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Mindful Eating: How We Get it Wrong

Mindful eating is supposed to make us healthier, happier, and more relaxed. Instead, we end up feeling stressed and guilty about not doing it. If you hate eating mindfully, you might be doing it wrong.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #492
image of a brain surrounded by forks symbolizing mindful eating

Mindful eating is super trendy these days. It’s supposedly linked to all kinds of benefits, everything from healthier eating habits to weight loss to better digestion. But many of the people I’ve worked with say that they find mindful eating irritating, unpleasant, boring, or weirdly stressful.

Just like meditating and gratitude journaling and a daily yoga practice, mindful eating is supposed to make us healthier, happier, and more relaxed. Instead, we end up feeling stressed and guilty about not doing it. If you hate eating mindfully, you might be doing it wrong. Here are a few ways that we often misunderstand what mindful eating means.

Mindful Eating Mistakes

First, we mistakenly think that eating mindfully means that we should eat only in order to satisfy our physical hunger. Being aware of our hunger and satiety signals is definitely a big part of eating more mindfully. Taking a moment to assess whether or not we are (still) hungry can help us recognize when the urge to eat (or continue to eat) is due to something else...such as boredom, fatigue, or sadness. This in turn gives us the opportunity to think about whether eating is the best way to respond to those feelings or whether there might be another response that would serve us better.

On the other hand, sometimes the urge to eat is not about escaping from unpleasant feelings but about being attracted to pleasurable experiences. Even if we’re not hungry, sad, or bored, when something delicious crosses our path, we have a strong desire to enjoy it. This is not inherently bad or wrong—and eating mindfully doesn’t mean that we never get to eat something simply because we enjoy it.

Mindful eating simply means being more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations and what is driving them so that we can make more conscious choices. For example, if we recognize that our urge to eat is driven more by a desire to enjoy a particular food than by actual hunger, we might decide to go ahead and enjoy that food—but in a more moderate quantity.

Researchers studying mindful eating report that when you consciously choose to allow yourself a treat, as opposed to the “eat first ask questions later” approach, you experience more pleasure and—equally important—less remorse from your indulgence.

Eating mindfully shouldn’t take the pleasure out of eating! If anything, it should make eating more pleasurable. Mindful eating involves bringing more attention to the rich sensory experience of eating: the colors, shapes, textures, flavors, and aromas of food. This can heighten our appreciation of the food we eat, making the experience more satisfying and memorable.

But when we eat more mindfully, we’re also more likely to notice when foods are not particularly enjoyable or when our enjoyment has begun to ebb. Once you begin to practice mindful eating, you’re more likely to stop eating a food that you’re not particularly enjoying rather than just polishing it off simply because it’s sitting in front of you. The end result may be that you take in fewer calories, and it will definitely mean that you get more satisfaction per calorie.

Another mindful eating mistake is to confuse awareness with judgment. Having certain thoughts, feelings, or desires relating to food does not mean that you are a good or bad person. Nor does it mean that you have to respond to those thoughts, feelings, or desires in a certain way.  With mindful eating, we strive to be more aware of our thoughts and feelings without judging them. If you can approach the process of mindful eating with as much curiosity and as little judgment as possible, it will help you make the best use of the information that you gather.

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