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What is (and isn’t) Mindful Eating?

Today marks the third annual Mindful Eating Day, hosted by The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME).

Mindfulness and mindful eating are definitely on trend. Innova Market Insights named “mindful choices” the #1 trend driving the food and drink industry in 2018. Though it’s great that these concepts are getting more attention, there seem to be a lot of misinterpretations floating around, including the definition by Innova. I even deleted my Mindful Eating Day blog posts from the past two years because of the misinformation I shared! 🙈

TCME put together a short document covering what mindful eating is and isn’t (scroll to page 2), but I don’t think it quite covers some of the confusion that I see.

What is Mindful Eating?

TCME defines “mindful eating” as:

  • 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.

Briefly, mindful eating is being aware, present and non-judgmental in the entire eating experience, from selecting and preparing the food to the environment in which you’re eating, not just the food itself.

What isn’t Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is not…

…The “Solutions” Offered in Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink


It’s natural to assume that the opposite of “mindless eating” would be “mindful eating”. While Wansink’s book is an interesting and easy read, his book does not teach mindful eating.

Wansink’s research looks at how our environment influences our eating habits (though it should be noted that his research methods have recently come under fire.) He theorizes that weight gain is caused by being in an environment that encourages mindless overeating. Thus, he proposes that in order to lose weight, people need to change their environment, so that they will eat less.

This ignores the many factors that can contribute to a person’s weight, and perpetuates the problematic idea that weight is something to be “managed” or “controlled”. More importantly, Wansink’s ideas do not touch on mindfulness at all. Using a smaller plate or moving a candy dish further from your desk is really just manipulating external cues instead of learning to tune in to your inner cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. These strategies imply that people can’t trust themselves, and need to “trick” themselves to eat well. Instead, mindful eating is about learning to listen, trust and respect your inner wisdom when it comes to food and eating.

#MindfulEating is about learning to listen, trust and respect your inner wisdom. Click To Tweet

…”Careful” Eating

Mind the gap 2

“I’m trying to be more mindful with my eating.”

Often when I ask people to elaborate on this, they say “I’m trying to watch what I eat,” or “I’m being more careful about portion control,” or even, “I’m reading nutrition labels more.”

Though “mindful” is technically a synonym of “careful”, this is not the case in the context of mindful eating. When we’re careful about something, we’re “having or showing a close attentiveness to avoiding danger or trouble“. So when we’re engaging in “careful” eating, there’s an implication that there is something “dangerous” about eating—that it’s possible to eat the “wrong” food, or the “wrong” amount.

One of the key components of mindful eating is non-judgment. There is no right or wrong way to eat, nor is there a right or wrong reason to eat. Mindful eating acknowledges that thoughts and emotions will come up as a response to eating, but instead of beating ourselves up when those thoughts and emotions are unpleasant or negative, we simply note that they’re there, maybe get a little curious about why they’re there, and move on.

#MindfulEating is about non-judgment. There is no right or wrong way to eat. Click To Tweet

…”Mind Full” Eating

On a similar note, I have also seen people misinterpret “mindful eating” as “mind full” eating, or thinking more about food and eating. The Innova Market Insights list I mentioned at the beginning of the post defined “mindful choices” as people being “more conscious than ever about making responsible food choices, and increasingly want[ing] to know what is in their food and how it is produced”.

When we are “mind full”, our thoughts are likely to distract us from fully engaging in the eating experience. This makes it difficult to be present, another key component of mindful eating. That’s not to say that we’re not allowed to think, but it’s being able to separate our thoughts from what we’re experiencing, and ultimately, who we are. A regular mindful meditation practice can be helpful in practicing this skill.

#MindfulEating is not 'mind full' eating. Thinking more about food and eating can distract from the actual eating experience. Click To Tweet

…Slow Eating

Often when people teach others to “eat mindfully”, they are really just sharing tactics that get people to eat more slowly: chew your food well, put down your fork between bites, use chopsticks (so racist 😣) and my personal favourite, “savour every bite”.

Eating slowly can absolutely be a part of mindful eating, but mindful eating is much more than the behavioural piece. For example, I used to teach my bariatric surgery patients to chew their food well, take small bites, wait between bites, and so on. I might have called it “mindful eating” 😓, but really the purpose was to avoid overfilling the stomach pouch and regurgitating.

Mindful eating is more about mindset and intention. Eating slowly can facilitate being more present and aware, but it is possible to engage in mindful eating without eating slowly, and vice versa. Now, instead of talking about the behaviours, I encourage people to practice “eating with curiosity”: what are my senses telling me about the food? What are the thoughts and emotions coming up as I choose, prepare and eat this food?

#MindfulEating goes beyond 'savouring every bite'! It's about eating with curiosity and being present and non-judgmental in the entire eating experience. Click To Tweet

…Eating Less

This is the most common misconception around mindful eating, and a trap that I fell into as well. It’s definitely a reflection on how our society conflates weight and health—”If it’s good for us, it must help us lose weight”, and vice versa. There are mindfulness diets, mindful eating meditations for weight loss, even scientific studies that link mindful eating and weight loss or lower weights. The theory is that when we eat mindfully, it takes less food for us to feel satisfied and thus we lose weight.

TCME’s position is that mindful eating is not for weight loss. While it’s absolutely possible to lose weight when you eat mindfully, it is also possible for your weight to stay the same, or to gain weight. Again, there are many different factors that contribute to a person’s weight, many of which are out of our control.

More importantly, mindful eating is about being in the present moment. If we are focusing on a future outcome, like eating less, weight loss, or even feeling better, it distracts us from being truly present. It can also be difficult to remain non-judgmental if mindful eating is not producing the outcome that we want.

Instead, I invite you approach mindful eating like a science experiment—you start by gathering data, then leave the analysis at the end. If you are already coming in with a conclusion in mind, that will only bias the results.

#MindfulEating is not for #weightloss. Click To Tweet
Do you practice mindful eating? What are some of the myths and misinterpretations of mindful eating that you’ve seen, or even engaged in? Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

6 Comments

  • Lori on Jan 27, 2018 Reply

    Thanks for this. I’ve been confused about “mindful eating” myself. Could you comment on how this pertains to “intuitive eating”?

    • Vincci Tsui on Jan 28, 2018 Reply

      Great question, Lori! That might even be a blog post in and of itself. The latest episode of The Mindful Dietitian does a pretty good job covering this. Though “intuitive eating” and “mindful eating” are two separate concepts, there’s lots of overlap between them. Intuitive eating is a broader framework that is about helping people find authentic health through a combination of inner attunement (which could include using mindful eating techniques) and external guidelines (i.e. “gentle nutrition”, “joyful movement”), whereas mindful eating is about bringing mindfulness practice to the eating experience. In other words, intuitive eating is more structured and does have an “end goal” in mind, and mindful eating is more about being present with eating and approaching it with a curious, non-judgmental mindset.

  • Jenny on Jan 26, 2018 Reply

    Love this article Vincci! So comprehensive, very well written.

    • Vincci Tsui on Jan 26, 2018 Reply

      Thanks, Jenny! I’m glad you enjoyed this article.

  • Jennifer Smith on Jan 25, 2018 Reply

    Can you elaborate on chopsticks being racist? I understand that they are an eating utensil that is rooted in Asian cultures, but I’ve never thought that someone using chopsticks to eat food was being racist.

    • Vincci Tsui on Jan 25, 2018 Reply

      Great question! What I meant was suggesting chopsticks as a tool to help people eat slower or “more mindfully” is problematic, because it implies that the audience receiving this suggestion will eat slower with chopsticks, excluding most east Asians (and probably a lot of non-east Asians too). It also contributes to the narrative that Asian cultures are exotic and unfamiliar.

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