With the surge in mindfulness meditation to reduce stress, anxiety and feel happier and more relaxed, mindful eating has equally risen to popularity. It has been applied to a variety of food-related issues, such as disordered eating and eating disorders (particularly emotional eating and binge eating), products (e.g., cookbooks), and activities in daily life (e.g., finding time to cook or eating “on-the-go”). Additionally, mindful eating has been widely applied to weight loss, both within scientific research and everyday products, self-help books, and courses. This, of course, raises certain questions, such as: Is mindful eating appropriate for weight loss? Is weight loss a natural outcome of mindful eating? And, most importantly, is mindful eating the new diet fad?
According to several systematic reviews on mindfulness, eating behaviour and weight loss, there appears to be good support for the beneficial effect of mindfulness on various eating disorders, such as emotional eating, binge eating, and external eating (e.g., O’Reilly et al., 2014), partial support for eating disorders not related to obesity, such as anorexia and bulimia (e.g., Wanden-Berghe et al., 2011), and limited support for weight loss (Katterman et al., 2014; Olson & Emery, 2015; Ruffault et al., 2016). The research thus seems to suggest that mindful eating is not an appropriate weight loss tool, although the benefits of reducing certain eating disorder symptoms (e.g., binge eating) could potentially lead to weight loss in the long-term.
In light of these findings (and in my personal opinion), mindful eating should not be used as an approach for weight loss, nor be applied as the new diet fad. Yes, there are several similarities between mindful eating and typical weight loss diets, such as:
- Becoming (more) aware of what you eat and paying attention to when you feel full;
- Eating slower and taking the time to cook and eat; and
- Staying present while eating, instead of being distracted by the television or eating “on-the-go”.
Weight loss may even be a secondary outcome of eating mindfully, but it should not be the primary goal, as that would completely remove the mindful nature of eating. Thus, it is important to highlight the inherent differences between dieting and eating mindfully.
Anything can be eaten mindfully
Firstly, most (although not all) diets aim to eliminate, or at the very least reduce our consumption of foods that have been deemed “unhealthy”, such as chips, candy, soda, alcohol, and sometimes even extending to (red) meat, (simple) carbohydrates, butter, fruits, (some) fats, and many other food groups in a list that is constantly growing, changing, and evolving. Mindful eating however, is more closely related to the concept of balance and “everything in moderation”. (In many Buddhist traditions, vegetarianism or veganism is the recommended diet, but for reasons unrelated to weight loss). Anything can be eaten mindfully, whether it is a salad or a slice of cake. Mindful eating simply encourages you to observe the food with all your senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound), and staying present and aware while eating. Because of this, you are less likely to overeat; you might realise you like some foods and don’t like others; you will be more attuned to your body’s sensations of fullness; and eventually, if your mindful eating practice extends to other areas of your life, you might also become aware of how your body feels after you eat certain foods and stop eating others. But just like an occasional slice of cake isn’t likely to make you feel ill or uncomfortable, so does mindful eating not involve eliminating any one food item from your daily diet for the sake of weight loss.
Mindfulness fosters body acceptance
I have previously written about mindfulness and body positivity, though it is worth mentioning here again. Sometimes, the motivation to lose weight stems from health concerns, but this is far from always the case. More often than not, weight loss is something we desire for various external factors, such as changing our appearance for the approval of others, or to fit a certain “beauty ideal”. While weight loss diets can be used for any of the reasons mentioned above, mindful eating is likely to only apply to the former. If weight loss is not a health issue, individuals who are more mindful are likely to be more accepting of their bodies just the way they are.
Mindfulness and weight gain
Finally, mindful eating has also been applied to treat eating disorder symptoms in individuals suffering from anorexia and bulimia, often with the goal of increasing their body weight. Additionally, highly specific diets that are focused on weight loss, fat loss, food elimination, and “healthy” eating may in some extreme cases lead to orthorexia nervosa (an eating disorder characterised by an excessive preoccupation with eating “healthy” foods). This “hyper-awareness” of what one eats is not mindful, as it lacks other equally important aspects of mindfulness, such as non-judgement, non-reactivity, flexibility, acceptance, kindness, and compassion. Thus, orthorexia is not a likely outcome of mindful eating, due to a flexible and accepting awareness of internal and external experiences. Eating for mental and physical health, rather than for weight loss or to achieve a certain appearance truly embodies the concept of mindful eating.
In our hectic everyday life, where we are accustomed to eating “on-the-go” or in front of the television, where we don’t always have time to cook or eat, and where food has become ingrained in society as a tool for comfort, stress relief, social interaction, or as a “pick-me-up”, mindful eating is likely to be a beneficial exercise to incorporate into our daily practice. So next time you eat, try taking your time, exploring the food through all your senses, and staying present while eating by removing all external distractions. When you listen to the needs of your body, you listen to the needs of your mind.
For more information on mindful eating, please visit this link.
For advice or support with eating disorders, please visit https://www.b-eat.co.uk