By Michelle May, M.D.
Mindful eating is rapidly increasing in popularity as a common-sense approach to resolving myriad eating-related issues. It is particularly effective for breaking the “eat-repent-repeat” cycle that so often results from restrictive eating. Ironically, many people who are jumping on the mindful eating bandwagon don’t understand the subtle yet meaningful differences between mindful eating and typical diets. They filter mindful eating concepts through the well-established diet paradigm and simply turn it into a mindful eating diet–with the same predictable results!
To highlight some of the most common mistakes, here’s how to turn mindful eating into a diet–and what to do instead.
1. Make new diet-y rules like “Only eat when you’re hungry” and “Always stop when you are full.”
Why: Feeling guilty if you eat when you’re not hungry or judging yourself for eating past a 5 or a 6 is no different from dieting. This form of restrictive eating will lead to the same eat-repent-repeat cycle.
Instead: When you feel like eating, pause to ask yourself, “Am I hungry?”–not to decide if you’re allowed to eat, but to recognize why you want to. With this awareness, you can freely choose whether to eat or not.
2. Think about mindful eating in terms of “Tips and Tricks” instead of a practice.
Why: Tips like “Chew each bite 20 times” do not lead to increased mindfulness, just boredom! And while we’re all used to headlines like “5 Tricks for Sticking to Your Diet,” that short term “magical” approach leads to short term behaviors.
Instead: Unlike dieting which typically becomes harder to sustain over time, eating mindfully becomes more natural with practice. As you learn how to attend to your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings over time, you discover that you have an inner expert who guides you naturally toward balance, variety, and moderation.
3. Use mindful eating to resist the foods you crave.
Why: What you resist, persists!
Instead: Mindfulness teaches you to allow whatever you notice to just be. Perhaps you notice that you are craving a favorite food from your childhood. Rather than resisting it, you become curious about the craving. What does the craving feel like? What, specifically, do you desire about that food? What associations do you have with that food? Do those associations give you any hints about your underlying needs? How might it feel to eat that food? How might it feel if you don’t? And so on.
4. Allow yourself to indulge in your favorite treats by savoring just one or two bites.
Why: This seemingly permissive advice is still restrictive! When you have to have “permission” to eat a favorite food as long as you follow specific rules, these subtle messages feed unconscious feelings of judgment and deprivation that may lead to paradoxical overeating.
Instead: Don’t set arbitrary boundaries around eating that ultimately lead to “cheating” and guilt. Mindful eating helps you learn to trust your internal expert to eat what you love and love what you eat.
5. Focus on weight loss.
Why: One simple definition of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You cannot change your weight in the present moment so focusing on weight loss keeps you focused on something off in the future.
Instead: Become more mindful of your physical cues of hunger and satiety and how you feel when you eat different types and amounts of food. Tune in to the appearance, aromas, flavors, and textures of the foods you select. Notice how you feel when you move your body. Use your body’s cues to practice self-care, such as resting when your body is tired, taking a break when you feel stressed, connecting with others when you feel bored or lonely, and so on. Moment by moment, notice the effects of the choices you make and allow that awareness to affect the choices you make in the future.