Eating Mindfully

Healthy eating involves the mind as much as the body. Sue Gill lays out a path to more balanced living.

Last summer I was on some medication that took away my appetite and was later switched to something that made me nauseated for months. Wow, was that ever a strange experience. I love eating. I eat when I am hungry, when I am full, when I’m bored, when I’m anxious. I eat to celebrate, eat when I’m sad.

For several months while on these meds, though, I had no desire for food. I faced daily instances where I would have been eating, and I now had no idea what to do. That was the beginning of my experience with mindful eating.

Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to this moment without judgment. It is calmly acknowledging one’s thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings as they are being experienced right now. Mindful eating is applying the principles of mindfulness to food. The Center for Mindful Eating says that it includes four principles:

Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.

  • Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes, or neutral) without judgment.
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

Within those principles are some pretty radical ideas. If we eat mindfully, there really are no longer “bad” and “good” foods. It’s all just food that is either satisfying or not as we truly pay attention to this very moment. I think the first time I truly paid attention while eating was when I attended Mare Chapman’s most excellent mindfulness retreat in Madison. The retreat included a 60-minute silent lunch. That lunch scared me. I was 35 years old and lunch was scaring me, as I had never previously really paid attention while eating. In the spirit of mindfulness, I will just notice that right now and not judge it.

I am always amazed when I meet someone who has a healthy relationship with eating. It seems difficult to escape conflicting messages about food, from the constant barrage of cheap, readily available fast food, to the message that we maybe should all feel guilty if we are not craving organic kale smoothies.

Sadly, among some LGBTQ populations, there may be an increased incidence of disordered eating. Several studies have found gay and bisexual men to have a higher incidence of bulimia and other eating disorders compared with heterosexual men. The research is mixed, but there may be a trend toward more binge eating among lesbians.  Unfortunately research on disordered eating is sparse among gender nonconforming individuals.

Whether you are a member of a group that is at higher risk for disordered eating, or a person who just happens to live in this era of conflicting messages, a much more tuned-in approach to eating might be freeing. Imagine a relationship with food that does not include “bad” and “good” foods, and is free from guilt and diets and “shoulds.”

The principles of mindful eating also imply that there is nothing wrong with “emotional eating,” which tends to be disparaged in my field. A much bigger problem is eating while not being clued in to the full experience of eating. A place to start is by not multitasking while eating, and really paying attention to the experience. Ask yourself if you are hungry or full or in between at this very moment. Ask yourself if you really know what hungry and full feel like, and notice whether you have any emotions about those sensations. Notice any thoughts you are having about what you are eating. Really pay attention to the texture, flavor, and visual presentation of what you are eating at this moment.

I recently tried to really pay attention to the full experience of eating McDonald’s french fries, which I’ve traditionally thought of as really good. I was absolutely dismayed when I could only taste salt and grease! Nothing about the experience brought me joy. On the other hand, I did thoroughly enjoy three Girl Scout cookies while being fully present to the experience. However, I then said, “Yum, these are good, I will keep eating them while watching TV.” Without even knowing what I had done, a row of those cookies was gone, and my stomach felt kind of upset. From a mindful eating perspective my mistake was not in exceeding a serving size, but in my complete lack of presence while eating the rest of those cookies.

One important note for those who have a history of a full eating disorder: Some principles of mindful eating may not be accessible to you early in your journey. It can take some time to re-nourish your body and to train your body and brain to recognize feelings of hunger and fullness. I encourage you to get the support of a professional who specializes in eating disorders.

If this approach to eating is intriguing to you, good resources include thecenterformindfuleating.org and the books Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole, and Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by
Jan Chozen Bays.