Here you are, wanting to start a mindful eating practice, and you’re wondering how to get started, and perhaps more importantly, how to sustain your practice.
In this article I’m going to help you do just that, by encouraging you to think through why you want to eat mindfully, what things might get in the way of your being able to sustain the practice, as well as some tips on how to get the most out of it.
In the weight-obsessed, fatphobic culture we unfortunately live in, all too often, the motivation to eat mindfully is weight loss. If this is your motivation, I get you! It’s completely understandable that you want to lose weight and yet I suggest it’s not going to be a motivation that will help you to sustain your practice.
Here are several thoughts to consider:
- Weight is seen as a modifiable factor (as opposed to height, for example). However, if intentional weight loss programs worked, you’d have done it by now, right? It’s not for lack of trying. For survival, the body defends against weight loss. Research shows that intentional weight loss methods just aren’t sustainable for the vast majority of people: 94%+ of people who try it regain the weight within 5 years, and up to 66% regain more than what they lose (Mann, Tomiyama 2007). If you apply mindful eating with the intention of weight loss, you’ll be using it as a control mechanism and likely will have the same result as dieting.
- Mindful eating is a mindfulness practice. At its core, mindfulness is all about being aware of what is arising in the present moment, without judgment. This will include your thoughts and feelings as well as your sensory experience of eating and your awareness of hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues. Mindfulness and mindful eating are not about trying to change anything. They are practices of awareness and acceptance. Using mindful eating as a tool to lose weight is, in effect, antithetical to the spirit of mindfulness and I would suggest will likely dampen the full experience that is on offer.
If you would like some thoughts on what might be more sustaining and helpful motivations for a mindful eating practice, consider these:
- To be connected to your body, mind and heart
- To be gently and kindly present to whatever is arising
- To become more aware of what you’re needing in any one moment
- To experience the pleasures and joys that food can offer!
- To practice acceptance of your body, thoughts and emotions that arise moment to moment
Stumbling blocks I think it’s always helpful to think in advance about what might get in the way of practicing something new, and then think about how you might meet these challenges if/when they come up.
Here are some things to look out for:
- Being attached to an outcome. As I’ve said above, mindfulness and mindful eating are not goal oriented practices. They are about paying attention in the present moment to whatever is arising, without judgment. If you’re trying to bring about an outcome (like weight loss, peace, ease, or anything else) you are trying to control and therefore not practicing acceptance in the present moment, so this will derail your practice.
- Trying to be perfect/ judging. Mindful eating isn’t about getting anything right. You don’t have to chew a certain number of times or eat at a certain pace to be doing it correctly. The whole practice is centered on acceptance - of yourself, the practice and everything that is arising.
- Putting pressure on yourself. You don’t need to eat mindfully at every meal and snack, or for the entire meal or snack to benefit from mindful eating. It’s likely that anyone reading this isn’t living a monastic life where the environment and ethos are set up for this!
Meeting these stumbling blocks
So how do we meet these challenges when they come up - because let’s face it, they are likely to arise! We’re all human after all…
- Letting go of attachments. Far be it from me to write one sentence on how to let go of attachment! It’s a lifetime’s work because becoming attached to outcomes seems to be the human experience! In my opinion, the best we can do is to notice that we’re attached. How are you feeling in your body? Is there contraction there? Is there a sense of drivenness or a demand for you, your life or your body to be different from how they are right now? These are signs that you’ve become attached to something. You have a choice to make here: let go of the attachment, or maintain the attachment; continue to experience the suffering of not having what you want, or surrender to the way it is.
- Letting go of perfection and judgment. Again, all we can really do is develop our capacity for awareness (which we do through practice). Once we have awareness, options open up! I find that sensing through the body is the best guide. When there’s judgment, or striving for perfection, there will be tension in the body. This is such a great clue to inquire further and explore what’s going on. How are you judging yourself or your practice? Once you understand this, can you bring compassion to it? Can you bring kindness? You’re human - we all do this. Reminders help too: ‘There’s no perfect way to eat mindfully or to be a human being.’ ‘My intention is simply to be present to whatever is arising in this moment.’
- Letting go of the extra pressure. I often suggest to clients that they start with just one mindful bite at a meal or snack. You can build this up to two, then three. Then you might check back in about midway through your meal or snack - are you still enjoying it? Is it satisfying? What are you noticing now about the tastes and textures? Are you becoming more satiated? How much more food do you think might meet this current need? Then come back towards the end of the meal or snack, check in again and enquire in the same way. Be gentle with yourself. You can receive great benefit from moments of mindful eating. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Practicing mindful eating isn’t complicated - that’s one of the beautiful things about it! It’s simple, free and can take as long or as little time as you like.
Essentially what you’re aiming for is to immerse yourself as much as possible into the moment by moment experience of eating. This will include how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, the sights, sounds, smells and textures and tastes of the food, the shift in the sensations of hunger and satiety as you eat, your hand lifting the fork to your mouth, putting it down, the feeling of your jaw chewing, the saliva mixing with the food and so on, how the food starts off crunchy and turns more mushy as you chew–all of this awareness with a spirit of curiosity and acceptance.
You don’t HAVE to eat slowly for it to be a mindful experience, however you’ll notice so much more if you do. I’m a great believer in doing what’s doable instead of pushing, shoving or forcing ourselves. Sometimes the reality is that you ARE in a rush; can you be aware of that without judgment? Sometimes the reality is that you DO need to multitask while you’re eating. What’s that like? How do you feel? What do you notice?
To summarize, - I think it’s important to be aware that mindful eating is a mindfulness practice. To get the most from it, having a more formal sitting practice can be incredibly powerful and supportive of our overall well being, which includes our relationship with food and with our bodies.
I hope that helps to get you started.
Vania Phitidis holds a B.A. in Psychology and an Msc. in Education for Sustainability with a focus on behavior change.
She's a registered Intuitive Eating Counselor, certified MB-EAT (Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training) teacher, and a qualified Self Esteem mentor with the More to Life Program.
She's had the privilege of coaching hundreds of people over nearly 30 years to become more of their authentic selves. She works from a weight-inclusive and weight-neutral approach.
Vania is a prolific blogger and writer – you can download her ebook A Guide to Peaceful Eating here and read a multitude of blogs here.
Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, et al. Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. J Am Psychol. April 2007;62(3):220-233.