“Does mindful eating work?” That’s a question I hear a lot, and read a lot, from researchers and everyday people like you. But to answer that question, we need the answer to another question: “What do you mean by work?”
This may not surprise you one tiny bit, but most people (including the researchers) who ask, “Does mindful eating work?” mean “Does mindful eating work for weight loss?” Because everything comes back to weight loss, doesn’t it? [Sigh.]
This adds mindful eating to the list of perfectly good, wonderful things that have been ruined by diet culture and the pursuit of weight loss. (Other entries on the list include exercise, cooking, meal planning and eating.)
While there’s been a trend for weight loss companies as well as books and apps promoting weight loss (especially “non-diet” weight loss, which isn’t a legitimate thing) to incorporate mindful eating. But this practice bastardizes what mindful eating, and mindfulness, really are.
Why mindful eating and pursuit of weight loss don’t mix
One of the problems with using mindful eating as a tool to facilitate weight loss is that it interferes with truly eating mindfully. According to The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME), the principles of mindful eating are:
- 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.
If you are hoping that mindful eating will help you eat less, and that will lead to weight loss, then that striving (more on this below) will not allow you to respect your own inner wisdom because your focus will be pulled externally. (For example, “Will this food/amount of food help me lose weight?”) You may find it hard to truly choose food that is satisfying to you if you feel that it won’t support weight loss. Or, if you do eat a food that you enjoy and is satisfying but isn’t “weight loss friendly,” you may find judgement creeping in. (“This is a ‘bad’ food…which makes me ‘bad’ for eating it.”)
Also, you will likely fall into the same trap that befalls many people who come to intuitive eating hoping that it will help them lose weight: rather than using your awareness of hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating, you will use hunger and fullness as hard and fast rules. That goes against the spirit of both mindful and intuitive eating.
Mindless eating and food restriction
Does this mean that people who eat mindfully never eat less? No, of course not. If you tend to eat mindlessly from a bag or box, eating mindfully may mean putting some of the food in a dish, noting how the snack tastes, then tuning in to satisfaction and satiety cues when the dish is empty before making a conscious decision about whether to eat more. You may realize you are in fact satisfied, and don’t need more.
Similarly, if you eat a meal mindlessly, only to look at your empty plate in confusion and wonder where the food went, you may find yourself wanting to eat more even if you notice that you are physically full. That’s because you didn’t get any of the sensory satisfaction of eating. You’re full, but something’s missing. If you start eating mindfully and notice the taste, texture, temperature and aroma of your food, as well as when your hunger starts to wane and satiety starts to grow, you may be fully satisfied with less food than before.
But whether this leads to weight loss? Who knows, and from the perspective of mindful eating — and also intuitive eating — who cares? The point of both is eating in a way that is nourishing, nurturing and satisfying, without judgement or guilt. Depending on what your eating behaviors and relationship to food were before starting to learn and practice mindful (or intuitive) eating, you weight may go up, down, or stay the same.
For example, if you become aware that you have not been eating enough to be satisfied, or that your steady diet of low-calorie foods was, in fact, joyless (and not satisfying), then adopting the principles of mindful eating could lead to some weight gain because you were restricting your food before.
TCME’s Position Statement on Weight Inclusivity
TCME is quite clear that mindful eating is not a weight loss intervention, as noted in this position statement:
“It is the position of The Center for Mindful Eating that all bodies, regardless of shape, size, or composition, are deserving of care, respect, and nourishment. And while TCME affirms that the pursuit of health is not a moral imperative, we believe all people deserve access to non-stigmatizing, body-affirming health services.
“Mindful eating fosters awareness regarding how both food and our eating experiences holistically impact health and wellbeing, including our emotional, mental, physical, nutritional, social, and spiritual health. Mindful eating views weight as an inaccurate representation of health or wellbeing and supports autonomy around food decisions, encouraging individuals to connect to their own inner wisdom to inform what, when, and how much to eat. It encourages individuals to approach food and eating with curiosity and without judgment—abandoning dichotomous beliefs that categorize food as “good” or “bad” and relearning how to recognize and respond to hunger and satiety cues.
“TCME does not endorse weight normative approaches to care that use weight, BMI, or weight loss as proxies for health because such approaches:
- Fail to recognize the complex and multifactorial nature of health and well-being
- Promote the external control of food and eating
- Promote food moralizing
- Foster weight and size stigmas
“Mindful eating practitioners and teachers are discouraged from making assumptions about an individual’s physical health, emotional wellbeing, or eating behaviors based on their body size or shape. They are encouraged to correct the misrepresentation of mindful eating as a weight-normative or weight loss intervention, to challenge the use of weight-stigmatizing language and practices in their own communities, and to promote mindful eating as a practice that is inclusive of all bodies.”
On red flags, and striving
I mentioned “striving” up above. So what does that mean, exactly? Striving means to make efforts to achieve or obtain something. While that’s not inherently a bad thing (you had to strive if you ever made the effort to learn something, for example), it doesn’t work with any mindfulness practices, exactly.
Mindfulness practices, whether you’re talking about mindful eating, mindfulness meditation, or simply paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment…are about being in the moment. If you are striving to achieve something from being mindful, whether it be to eat less, lose weight, become more calm, or to simply feel better, then you aren’t really in the moment anymore. You are mentally in the future. You are thinking about, or hoping for, future outcomes of what you are doing in the moment.
As full disclosure, the issue of striving as it relates to mindfulness practices is something I learned relatively recently. I took a daylong loving-kindness meditation virtual retreat through Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and the teacher addressed it. Then a month later, I did a virtual self-compassion training with Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer, and they said that if you show yourself self-compassion with the goal of feeling better (striving), that can backfire. The reason for showing yourself compassion is that you are human, and therefore are worthy of compassion. Full stop.
So…run the other way from any programs or practitioners who promise (or even suggest) that mindful eating (or intuitive eating) will help you lose weight without dieting. Those are major red flags that they misunderstand, or are willfully co-opting, these practices.
Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.