Author: Haica Rosenfeld, Psy.D., CEDS-S
I recently came across and read a blog that focused on explaining mindful eating, how to put it into practice, and the benefits it can have in people’s lives. What stood out for me, though, was the emphasis it made on how mindful eating can “help improve your diet”, “manage food cravings”, “keep you full with less food”, “influence wiser choices about what you eat in the future”, help you eat “only to satisfy physical hunger”, and even help you “lose weight.”
I wish I could tell you that this surprised me, but the reality is that as mindful
eating has gained more mainstream attention, multiple sources, programs, professionals, and influencers have co-opted this practice. This blog is just one of many examples of how diet culture misappropriates mindful eating’s language and ideas to promote food restriction, healthism, and weight loss.
As a professional who teaches, and a person who practices mindful eating, this can be confusing. As a specialist who battles and treats Eating Disorders daily, I believe this is also incredibly dangerous, harmful, and undermining mindful eating as a practice and anyone trying to learn and practice it. Those who co-opt mindful eating as a gateway to eating less or losing weight perpetuate a society that not only enables but also applauds disordered eating in the name of thinness.
Mindful Eating is rooted in a broader mindfulness philosophy–Buddhist teachings–and their centuries-old practices. It is a science-backed approach to eating that does not focus on diets, food rules, judgment or rigidity and does not promote weight loss as a result. To learn more about the true meaning of “mindful eating” and gain some insight from a description of “someone who mindfully eats,” please visit The Center For Mindful Eating’s website.
If mindful eating interests you or you want to deepen your practice, it is important to learn from an unbiased source. I recommend that you start by checking out these resources from TCME to get a better understanding and deepen your practice:
1. Introduction to Mindful Eating
2. Starting your Mindful Eating Journey
3. Upcoming webinar: Cultivating your Mindful Eating Practice: how to start?
Expert guidance can really be helpful too. So if you are considering working with a professional -which you absolutely should do if you struggle with an eating disorder– search for a therapist and/or a dietitian whose experience is based on a non-diet and weight-inclusive approach.
This means they are professionals who:
- Are weight-neutral and food-neutral;
- Promote a flexible, sustainable, and satisfying relationship with food;
- Encourage a gentle way of choosing what, when, and how to eat food, with no guilt, body shaming, or restrictions;
- Find value in health behaviors outside of weight loss and do not support intentionally pursuing weight loss;
- Help clients connect with body cues before, during, and after eating;
- Empower people to trust their bodies and themselves to make food decisions; and
- Encourage clients’ curiosity about their eating experiences without judgment.
Realistically, there is no definite way to stop anyone from co-opting mindful eating to promote diet culture. The best we can do is learn to spot fake or distorted mindful eating language and discard the source.
Some common red flags are when a program or “expert” promotes mindful eating and also suggests:
- Disconnecting from your body and its internal cues. Any type of plan where you are prohibited to eat and encouraged to override your body’s own signals–such as hunger, fullness, and satisfaction–doesn’t seem mindful.
- Eating is based on arbitrary external protocols and rules that dictate when or what you should be eating. This approach again encourages not paying attention to the body‘s internal cues.
- Counting things: food groups, calories, numbers, points, hours in a day. Tracking food and especially counting calories can easily become a dangerous obsession that can lead to eating disorder behaviors (Levinson et al., 2017).
- Labeling foods or food groups as good vs. bad or healthy vs. unhealthy. This approach moralizes food choices, as different foods are automatically assigned more or less value, creating judgments when we eat them.
- Making changes to eating, physical activity, or general lifestyle with the intention of weight loss. Mindful eating is not against weight loss but does not prescribe any practice as an intervention for weight loss. Weight changes can occur when practicing mindful eating; ultimately, what happens with weight can be interpreted as a neutral outcome. Some people may lose weight when practicing mindful eating, just as some will gain weight, and others will stay the same size. Weight changes do not make the practice or practitioner good or bad, a success or a failure.
- It is never acceptable to mindlessly eat. In reality, it is quite difficult to always eat mindfully, and to judge ourselves for being mindless is an inherent contradiction of mindfulness practices. What might be helpful is to approach these eating experiences with curiosity, just as we would when eating mindfully.
- Never choose to eat for emotional reasons. As Dr. Lynn Rossy indicates in her blog, “The skill of mindfulness helps us to be with all choices with great kindness and curiosity so that we can gain insight into what leads to suffering and what doesn’t. Mindfulness also provides a method for dealing with difficult emotions by acknowledging and accepting them, investigating them, and viewing them less personally. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness is to end unnecessary suffering.”
For many people, the practice of mindful eating is a lifeline. It can be experienced as a meaningful way out of the turmoil created by diet culture. And when someone appropriates mindful eating as the new diet tool, it can create confusion and harm and eventually lead us back to the same place as every other diet – rigidity, deprivation, frustration, shame, and likely disordered eating.
This is something I regularly observe in my practice. I often have conversations with clients who have seen or heard something online where mindful eating was co-opted or misrepresented, and it has caused confusion and harm. I’ve also worked with several clients who had first worked with a dietitian or therapist who promoted mindful eating for weight loss, which made their journey incredibly challenging.
If this is something you have experienced--feeling confused or harmed by mixed messages about mindful eating–the good news is you are in the right place. TCME is a non-profit organization with a mission to “help people achieve a balanced, respectful, healthy, and joyful relationship with food and eating.” On this website, you will find “research-based information and opportunities to interact in the community” about the practice of mindful eating.
It can be challenging and take deep work to unlearn and be free from diet culture’s beliefs. Whatever answers you come up with for yourself, just know that mindful eating is available to you whenever you are ready. With time, practice, and support, you will be able to experience the wonderful benefits of mindful eating.
Dr. Haica Rosenfeld is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Eating Disorders Specialist, and Approved Supervisor by the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. She currently works in Private Practice in Aventura, FL. She also provides Telehealth or Online psychotherapy to residents of Florida, Vermont, and Venezuela. Haica is dedicated to and passionate about helping clients heal their relationship with food, exercise, and their bodies, as well as disrupting the internalized messages they’ve received from diet culture.
Haica has worked for over 12 years in the field of eating disorders and body image healing. She is passionate about helping people make peace with food, whether that means overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating, living a life free of chronic dieting, learning intuitive eating, finding pleasure in joyful movement, and practicing a body-positive approach to wellness.
You can find her online at www.haicarosenfeld.com.
Levinson, C. A., Fewell, L., & Brosof, L. C. (2017). My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eating behaviors, 27, 14–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.08.003