By Michelle May, M.D.
In our weight-focused culture, the topic of mindful eating and weight loss comes up frequently. Although it is a big (and sticky) topic to write about, I feel strongly that learning to eat mindfully for the purpose of weight loss is problematic. I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but frankly, I don’t think it’s something many health professionals or their clients want to hear since we have been conditioned to think in terms of “How much weight can I lose?” However, after working in this area for over seventeen years, I’ve seen that a weight loss motivation for mindful eating is usually counter-productive and interferes with the process of learning to listen to and trust ourselves.
Let me share some of the questions and comments I commonly hear related to mindful eating and weight loss and a little food-for-thought for your consideration:
Will mindful eating help me reach my natural weight?
Maybe. There is no guarantee that someone will lose weight and keep it off with mindful eating or any other plan. Contrary to popular belief, body weight is not simply a matter of energy balance and discipline. It’s determined by a complex set of physiological, biological, genetic, and other variables—some of which have nothing to do with what or how much we eat or how much we exercise.
Although it’s attractive to think about mindful eating as a natural way to lose weight slowly, the problem is that you are still focusing on weight! That distracts you from healing your relationship with food—which is always the priority. Resolving a love-hate relationship with food leads to sustainable and life-enhancing changes that simply can’t be measured on a scale.
How can mindful eating help me then?
Focusing on weight loss keeps you focused on the past and the future, neither of which you have any control over. Mindfulness is about awareness of the present moment, which is, after all, the only moment you’re in charge of! With curiosity and awareness of your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings, you learn to make decisions moment-by-moment that support the way you want to feel today. Through this process, mindful eating helps free you from consuming cycles of yo-yo dieting, weight cycling, and body-loathing so you can invest fully in your life. As you learn to eat with intention and attention, you’ll develop skills and tools you can apply to other areas of your life as well.
Since mindful eating isn’t based on food rules, isn’t it better than dieting to lose weight?
There are many advantages and lasting benefits to eating mindfully, whether or not it leads to weight loss. The same cannot be said for dieting. In fact, turning mindful eating into a diet to lose weight is likely to lead to the same predictable results as any other diet. When, not if, you are imperfect, you’ll feel guilty and feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle, ultimately making it more difficult for you to make effective decisions about eating or self-care. Instead, when you learn how to eat what you love and love what you eat, you can let your weight take care of itself.
But I’ve seen a lot of articles promoting mindful eating as the next big thing in weight loss.
To a certain extent, we’ll have to blame the media for this one! I’ve been interviewed about mindful eating countless times and even though I explicitly say that it is not about weight, many of the articles still show up with headlines like “How to lose weight with mindful eating.” This incessant focus on weight may lead to magazine sales and click-throughs, but it isn’t helping people develop a natural, balanced. mindful approach to managing their eating or their lives.
But what about health? My doctor says I have to lose weight.
There is significant evidence that weight and health are not as closely linked as most people—including most health professionals—believe. Some larger-bodied people are physiologically healthy, while some thin people are not; a person’s weight is only one small piece of information and it is a huge mistake to make assumptions based on weight alone. Further, the most common outcome of any weight loss effort is not sustained changes in weight or health, but weight cycling which has been associated with poorer health outcomes. Focusing on weight can also contribute to disordered eating, eating disorders, and weight stigma, all of which are detrimental to well-being. Overall, focusing on weight as the primary measure of health does more harm than good. (We have written extensively about the evidence in support of shifting the focus from weight to well-being. I won’t attempt to review that again here but if you’re not familiar with this research, please check out these resources.)
If I stop trying to lose weight, aren’t I just giving up?
That depends on what you mean by “giving up.” Giving up on an all-consuming and ineffective approach to improving your health? Yes. Giving up on the pursuit of well-being and quality of life? Definitely not. There is no evidence whatsoever that the majority of people who diet and lose weight will keep it off, and many people who chronically focus on weight loss end up emotionally depleted and less physically healthy than before they started. On the other hand, there is a growing body of evidence that mindful eating can help you break the eat-repent-repeat cycle, improve dietary balance, rediscover joy in non-punitive physical activity, increase self-acceptance, improve self-management of various chronic diseases, and more. All of these changes will make you healthier at any size.
So no, you are not giving up! You are saying yes to learning how to listen to and trust your body’s signals, giving yourself permission to eat what you love without guilt, and treating yourself with the compassion and respect you deserve.
But it is so hard living in a larger body in a culture that rewards thinness and stigmatizes fatness!
Yes, but it is illogical to think that you must lose weight to stop weight bias. In fact, the continuous cultural focus on weight as the problem fuels weight stigma. This stigma often becomes internalized, fueling the belief that you must lose weight to be valued as a person. That is simply wrong. You are worthy and valuable as you are right now and you deserve to live free of bias and prejudice no matter what you weigh.
I have been trying to lose weight for so long that I guess I hoped that mindful eating would be the answer.
That’s understandable. It may be helpful to reframe the problem instead of focusing on a single solution. Don’t underestimate the stress of hating your body and constantly wishing it was different. The truth is, for many people, their weight isn’t creating the suffering; it is their thoughts about weight that causes them to suffer.
Gradually learning to embrace the fact that health and beauty come in all shapes and sizes can free you from the endless pursuit of weight loss that distracts you from living the life you crave. Think for a moment… what does that life look like? Peaceful, active, balanced, joyful… whatever you imagine that weight loss will do for you is available to you in the present moment. Mindfulness helps you learn to live fully in the body you have right now, so indeed, mindful eating may be the answer you’ve been seeking!
What is wrong with wanting to lose weight?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. However, is it possible that focusing on weight loss as the most important outcome is putting you in conflict with your body or distracting you from making sustainable changes in other valuable ways? Since it is not possible to lose weight in this very moment, how many moments of your life will you waste feeling that your body is unacceptable? Mindfulness cultivates nonjudgment and self-acceptance, and self-acceptance breeds self-care.
But I want to feel good.
Of course you do, and that is possible right now! What choices can you make in the present moment to feel good NOW? Eating foods you enjoy? Eating mindfully so you enjoy those foods more? Choosing foods that leave you feeling good instead of sluggish? Eating an amount of food that leaves you feeling content instead of miserable? Sleeping enough? Moving your body more? Choosing self-care activities? All of these decisions, whether or not they lead to weight loss, help you feel good now rather than waiting around for something that may or may not happen in the future.
I’m a health professional who believes in HAES (the Health at Every Size® approach), but if I don’t market my services as mindful eating and weight loss, how will people find me?
I get it! We used to sometimes refer to our work as “non-diet weight management.” I even rationalized that it didn’t really matter what motivated people to learn about mindful eating, as long as they did. However, this “bait and switch” perpetuates the focus on weight as the primary outcome and leads to confusion and incongruence. Further, even when your clients are experiencing the benefits of eating mindfully, they may fear that they are doing something wrong or that it isn’t “working” if they aren’t immediately seeing the weight loss they expected. As a weight-neutral company, we know that we are making it more difficult on ourselves to reach people who haven’t yet realized that focusing on weight only backfires, but we are committed to being part of the solution, not part of the problem.
So the bottom line is that mindful eating isn’t for weight loss?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the people don’t lose weight with mindful eating. Some do, some don’t. I’m just saying that weight loss isn’t the reason to learn how to eat mindfully—and focusing on it can get in the way of healing your relationship with food and living the big life you crave.
I Can’t Tell if I’m Hungry
By Michelle May, M.D.
Q – I am learning to eat mindfully but one issue has been a big struggle for me: I can’t tell if I’m hungry. I constantly ask myself, “Am I hungry?” and rate myself on the Hunger and Fullness scale but I am never hungry or I am missing the symptoms. The only cues I get are when my blood sugar level drops and I feel lightheaded and shaky. If I only eat when I get severe symptoms, I am only eating twice a day and I feel tired and sluggish all the time. I’ve spent the past 13 years eating on a schedule every 3-4 hours, never allowing myself to become hungry but that just wasn’t working for me either.
A – Thank you for your question. After years of ignoring hunger, it is not surprising that it is taking time for you to become attuned to the more subtle cues. Here are a few ideas for you to experiment with:
- Instead of asking “Am I hungry?” all the time, try doing a Body-Mind-Heart Scan (page 36-37 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) every 2-3 hours just to see what you notice. After your scan, jot down whatever you notice in your Mindful Eating Program Awareness Journal – even if it seems unrelated. There may be a subtle symptom or two that you didn’t realize was hunger. (For me, I realized that I get irritable and my upper abdomen starts to feel hollow when I’m hungry.) Our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app has a timer that you can set and it will remind you to do the scan and provides the instructions when the timer goes off.
- If you don’t think you are hungry but it has been four or more hours since you ate, you may want to check in more frequently so you can catch the symptoms before you are lightheaded and shaky.
- Notice how much you’re eating. If you are overly hungry by the time you eat, you may be more likely to overeat—and that may mean that you won’t get hungry as often. Similarly, notice what you are eating since some foods (like protein) lead to satiety for longer periods of time.
- If after trying the above ideas, you still aren’t noticing hunger, then use your “wise mind.” This is the wisdom that you have already discovered by noticing that you are tired and sluggish—also signs of hunger—probably because you aren’t eating often enough. Plan to eat at least three times a day; continue your regular Body-Mind-Heart Scans but if you still aren’t noticing hunger when it makes sense that you would (for example within an hour or two after waking up), then go ahead and have a small meal even if you are not hungry. Then wait to see when hunger comes – which will probably be at least 4 hours depending on what and how much you ate.
- While experimenting with these techniques, tune up your awareness by practicing nonjudgmental mindfulness in other situations at other times. For example, really feel the shower water on your skin; listen to the ceiling fan; notice the seeds on a strawberry, and so on. With practice, it will become more natural to notice the subtle cues in and around you!
Don’t worry that you can’t tell if you are hungry. With mindfulness and curiosity, awareness of hunger will soon feel natural again!
By Michelle May, M.D.
If you eat for emotional reasons—when you’re sad, mad, glad, stressed, or lonely—you probably eat in order to feel better. And eating works!
Unfortunately, you usually feel worse afterward—emotionally and physically. That may cause you to beat yourself up—quite literally adding insult to injury. The guilt and shame become yet another trigger for emotional eating, feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
What if the first step to breaking this cycle is self-compassion instead of self-criticism? How might that help? And more important, where do you start?
How does self-compassion help with emotional eating?
As difficult as it may be to fathom, being understanding and forgiving of yourself for overeating will help you take the next step to finding other ways to meet your emotional needs.
After all, you don’t eat for emotional reasons because you are “weak-willed,” “stupid,” or “out of control.” You do it because it works!
Blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault for attempting to care for yourself only backfires. Imagine you were teaching a young child something new… would blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault help or hurt? The way you speak to yourself has just as much power! (You may be afraid that if you are “nice” to yourself, you won’t change, but the opposite is true! You care for yourself because you accept yourself, not so you’ll accept yourself. Read Fear of Self-Acceptance.)
So how can you begin to respond with self-compassion when you overeat?
Three Ways to Nurture Self-Compassion
Gently acknowledge that you were doing the best you could in that moment.
Validate your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being normal and understandable given the circumstances. As Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, says, “Of course!” It’s like saying, “I totally get why you thought, felt, or did that!”
Of course you ate! Who wouldn’t want to feel better when you’re sad, mad, stressed, or lonely—or magnify the pleasure when you’re glad? This validation and unconditional acceptance creates a safe environment for experimenting with new thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When you overeat, validate the choice as being rational at the time: “Of course you __________________!” This gentle, understanding self-talk will open the door to exploring how you might do it differently next time if you don’t like how it turned out.
Bring nonjudgmental awareness to the situation.
Mindful eating is all about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your choices and experiences with eating. Nonjudgment is essential because it provides a more objective understanding of what happened and why.
Dr. Camerin Ross, one of the two therapists at our upcoming Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Retreat, suggests writing about an overeating or binge eating episode and identifying the “voices” that show up. Nonjudgmentally recognizing how your Restrictive Eating, Overeating, and Binge Eating voices drive the cycle affords you the opportunity to cultivate your Self-Care Voice. (Read through this sample script to see how this works.)
Cultivate Your Self-Care Voice
Your Self-Care Voice wants the best for you. It is unconditionally compassionate, affirming, and accepting. Your Self-Care voice is the voice of kindness and wisdom. It is like a loving parent who guides you to learn from your mistakes, face your challenges, and loves you unconditionally, faults and all.