realized your mind had wandered. Probably not much.

Then, really pay attention to the next bite, the tastes, the textures, the temperature. How pleasurable was that bite? Probably a lot more. Renewing your intention with each bite, then paying attention, can make your third, fourth, fifth bite as delicious as the first.

While mindful eating can be a mindfulness practice in itself, intentionally expanding your mindfulness practice beyond the plate has even more benefits. The more you practice being mindful when eating, walking, doing yoga, 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 you don’t intend to.

The bottom line

There can be great joy in eating in a way that’s fully satisfying and attuned to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and that enables you to create happy food memories with people you love or in places you enjoy visiting.

All of that 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.

Being mindful is a process. It takes time. January is World Mindful Eating Month, which is a great time to bring more mindfulness into your meals. You can of course learn more through The Center For Mindful Eating, but also check out my roundup of previous posts on mindfulness and mindful eating.

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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