Mindfulness is one of the most important (if not THE most important) skills to learn when you are working on healing your relationship to food and with your body. Read on to hear more about mindfulness and learn mindfulness skills to support intuitive eating and your body image healing journey.
This blog post contains edited excerpts from my book Unapologetic Eating.
Before you can try to shift your behaviors around food, you must cultivate awareness and mindfulness. Because if you aren’t aware of what thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or experiences are impacting your relationship with food and your eating behaviors, it’s going to be really challenging to reconnect to your body and eat intuitively.
(Also, learning mindfulness skills in general is important before you jump into mindful eating.)
What is Mindfulness?
At its simplest, mindfulness is the act of paying attention to something on purpose. We can expand this definition and say that mindfulness is about bringing your awareness into the present moment, where you can purposefully notice your experiences in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness allows you to be in the present rather than the past or the future. The present moment includes external experiences, like things that you see or hear, as well as internal experiences like your thoughts, feelings, or body sensations.
Mindfulness is the process of being aware and observing yourself with openness, flexibility, and curiosity. Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts and intellectualizing things, you take a step back, shift your attention in a deliberate, intentional way and instead observe what is happening in that moment.
One of my favorite descriptions of mindfulness comes from Fiona Sutherland:
Mindfulness is a sense of ‘being with’ rather than ‘doing to.’
Fiona Sutherland, themindfuldietitian.com.au
When practicing mindfulness, you’re not trying to coerce yourself to do something; instead, you’re allowing yourself the space to notice and observe what is going on—whether that is externally around you or internally within your brain.
Why Mindfulness is Important
Both internal events (such as thoughts like body criticisms or comparisons, feelings like shame or stress, or body sensations like bloating or fatigue) and external events (like visiting the doctor, trying on clothes, looking in the mirror, or seeing a magazine cover) can provoke negative or upsetting thoughts and feelings.
These thoughts and feelings may cause you to try to “fix” them or numb and avoid them by engaging in harmful actions and behaviors. When it comes to healing your relationship with food and your body, mindfulness allows you to:
- Identify the specific experiences, thoughts, and feelings that cause you to feel pain.
- Allow for space to observe your experiences as they are happening.
- Create a “pause” to respond to your experience rather than pushing it away (numbing and avoiding) or reacting to it (fixing).
Through the process of practicing mindfulness, you begin to build more awareness of the different internal and external experiences that can cause unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
When you can view your experiences as experiences—without attaching to them or avoiding them—then you can respond rather than react.
How Learning Mindfulness Can Support Intuitive Eating
The constant chatter in your brain about food and your body – much of it (or all of it) informed by diet culture – can’t be turned off. As much as we might wish we could flip a switch, we can’t.
But you can work on lowering the volume a bit and, in doing so, refuse to let the chatter dictate your food (and life) choices. Mindfulness allows you to become aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are dictating your food choices, decide if they’re helpful or not, and respond to them rather than reacting by doing what they say.
Mindfulness can also help you to build more awareness of your body cues, allow you to get curious at mealtimes, and build more of a connection and trust with your body.
Examples of Mindfulness and Intuitive Eating
For example, a client of mine used her mindfulness skills to notice that when she ate a larger breakfast, not only did she have more energy throughout the day, but she also didn’t need as much caffeine and – without even trying – ended up drinking much less coffee. She then noticed that when she drank less coffee, her anxiety and her acid reflux both improved during the day.
Another client of mine used mindfulness to become more aware of the ways in which she ignored or tried to suppress her hunger throughout the day. She also noticed how this ended up playing out later on: the days in which she waited too long to eat, ignoring her hunger until it was “time” to eat, she ended up feeling much more out of control with food and disconnected from her body.
While the diet culture programming may never completely go away, mindfulness allows you the space to make a decision that is more in line with what you and your body need.
How Mindfulness Can Support with Body Image Healing
Mindfulness can help you notice the different behaviors that you engage in and be able to have a better understanding of whether they are helpful or not so helpful.
Once you have that awareness, you are then able to take a “pause” to observe what is going on and then consciously choose how you are going to respond rather than just react to the cue.
Mindfulness can also help you notice your automatic thoughts and then pause to think of some alternative thoughts that don’t scapegoat your body.
For instance, when a pair of pants feel tight, your first thought may be, “My body is the problem; I need to lose weight.” You can then use mindfulness to notice this thought and take a pause to come up with an alternative, more helpful response:
“My body is changing, and these pants no longer fit, so I need to get new pants.”
Whereas automatic thought blames or pathologizes your body, the alternative thought comes from a helpful place, a place that is aligned with your values and helps you respond to yourself rather than shame or blame your body.
Mindfulness also allows you to be with your body, your thoughts, your feelings, and your experiences. It is in this “being with” and “sitting with” place that growth and change happen.
Four Steps to Cultivate Mindfulness
The first step to practicing mindfulness is to notice and bring awareness to your experience. From there, you’ll practice shifting your awareness and creating a “pause” between your experience and your reaction.
Then you’ll engage in curiosity as you ask some questions to dig deeper into your experience and your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about that experience; then you’ll decide how you want to respond. Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Noticing
To build skills in “pausing” between your experience and your response, you first need to have an awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. If you aren’t aware of how you speak to yourself and the specific words or phrases that you use to criticize or shame yourself, then you end up reacting instead of responding.
Here are some common thoughts related to food, eating, and body image that you may notice:
- Rules – about what you should or shouldn’t eat, how you should look, and so on. Words like always, never, right, wrong, should, shouldn’t may signify rules.
- Judgments – about the food you’re eating, your body, your feelings, etc (usually negative). Words like best, worst, great, awful, not enough may signify judgments.
- Past and future thoughts – such as worrying, fantasizing, blaming, predicting the worst, reliving past experiences, regretting, ruminating on circular thoughts, or blaming. Phrases that may signal a past/future thought: if only, I can’t wait until, what if X happens, I can’t believe I, why did it happen, I should have.
Practice becoming more aware of the thoughts that are popping up in your head throughout the day. It might be helpful to write these down, getting specific and writing down the words and phrases that go through your brain.
Step 2: Pausing and Shifting Attention
After you notice the thoughts that you are having, it is time to insert the “pause.” This is where you can bring even more awareness to how you speak to yourself, what feelings or body sensations you experience, and where your mind goes once you have that initial thought.
For example: “When I eat sweets after dinner, I have the thought that I have no willpower or self-control. Then I start heaping on the judgment and shame.”
Here you are practicing separating yourself from your thoughts. You can use the phrase “I’m having the thought that _______.”
This shifting of attention from the thought you’re having to the act of observing your thoughts (and your reaction to the thoughts) is what allows for actual neurobiological shifts to occur.
That’s right: Your brain will start to change as a result of redirecting your attention! It can feel difficult in the moment, but practicing will help you to be better able to tolerate and handle discomfort.
Step 3: Use Curiosity
At this point, you have noticed your thoughts and shifted attention by inserting a “pause.” Within that pause, it’s time to practice cultivating curiosity about your experience, thoughts, and feelings.
Often our initial thought often is followed by a (usually negative) judgment. If you instead engage in curiosity, you have the opportunity to approach what’s going on in your mind with openness, interest, and compassion.
Try to listen and notice. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Notice any physical sensations in your body.
Get curious and ask yourself:
- Where are these feelings coming from?
- Why might you be feeling the way you are?
- What may have happened that caused these thoughts or feelings?
Try to get a better understanding of where your thoughts came from and what beliefs you may hold that have led to them.
Step 4: Respond
If you usually react to an experience by disconnecting and pushing it away, or by attaching to it and spiraling into negative, judgmental thoughts, this four-step mindfulness process gives you space to respond.
For many of my clients, certain experiences, whether internal thoughts or external events, cause them to want to diet and/or exercise to “fix” their bodies. This is a reaction. With mindfulness, after you’ve taken a step back and created a “pause” to explore, you instead can decide how you want to respond to the experience that you’re having.
When responding, it is helpful to use self-compassion. A great place to start is “What would I say to a friend right now?” or “How would I treat a friend who was in this position?”. Try to respond to yourself with that same compassion.
For example, when a client of mine was starting to go into a shame sprial after trying on pants that no longer fit, I asked her what she would say to a friend who had that same experience. Her answer was, “I’d tell them that bodies are not supposed to stay the same and that it is okay if you need to buy a different size of pants.”
Then that became some of the self-compassionate self-talk she used toward herself in that moment.
Honing these mindfulness skills is hard work but, with continued practice, you will start to notice more shifts and more tolerance in your ability to “sit with” your experiences, responding rather than reacting.
Remember the neurobiology: when you redirect your mind, create space to explore, and engage in curiosity, you can literally begin to change your brain.
How do you think mindfulness could be helpful for you? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Are you looking for more support?
Check out my course Unapologetic Eating 101, an online, self-paced program to help you liberate yourself from dieting and make peace with food and your body.
My team and I also offer virtual one-on-one nutrition therapy support: check out our virtual intuitive eating nutrition coaching packages for more information.
My book, Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life, is also a great resource that includes information, research, and reflection prompts to help you move away from dieting and come back home to your body, so you can live your most unapologetic, liberated life.