If you’ve spent your whole life dieting and seeing food and the body as enemies to your weight and health goals, mindful eating may seem like a suspect means to heal that relationship. What good could mere paying attention do in this complex and fraught relationship? If everything else has not worked up to this point, why would mindfulness help now?
What is mindful eating?
Mindfulness is a non-religious meditation practice that is arguably also a quality of the mind and lifestyle. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the modern mindfulness movement, drawing on the contemplative traditions across the spectrum of religions. One may be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or no religion at all and find mindfulness to be an addition to one’s faith – or lack thereof.
Mindful eating is a particular way of approaching food and the body that is directly related to mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness invites a person to pay attention to whatever arises in the body and in life around them compassionately and with enough effort to be fully engaged but not so much as to cause distress. In other words, there’s a sense of relaxed alertness to practicing mindfulness, and of friendliness to our own lived experience. These qualities of awareness apply whether we’re sitting in formal meditation practice or traveling through the day attempting to be present to specific aspects of our experience.
When we bring this approach to food, we begin to pay attention to both the food itself and our broader experience. What are the qualities of the food we’re eating? We might notice color, smell, taste, texture, arrangement. What are the sensations we feel in our bodies as we approach and then consume the food? Do we feel hunger? How much? Where do we sense our hunger? Do we also have emotions arising, and if so, how do we perceive them? What thoughts are going through our minds as we approach our food? We pay attention to all of these things as we begin to practice mindful eating.
Why mindful eating?
For some people, the simple act of paying attention is enough to generate significant changes in their relationship to food. When we actually pay attention, we may notice the signals of hunger and satiety with more sensitivity and awareness. We may notice how thoughts and feelings drive our behaviors to food, and we may regain a sense of choice around our behaviors.
For other people, the flood of newly discovered awareness can be quite intense and even overwhelming. Our relationships with food start with our first meal out of the womb, and those relationships are developed through complex interactions with parents and the world. Food can, therefore, be a primal element in our lives, highly symbolic, and we may or may not gain mastery over our relationship to it immediately upon applying mindfulness principles.
Regardless, one reason people seek out mindfulness as a tool for eating is that they have become fatigued by the animosity the feel toward their own bodies, by the annual resolutions to lose weight or get healthier, and by the tortured relationships they have with food.
Gaining trust in the process
If your own journey to peace with body and food is a more difficult one, this first post about mindful eating is to offer some tools to help sustain you through the more difficult days when doubt or lack of desired results can waylay you. The first several posts on this topic are not about the how of mindful eating but rather some of the scaffolding to support you as you begin to consider and explore mindfulness around food.
- Find mentors and companions on the journey who can support you. Others have succeeded in restoring health in their bodies and peace with their food. It’s important to connect with those stories and the communities where people have succeeded. It matters less what the specific group is but that we find people who have something we want, and we connect with them to find out how they got there. People are imperfect, always. But as you find people who have peace with their food and their bodies, find the nuggets of their experience that resonate with you, and apply the lessons. You can find support in 12-step groups, on Facebook, through mentors you admire (I personally love Geneen Roth’s work). There are paid coaching groups and individual coaches and therapists to assist you and support you.
- Gather tools to support you that feel more like tools than weapons. Many of us have tried apps to measure exercise and calories. We may have written down our food, signed up for a class, made commitments to exercise, meditation, food guidelines. There are no right or wrong tools, but there can be right times for them or right applications, as there can be wrong times or wrong applications. Bring mindful awareness into the attitudes you feel toward the tools you’re using and how they either support you or leave you feel beaten up. If a tool you’re using makes you feel worse about yourself, either set that tool aside or see if you can shift your attitude about the tool and about yourself.
- Train your focus to return to present moment awareness through mind-body practices. This might be mindfulness in the form of seated meditation, yoga, tai chi, dancing, walking in nature, or some other body-based practice that helps you to experience the present moment. While you might find the present moment difficult to focus on for a variety of reasons (it might be painful, or it might just be boring!), it is also where we begin to connect with the parts of us that are okay, despite our concerns about the future and ruminations about the past. The past may very well require some healing work, and the future may require our focused efforts, but both the past and the future will be served by our anchoring our attention in the current moment.
- Practice compassion, humor and friendliness toward your own lived experience rather than waiting for those emotions/perspectives to arise spontaneously. In the next post, we’ll discuss some specific tools that can help in developing practices that work. These qualities can significantly expedite your success.
In the next post, we’ll examine some specific practices for mindful eating (and mindful living) that can build our resilience and optimism, as well as actively heal our wounded relationships with body and food.