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Mindful Eating and Weight Loss: Setting the record straight

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.

Michelle May M.D.

Michelle May is a physician and recovered yoyo dieter. She founded Am I Hungry?® to provide an alternative to restrictive and ineffective dieting.

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