Mindful Eating: What It Is, Is Not, and 3 Steps for Cultivating Your Practice


Mindful eating is seemingly EVERYWHERE right now. I can’t say that I’m disappointed that it’s becoming so trendy. Embracing a more mindful approach to food and eating can have powerful and positive implications for our overall health and well-being, so I think it’s great that this practice is gaining traction. But what’s concerning to me (though not surprising) is how the spirit of mindful eating is so often being misrepresented by health professionals and wellness gurus trying to capitalize on its growing popularity. And, when the spirit of mindful eating is lost, unfortunately, so too are its benefits.   

So, before we can really embrace this practice, we need to understand what it is and is not.

What Mindful Eating IS

Mindfulness can be described simply as present moment attention and awareness without judgment. By extension, mindful eating can be described as present moment attention and awareness regarding experiences and desires around food and eating, without judgment. To help us better understand what that means, The Center for Mindful Eating outlines four core principles of mindful eating. They are:

1. 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.

I interpret this to mean that nourishing our bodies with all different types of food is an act of self-care and that food is not something to be feared but rather embraced and celebrated for all that it does for us and our bodies.

It also means that, generally speaking, we are born with the innate ability to self-regulate our intake, to make decisions about food that honor our well-being, and that mindful eating is a practice that helps us connect with that innate wisdom.

2. Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.

This refers to making eating a full sensory experience – noticing what the food looks like, how it smells, the way it tastes, how it sounds, the texture and the temperature, and any other ways in which the senses might be engaged. Tuning in to the sensory experience as we eat can help us do a couple of things: 1) recognize if we actually enjoy the food we are eating and 2) recognize the point at which we begin to reach satisfaction.

This principle also refers to finding the middle ground with eating. That means letting go of the extremes where we are either all in, eating nothing but salmon and kale and brown rice, or all out, eating anything but salmon and kale and brown rice. Mindful eating helps us find the balance between eating for pleasure and eating for health.

3. Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment.

 This means that IT’S OKAY if you decide you love chocolate and you hate kale. With mindful eating you are entitled to your own, individual, and unique preferences about food and those preferences say nothing about your worth or character as a human being.

 It is refraining from assigning food a moralistic value and from describing your self-worth based on the food decisions you make. That means no more, “I was good today I ate a salad” or “I was bad today I ate a cookie” talk.  

When we can allow ourselves to truly acknowledge our preferences, we can start to cultivate truly satisfying eating experiences.  

4. Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.

 Mindful eating helps us to reconnect with internal sensations of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. These sensations are how our the body communicates with us the need and desire for food and fuel and also communicates when that need or desire has been met. When we can learn to recognize and respond to these cues we learn how to find that *just right* spot with eating without ever needing another measuring cup or kitchen scale again.

 That said, mindful eating does not state that you can only eat when you are hungry and you must stop when you are full. (That’s an example of an external rule and how we sometimes try to turn mindful eating into a diet). It simply means that with this awareness we can more easily make informed and deliberate decisions about what, when, and how much to eat. We can start to notice hunger before it becomes extreme and we can notice fullness before it becomes uncomfortable and with that awareness decide how we want to respond in that moment. (Which, by the way, might mean intentionally deciding to eat beyond comfortable fullness because what we are eating is just that good and that’s okay.)  

 Mindful eating is a practice that helps us reconnect with and learn to trust our bodies again. It’s an on-going process, where there is always new opportunity to learn, and adapt, and grow. It’s a practice wherein we honor our bodies physical and psychological needs for nutrients that fuel our bodies and food that nourishes our souls.

 As our mindful eating practice deepens, so might our awareness of other needs we have. For example, we might become more connected to our emotional needs or our need for connection to others. We may begin to recognize how we attempt to use food to meet these other needs, a task it’s not always so effective at accomplishing. And, with this awareness, we can begin to seek out the support we need to find alternative ways to more effectively meet those needs.

 In short, mindful eating is a gentle and kind practice of observation and awareness, without expectation or judgment, that helps us connect with and meet our physical and psychological needs for nourishment.

 This, however, is often not the way mindful eating is presented to us. Rather, it’s often presented in a very superficial, very rigid manner. The strategies that can help us cultivate our mindful eating practice are presented as mindful eating itself, wherein the true spirit of mindful eating is lost. In this case, mindful eating become no different than any other diet. Consider the following red flags as you read and learn more about mindful eating.

What Mindful Eating Is NOT

1. Mindful eating is not a weight loss intervention.

And, it is unethical for any provider to promise or even suggest that if you start eating mindfully you will or should lose weight. This would imply that only those with body weights above the conventionally accepted “healthy” range stand to benefit from mindful eating, which is patently false. With a few exceptions (such as those recovering from restrictive eating disorders), mindful eating is a practice that can benefit people of all sizes by enhancing joy and satisfaction with food and greater connectedness to our bodies.

What I can say with confidence is that, when you start eating mindfully, one of three things will happen with your weight: It will go up, it will go down, or it will stay right where it is. What ultimately happens with your weight is not something any one of us gets to decide. When you embrace a mindful eating practice, though, your body will be able to comfortably settle within its natural weight range. So, if you are at a weight that is above that range, your body may eventually settle at a lower weight. If you are artificially maintaining a weight below this range through restriction, then your weight may increase. And, if your body is within the range it generally tries to defend, known as your set-point, then you will likely experience very little shift in weight.

While weight change may or may not be an outcome from adopting a more mindful eating practice (and only your body will get to decide that) it can have a profoundly positive impact on the way you experience and relate to food and your body.

2. Mindful eating is not a portion control strategy.

Mindful eating is often presented as a strategy to help us eat less or to avoid overeating. But this is not the explicit intention of mindful eating. Recall, mindful eating is a practice about non-judgmental attention and awareness that helps us connect to and honor our innate wisdom. When we are more attentive to our food decisions and the process of eating, and more aware of our body’s cues and sensations, we might notice that we reach the point of physical and psychological satisfaction with less food then we would have originally predicted. So, the end result might be that we eat less food. But, intentionally using mindful eating as a strategy to restrict is not in alignment with the spirit of mindful eating.

 Furthermore, mindful eating is also not a tool to avoid overeating. Again, with increased attention and awareness to our bodies, its sensations, and our individual needs at any given time, mindful eating may help us stop eating before unintentionally eating beyond fullness or identify more helpful coping strategies when we are eating for reasons that are not hunger, but mindful eating does not say that we can’t eat beyond fullness or when we aren’t hungry. Instead, mindful eating helps us to make deliberate decisions about when to begin eating and when to stop eating.

 3. Mindful eating is not a set of rules you need to follow.

When we are so used to using food rules to control our eating it is common to take what we learn about mindful eating and want to turn it into a set of rules, or a checklist of mindful eating to-dos. Mindful eating is not rules-based. As I’ll explain below, it’s not something we are striving to “get right.” And, while there are strategies that we can use to help us cultivate a practice, or as I like to say, strengthen our mindful eating muscle (such as removing distraction and slowing down the pace of eating), none of these strategies are required and won’t always even be possible.

 Mindful eating is more about recognizing your needs, such as your need for nourishment, and being able to respond to those needs in the present moment from the options that are available. So while that might mean sitting down at the dining room table with a bowl of your favorite ice cream, turning off the TV and your phone, and slowly savoring every bite you eat, it may also mean eating something you picked up at the drive-thru on your way to work because you are in a hurry and otherwise wouldn’t be able to eat at all.

So, if you are looking to embrace a mindful eating practice in line with the true spirit of mindful eating rather than a mindful eating diet that will be no different from any other rigid diet, here are three steps to getting you started.


3 Steps to Cultivating a More Mindful Eating Practice

1. Let go of judgment, embrace curiosity.

As I mentioned, mindful eating is not about “getting it right.” There is no wrong way to practice. There is just practicing. But like anything, the more we practice the easier it becomes and the more natural it feels.

 In the early stages you will likely find yourself confronted with decisions to which you are unsure how to respond. Often clients will ask me, “But what if I don’t know if I’m hungry? Then what do I do?” So, I’ll ask, “Okay, so you don’t know if you are hungry. What are your options?” There are two. The options are to eat, or not to eat. So, if we don’t know what the “right” decision is for our body in that moment, we get curious and we just choose one to experiment with to see how it goes. We either eat or we don’t, and we see what happens. Neither choice is wrong, and both provide us with opportunity to learn.

 When we find ourselves in that situation of, “But I don’t know what decision to make.” First, we identify our options. Then, we get curious and experiment with one. Regardless of the outcome of that decision, we will be able to learn something. We will learn if that decision worked for us, and if so, how well. We will learn if that decision did not work for us, and if not what we could do differently next time.

 To start to understand our bodies and our needs we need to let go of our desire to “do it right” and give ourselves opportunity to just be curious and experiment, to learn from the experiences we have, and to use those experiences to help inform our future decisions.  

2. Let your body be your guide.

It’s so easy to get caught up in, and confused by, the current recommendations and rules around when you are supposed to eat, what you are supposed to have, and how much is an appropriate amount. The reality is, this is going to be a moving target. First of all, when, what, and how much to eat is going to differ for each individual. Second of all, it’s also going to vary for each individual on a daily basis.

The best gauge to use to determine the answer to the when, what, and how much question, is our own internal cues. A simple way to start to reconnect with those cues is by pausing to check in with them on a regular basis. For example, checking in at the following intervals: before starting eating, half way through the meal, immediately after finishing a meal, 20-30 minutes after the meal, and 2 hours after the meal, and then rating your hunger/fullness/satisfaction on a scale of 1-10. This will help you start to recognize, and more easily connect to, your appetite cues.

You can use this chart to assess your hunger/fullness/satisfaction cues throughout the eating experience, or even better, as you check-in, start to draft your own rating chart that more accurately reflects your cues!


Download a PDF of this scale HERE.  

As you practice checking in with your appetite cues, get curious about types, amounts, and combinations of foods to experiment with to start determining what helps you feel the most satisfied. In general, representing a variety of different types of food on our plates can help with regulating our blood sugar levels and appetite hormones, which helps to regulate our appetite cues, but we are all different and all have different preferences so experiment to see what works best for you. Remember, there is no “right” answer here.

Eventually, your awareness of your cues and how to respond to them will become second nature. You’ll *just know* when you need to eat, what you need to have, and how much will be required to achieve the level of fullness and satisfaction desired.

3.  Savor the experience.

A couple of commonly suggested strategies for enhancing our mindful eating practice is to slow down and remove distraction. This might mean chewing more slowly. Finishing one bite before taking another bite. Pausing in between bites. Turning off the TV. Putting down our newspapers, magazines, books, and phones while we eat. This is all intended to help us be more present while we eat. To be more aware of the sensory experience of eating the food. To more easily recognize our shifting appetite cues and notice the point of satisfaction.

But, it doesn’t mean this is what mindful eating has to look like. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy great conversation over a meal with friends. It doesn’t mean you can’t eat in front of the TV. It doesn’t mean you have to make every meal last an hour. Mindful eating is about enhancing the joy we experience from food and eating occasions. The joy of the occasion is in part the food, but may also be where you are, what you are doing, and who you are eating with.

 Sometimes having some opportunity to deliberately practice slowing down and tuning in to the experience without any distraction can be really helpful for strengthening the mindful eating muscle. But, it’s not because this is the “right way” to practice mindful eating. This is all with the intention of helping us build a practice that will allow us to be more present during eating experiences that may involve more distraction – holidays, parties, other social gatherings, while we are driving, eating popcorn at the movies, etc.

 So, beyond just the food you are eating, think about how you can be fully present with the whole eating experience. Yes, notice how the food engages your senses and how your appetite cues change. But also savor the experience of enjoying food with people you care about or enjoying popcorn while you settle in to enjoy a movie alone. Sometimes the experience nourishes us just as much as the food itself.

Remember that mindful eating is a practice that takes time to develop. Approach this process with kindness towards yourself, patience, and curiosity. You may be surprised at just how quickly your practice starts to grow, your attachment to rigid food rules begin to fade, and the joy you experience around food and eating starts to flourish.

For more support and guidance on your journey to letting go of dieting, healing your relationship to food, and embracing a more mindful approach to eating join my email list. And, if you haven’t already, follow me on Facebook and Instagram and fill your feed with messages of support and encouragement