Mindful eating, intuitive eating, and conscious eating are all terms used to describe a way of eating that uses internal cues about hunger, appetite and fullness to guide our relationship with food. Being attuned to and able to listen to our body allows us to know what and when we need to eat. The focus is on learning to eat in a conscious way that helps our body to feel and function well. Dieting, restricting, counting calories or fat grams and focusing on weight are NOT components of mindful eating. Mindful eaters eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. They eat the foods that they are hungry for. There is no list of “good” and “bad” foods.
In short, mindful eating is the way that people who have a healthy relationship with food, who don’t struggle with weight and who don’t diet have been eating all along.
When introduced to mindful eating, people often panic. “If there are no rules, I’ll eat all day long.” In the short run, some people do eat more, but mindful eating is not eating with abandon. Mindful eating is eating consciously, being aware of the present moment; being aware of hunger and fullness; being aware of your appetite and what you are really hungry for. Mindful or intuitive eating involves learning to be conscious of the difference between hunger and other eating cues such as painful emotions, boredom, or tiredness.
The secret to success with mindful or intuitive eating is this: You must remember or re-learn how to eat consciously–without shame, guilt, fear and with careful attention to your body and what it needs and wants. Doing this also requires learning what to do when what your body and mind need and want are not food. You must learn to listen respectfully to your body and learn to nourish your body and spirit without food when food is not what is called for.
Since 1995, I have worked with individuals to help them break unhealthy cycles of dieting, restricting, binge eating and overeating by establishing mindful or conscious eating habits. There are two essential components for creating an enduring habit of mindful eating.
1. A Mindful Check-in Practice
The goal of mindful eating is to stop both obsessing about food/diet and stop going on automatic pilot with food/eating. In order to be successful, you will need to create a consistent method of checking in–staying connected with yourself and with what you are feeling and needing so that you can respond to these needs and desires and avoid emotional eating. You will need to find a practice that works for you and fits with your personality and your strengths. If the practice you choose doesn’t suit you, you won’t stick with it.
This may be something you do daily when you get up in the morning or before a meal or when you get home from work. The only requirements are that it be done consistently and that it is something that helps you focus inward, without distractions. It is often useful to have a few ways of doing mindful check-ins at various points in your day.
Examples of possible mindful check-ins: mindfulness meditation, journal writing or free writing, walking or running, prayer or contemplative time.
Often people start with writing. It might be useful to write about whatever is on your mind for fifteen minutes every morning. Especially in the beginning, it is helpful to keep an emotion/food log–noting how you are feeling and how hungry you are before you eat. The process of writing slows you down and forces you to think–to be mindful–of your eating.
2. A Support System
It is very important to have people (or a person) who support and encourage your belief system about not dieting. Your support system should honor your goals, celebrate your successes and help you stay accountable towards being the person you want to be. Your support system may help you to be consistent with your mindful practice. Your supporters know that you are not your weight or your clothing size. They are there for you when you doubt yourself or your path and when you hit roadblocks or find yourself in a place or with a feeling where you don’t know what to do. They can help you figure out what to do when you know you are not hungry but feel like turning to food.
People create this support system in a variety of places. Your support may be available in friends you already have. Sometimes, however, the mindset of dieting is so entrenched in our families or social circle that it might be helpful to move outside your current life for support. A group, an online message board, or an intuitive eating class can be very helpful.
Sometimes people choose to work with someone individually. As a Personal Coach, I work with individuals to help them successfully move out of a dieting mentality, to develop meaningful mindfulness check-in strategies that honor and utilize their particular strengths. We work together to get through the scary parts of giving up calorie counting and weigh-ins. In some situations, a therapist can be helpful to you in moving beyond emotional eating. If you find that the emotions behind your eating are overwhelming or if dieting feels out-of-control, you should consider working with a therapist who specializes in these issues.
Remember: Mindful eating is about putting your relationship with food into perspective. When we do that successfully, we find that it means developing new ways of taking care of ourselves without resorting to food or to dieting. It’s a challenge but the rewards are tremendous. Developing mindful check-in practices and a solid support system will create a firm foundation for success.