As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, I often hear my clients talk about dieting, what they should or shouldn’t be eating, and their concept of “good” and “bad” food. This is especially noticeable around the new year, when people are focused on shedding post-holiday weight gain. It’s unfortunate that so many people in our culture deprive themselves of the pleasures of food because of cultural norms around eating, what they have been taught by family/friends, and what “health gurus” and medical professionals tell us we should or shouldn’t eat. This love/hate relationship with food causes unnecessary stress that could be resolved by re-learning the art of mindful eating.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating is a lot like “normal eating,” which is beautifully defined below by my esteemed colleague Robyn Kievit Kirkman, a registered dietician:
“Normal eating is relearning your own way and likely changing your thoughts, feelings, and actions around food and your body.
Normal eating is leaving the body hate behind. It is not letting the scale mandate your feelings for the day.
Normal eating knows bodies change and all bodies are beautiful.
Normal eating is baking and eating cookies at 10 p.m. with a friend, or eating cold pizza or pasta for breakfast.
Normal eating is trying a food trend but knowing there are no ‘perfect’ foods.
Normal eating is relating food to your body in a nourishing way — as fuel, strength, wisdom and some extra icing just for fun.
Normal eating is maybe trying vegetarianism for a few years but then perhaps deciding animal protein really works well for you, your body and your movement goals.
Normal eating is not what or how much others eat, it’s what YOUR body needs in that moment, that meal, that day.
Normal eating is knowing our appetites change meal to meal, day to day, and honoring this process.
Normal eating is keeping these words out of thoughts and conversations about food and your body: good, bad, sorry, should, can’t and healthy.
Normal eating is respect, inclusion, peace, knowledge, and confidence around food and your body (not the scale!).” — Robyn Kievit Kirkman NP, RD, CSSD, CEDRD
The key difference between “normal eating” and mindful eating, is that the latter is all about maintaining awareness. One can eat normally while also being mindful.
Mindful eating is NOT eating in the car, in front of the computer or TV, eating away our emotions, etc. That is mindless eating. Not only do we lose touch with our hunger and fullness cues when we eat mindlessly, we don’t enjoy our food because we aren’t fully present. Mindless eating often leads to disordered (abnormal) eating and sometimes full-blown eating disorders. Many of my clients don’t even taste their food when they eat this way.
So, what can we do about this issue? On a micro level, I try to make a difference by bringing a slice of mindful eating into my sessions with clients. It can provoke anxiety for them, but it can also be fun and very gratifying.
My clients and I do mindful eating exercises both in my office and in cafes or restaurants nearby. We prepare for the exercise by discussing our options of where to eat, and I let my clients choose, giving them a sense of ownership over the experience. The goal of a mindful eating session is to help my clients develop a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.
Lisa’s Mindful Eating Experience
One of my clients — I’ll call her Lisa — decided that we should go to a local bakery for one of these sessions. Before leaving my office, I asked Lisa to rate her hunger on a scale of 1–10, 10 being extremely hungry. Lisa said that her hunger was at a level 8.
Once we arrived at the bakery, I asked Lisa to look around and ask herself what she felt like eating, what her body was asking for, given the wide variety of choices. As she looked around, took in the aroma of delicious food, and perused the elaborate menu, she said that her body was hungry for a prosciutto and fig panini. Yum! I decided to join her and order my own panini since it sounded delicious.
When her dish arrived, I asked Lisa to take a minute to observe and smell her panini before taking the first bite. Next, I asked her to take a bite and slowly chew while savoring and tasting the flavors and texture of the panini swirling around in her mouth. After, I asked Lisa to swallow the first bite while experiencing the food going down her throat and down into her stomach. We did this together until we both finished our panini. After lunch, I asked Lisa to identify how full and satiated she felt. She said that she was quite full and very satiated. Last, I asked Lisa to reflect on her experience, what it was like to engage in a mindful eating exercise, and what thoughts and feelings came to mind.
Here are some comments she made:
“The food was so delicious!”
“I can’t believe I let myself eat a panini without feeling guilty.”
“I never wait to eat my food, so I rarely have a chance to look at and smell it before I dive in. It was interesting to actually delay eating.”
“I was able to fully taste all of the delicious flavors in the panini.”
“I never imagined that part of my therapy would be going out to eat. It was very productive to get out of the office and actually practice what we have been talking about in sessions.”
“I’ve never asked myself how hungry, full or satiated I am. It’s really kind of strange, but nice in a way to start listening to my body.”
I have encouraged Lisa to continue to practice eating more mindfully. Although difficult at times, she has been making strides which have had positive effects on her relationship with food and her body.
How to Eat Mindfully
Eating mindfully can be fun, delicious, and fulfilling. By engaging in the present moment, we are more likely to taste and savor the food we put in our mouths, reveling in the full experience of incorporating all of our senses. Not only are we more satisfied, we tend to overeat or undereat less often because we are more present. However, mindful eating does not mean that we are always eating the “perfect” amount and that we will always like the food we are eating. That would be completely unrealistic. Sometimes we will still eat too much or too little, or be unsatisfied by our meal. By being open to and not judging our experience, we will develop a healthier relationship with food and ultimately with ourselves.
I encourage you to try eating a meal or snack mindfully. It’s important to limit all distractions which may interfere with your experience. Initially, it may feel weird or unnatural to turn the TV off, silence your phone, or distance yourself from your computer, however chances are you will enjoy your experience more fully. If you prefer to practice a structured exercise, I suggest you try this guided mindful eating of a raisin by John Kabat-Zinn.
“The raisin exercise dispels all previous concepts we may be harboring about meditation. It immediately places it in the realm of the ordinary, the everyday, the world you already know but are now going to know differently. Eating one raisin very, very slowly allows you to drop right into the knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking. Such an exercise delivers wakefulness immediately. There is in this moment only tasting.”
I welcome feedback and comments about your experience.
Stay tuned to the last blog in my series on mindfulness in which I will focus on mindful movement.
About Karen Chinca: Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.