You’ve probably heard about intuitive eating or mindful eating. Unfortunately, since they are hard to describe in a sound bite, you likely have been given the overly simplified version or worse, an inaccurate one. To make matters worse, these now popular terms have been co-opted by weight loss sellers (ahem…WW) to pretend that their programs aren’t diets and thus keeping up with the times. Mindful and intuitive eating is more than savoring each bite or slowly eating raisins (see more about that below 😉 ). To help clear up any misunderstandings, I’d like to tell you what they are not rather than what they are.
Intuitive and mindful eating is NOT about eating everything, all the time.
Yes, an important aspect is giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want BUT this does not lead to gorging day and night. In fact, by opening the door to all foods and removing the food rules that restrict you from eating certain foods, cravings and binging actually are reduced. It may seem scary and counterintuitive, but studies (and the experience of intuitive eaters) show that foods no longer hold such power or are so dearly desired when we keep the option to eat them open. Next time you are feeling emotional and starting to crave a certain food strongly, resist the urge to scream NO and tell yourself you can have it if you really want it. Over time, by knowing we have the option to eat anything, there is far less deprivation and backlash from rigid rules forbidding foods. We naturally want what we can’t have. Allowing foods prevents this rebel to come out in response to the restriction.
Intuitive and mindful eating are NOT well represented by the exercise of eating a raisin very slowly.
You may have heard about “the raisin exercise”- this is a mental exercise that practices being mindful and fully present while eating one raisin. The idea is that this exercise forces you to slow down and take time to observe your senses (smell, touch, taste, etc), something that we rarely do with our food these days. By paying attention to the look, smell, and feel of food, we experience it more deeply and with more enjoyment which can lead to eating more naturally in line with our hunger. Enjoyment and satisfaction play a big role in indicating when it is time to stop eating. So when we experience more of them, we are less likely to eat beyond fullness in search of satisfaction that we are too distracted to experience.
Unfortunately, this raisin exercise is usually people’s first (and last) exposure to intuitive eating. Since it is an awkward exercise to do without prior context or understanding, it can turn people off. Taking 5 minutes to eat one little raisin can make eating a full meal ‘mindfully’ feel daunting! The point is not to eat every meal or food as you do the raisin, but to understand just how much sensorial information we are ignoring when eating mindlessly.
Intuitive and mindful eating is NOT about eating with chopsticks.
You may have heard this relic advice leftover from the ’90s. It usually is in the same breath as “use a small plate”.
I certainly don’t blame people for believing that somehow chopsticks help with intuitive eating since this myth is so prevalent with talk show guests who need to sound clever and have a quick (albeit useless) tip. Eating with chopsticks or with your nondominant hand will slow down your pace at a meal- which may help you sense your fullness cues- but this is not “intuitive eating”.
Slowing down may help you become more intuitive if you pay attention to how your body feels while eating and want to stop when you feel comfortably full. Remember that feeling full in your stomach is only ONE reason we stop eating. As mentioned above, feeling satisfied in your mind plays a role too. If you are looking to eat more slowly, these suggestions may help but so can many other things that are more likely to improve your intuitive eating skills- such as purposefully pausing in the middle of a meal to check in with your fullness levels, enjoyment of the meal, thoughts and emotions you are experiencing and even the intensity of the flavor you are experiencing (which decreases throughout the meal).
Intuitive and mindful eating is NOT about knowing where your ingredients come from and being mindful of avoiding “bad” foods or ingredients.
The definition of ‘mindful” in mindful eating is not about being aware of information outside of your body, but about hearing and understanding what is going on inside. Meaning: being mindful (or aware) of the thoughts and emotions going on in your head; mindful of how certain people or places affect your portions, food choices, thoughts, emotions; mindful how your emotional state affects your eating and food choices; mindful of how your coping strategies (ie. eating to sooth) help or don’t help you to feel better.
In this sense of the word, the term mindful is not interchangeable with “careful”. A more appropriate word that can be interchanged with mindfulness is “awareness”. In fact, intuitive and mindful eating advocate that you remove “good” and “bad” labels we place on foods to help you have a healthy relationship with food and your body.
Intuitive and mindful eating does NOT require you to eat in total silence, abolish your screens while eating or savor every. single. bite.
A colleague of mine recently admitted that, although she advocates for mindful and intuitive eating with her clients, she usually eats a breakfast of small snacks while driving her kids to school. She felt like a phony for not being able to always sit at a table, pay attention to the flavors, smells and texture of her food while happily gazing out the window without any screens present. She is most certainly not a phony- but a normal human being balancing all her responsibilities.
Not being able to pay 100% attention to each bite at every meal and snack is NORMAL. Realistically, there will be moments in our day where more than one thing has to happen at once. The problem arises when we are always distracted while eating our food. The goal is to practice slowly making time to eat without many distractions. This may be the first 3 sips of tea or a whole meal. Whatever works for you at this moment. It takes practice to make eating important like any other important task in our day (ie. taking the dog for a walk or brushing your teeth). You’ll likely discover how much more pleasurable it can be to have at least a few minutes dedicated to eating & you likely won’t want to return to eating distractedly for the entire duration of your lunch break.
Also, being a mindful and intuitive eater isn’t just about the moments while we are eating. It includes checking in with our stomach and mind before, during and after eating. Being mindful during the act of eating is great, but so are the moments that surround eating. This is especially true when you have the desire to eat but are not physically hungry. Being aware (or mindful) of how your emotional state and negative thoughts are influencing your desire to eat is the first step to finding a solution that will actually help you feel better. Sometimes eating is the solution and sometimes we have to find comfort in other activities.
Intuitive eating is MORE than savoring every bite
I hope that these inaccurate descriptions of intuitive and mindful eating help to clear up any misgivings you have about them. Although intuitive and mindful eating concepts can seem abstract, they are not hoky or reserved for only certain types of people. I have yet to meet a person for whom learning intuitive eating has been a waste of time or a total failure.
Looking for more info on intuitive and mindful eating? Here are a few articles written by fellow non-diet warriors: