There Is No "Should" In Mindful Eating


When people start practicing mindful eating, the default, especially after a long history of dieting, is to impose rules around their practice. I often hear people, including my clients, say things like “I should only eat eat when I’m hungry”, or “I should always stop when I’m full”, or “I should be eating this food and not that food”. That is why when I teach, I always reiterate what mindful eating is and what it isn’t. Mindful eating is NOT about swapping one set of rules for another.

There is NO “should” in mindful eating

Mindful eating is rooted in both formal mindfulness meditation and informal mindfulness practices. At its core is cultivating moment-by-moment awareness, on purpose, without judgement; tuning in and listening to our body, letting go of judgement and embracing what we experience in the moment. We focus on the sensations that arise within our eating environment. We engage the senses - sight, touch, taste and smell - to anchor us in the present moment. We also allow and recognize the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and cravings that arise. In doing this, we cultivate inner wisdom, which allows us to understand to our physical cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction, while also honoring our emotional needs.

The only “rule” when practicing mindful eating, is that no matter what arises in our experience, we approach it with curiosity, compassion and kindness

With mindful eating practices, we learn to “let go” and to simply BE. I jokingly use the word rule here, because there are no rules. The whole point of mindful eating is to cultivate presence during the eating experience and learn to sit with the discomfort that may arise. Mindfulness practices strengthen our muscle, our capacity to be with our experiences. In that space of awareness, we stop resisting what’s there. And once that resistance, that tension is released, we can cultivate tenderness and compassion for ourselves. There’s richness, and so much to learn, in each of our experiences and when we can fully embrace that, we’ll begin to feel completely at home, at peace, in our bodies and with food.

In her book, “The Joy of Half a Cookie”, Jean Kristeller, PhD, who developed the first mindful eating clinical program, outlines nine principles of mindful eating. I’ve summarized a few of those principles below that highlight why it’s important to let go of rules when practicing mindful eating:

  1. Only you know what your mind and body needs - no one can tell you how hungry you are and what that feels like, or how much to eat to feel satisfied. That wisdom lies within you and you alone!

  2. You’ll use your thoughts and feelings to inform yourself, not punish yourself - this allows us to move away from “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, to understanding and acknowledging our emotions, desires and cravings, so that we can make wise decisions about what will nourish us best and fully satisfy us.

  3. There are no bad foods - yes some foods are more nutrient dense than others, but no food is completely off limits (unless for some medical reason). All foods can fit into an overall balanced dietary pattern. And when we learn to enjoy the full pleasure of all foods, we’ll naturally select healthy foods. However, we’ll also be able to eat less healthy foods, and stop when we’ve had enough, without gaining weight or increasing our risk of chronic disease.

  4. Relying on willpower and guilt leads to dissatisfaction and struggle - “Shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” perpetuate feelings of guilt and disappointment. Instead of fighting with ourselves, if we allow exploration of our thoughts and emotions with kindness and curiosity, then we can begin to unravel our patterns and make wise decisions about how to care for ourselves best.

When we truly begin to develop our inner wisdom, to connect with our body and mind, to learn to trust that our body knows exactly what it needs, then we can release the inner struggle. We will always have a relationship with food, but it doesn’t have to be a negative one, rooted in guilt and shame. You CAN remove self-imposed rules, “shoulds, and shouldn’ts” and learn to trust your body.

With mindful eating, you can end the struggle with emotional eating and binge eating. If you’re unsure where to start, then download my free guide to Master Mindful Eating! Also, if you’re in Charlotte, NC, join my Mindful Eating group program at the Charlotte Center for Mindfulness. The fall 2018 program starts today and the winter 2019 program will take place late January/early February. And soon the program will be available online as well!

With consistent mindful eating practice, there’s a beautiful, joyful relationship with food waiting to be discovered. Are you ready to find it?