Posted by: faithful | July 16, 2007

eating mindfully: from an aol coach

‘Eating Mindfully’

Mindfulness of Feelings


Eating Mindfully

By effort and heedfulness, discipline and self-mastery, let the wise one make for himself an island, which no flood can overwhelm.
— Buddha

Mindfully Cope with Emotional Eating

In reaction to every event, a feeling generally follows. Just like the urge we have to categorize and sort objects such as socks, bills, and money, we desire a simple and organized way to understand our feelings. As a result, people tend to classify even complex emotions into three simple categories: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Feelings, also called emotions, are a myriad of complex, confusing, constantly changing sensations that can flood and/or cloud your awareness. Feelings are like the weather, natural yet uncontrollable. The trick is to forecast storms of intense anger or irritability and the emptiness of a chilly, lonely day. Protect your inner climate from extreme conditions. Remember feelings come and go and evolve quickly, which demands a watchful and flexible eye. Therefore, do not react to them at their onset or before you understand what they are really about. Feelings are extremely transient. This is demonstrated by thinking about the way memory tends to work. For example, think about something that really upset you in the past. Today, it is more than likely that it doesn’t bother you at all. You might even laugh about it. Just because you feel an emotion doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it. Label your feelings. Name them, and you end their power over you by identifying them as “just feelings.”

Master Your Hungry Mind

Susan Albers introduces concepts of acceptance and awareness of one’s eating behaviors and a means for restoring tranquility to meals.

Use meditation to get in touch with your emotions. Identify which feelings you repeatedly experience before and after you eat. Are they shame, guilt, or disappointment? Is it a combination of these three? Think about how you cope with these feelings. Do they stop any further analysis of your behavior by paralyzing your ability to think? Are you aware of your judgments? Do you listen to how many times a day your mind translates “This food is bad for me” into “I’m a bad person?” Do you hear, “I ate really well today, so I’m a good person?” Stop waiting for your verdict about how you feel each time you eat, and become more aware of the process. This will help you to make wise choices about your eating, based on your nutritional needs as opposed to your feelings.

Skill Builder: Walking Backward and Forward

Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.
— Buddha

If you have had a period of mindless eating, think about what happened before it. Retrace your steps. Go over your experience backwards, and identify all of the individual steps that led to where you are now. Do it one step at a time.

  1. Ask yourself this question. What began your mindless eating? What happened right before you started eating? Often, examining the context of the situation leads you back to the feelings and thoughts that prompted the situation. There are many factors that could have made you susceptible to uncontrolled eating.
  2. After you walk through the incident backwards, walk through it again, going forwards this time. Be aware of the feelings that occurred after your bout of mindless eating.
  3. Once you have walked through the incident, try to identify those points when you might have taken a different path. Commit the circumstances of this critical juncture to your memory.

Enduring and Controlling Difficult Moods

Mindless chaotic, over-and undereaters generally respond similarly to extreme feelings. Whether good or bad, intense emotions become overwhelming and often intolerable. In general, the wish is to get rid of them as soon as possible. Eating is one way to change or modulate emotions quickly. People use food to stuff down feelings, or they starve themselves and thus ward off feeling anything at all. People also use food to soothe, diminish, or intensify feelings. They use it to purge and release emotions, and to regain control over their moods.

Skill Builder: Don’t Let Your Emotions Eat You UpThe following exercises will help you cope with difficult emotions in the moment rather than allowing them to eat you up.

  1. Identify the feeling. Full awareness is always the key. Write a letter to yourself describing the emotion. Observe it first, then describe it.
  2. Bump it down a notch. Imagine that you can quantify the level of your emotion, and adjust it, just as you can tune the dial that sets your radio volume. If you are at ten, make a plan about what needs to happen to reduce it to a six.
  3. If you are feeling anxious, let your body go. Reconnect with your body. Feel your feet against the floor. Let your shoulders and neck drop. Observe how it feels not to resist the pull of gravity.
  4. If you are feeling stressed, imagine giving yourself a body massage. Picture yourself lying on your stomach. First, focus on your feet and imagine them being massaged with scented oils. Be mindful of your ankles and calves as they are being rubbed. In your mind, allow the massage to travel down your neck, shoulders, arms, and fingertips. Imagine turning over on your stomach and feeling the kneading deep in the muscles of your lower back.
  5. If you feel sad, be sad. Don’t fight it. Rent a sad movie, call a friend and talk about it. Teach yourself that bad feelings aren’t intolerable or scary. They can be accepted.
  6. Anger is a particularly difficult emotion. It often occurs secondary to a primary emotion. Frustration, hurt, or fear of loss may be behind an angry feeling. Admit your anger and discover what is prompting it. Take a mental snapshot of the moment. Step back and take the same picture with a panoramic lens. What else is in the picture? Buddha said that, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; but you are the one who gets burned.”
  7. If you’re feeling guilty, confess that to yourself. Admit you feel guilty. Remember that mindfulness is about being nonjudgmental. If you see yourself sentencing yourself to a punishment, think again. Handing out a punishment will only start another mindless eating cycle. You gain more power by being compassionate with yourself, and your compassion will prevent negative feelings from arising that could trigger more mindless eating
  8. If you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions and, typically, you push them down, imagine you have a pressure valve somewhere on your body. Turn the knob slowly. Let out a little bit of emotion at a time. Remember, you are in charge of turning the handle.
  9. Midday and/or end-of-the-day rituals. Observing rituals can be a helpful way to release emotions that build up throughout the day. Daily routines have a grounding effect and foster awareness. Write one page in your journal, sing a soothing song, burn incense, or repeat a prayer aloud. Try to do this at the same time every day. Practicing ritual is similar to the feelings you get when you hear a song you know well. It is familiar, uncomplicated, and you can predict how much you will like it.
  10. If you feel as if you want to harm yourself, call 911. When you want to injure yourself, this means that the emotions you are experiencing are too intense for you to contain. Find a safe place with people who can help you moderate and understand your feelings.

Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.
— Buddha

Mindful Metaphors — Visualize Your Feelings

I am terrified of eating fat because I fear blowing up like a big, red beach ball. The kind of ball that people kick around, and let float away when they don’t feel like it’s worth rescuing out of deep water.

I feel skinless. Any kind of emotion feels like it is touching my raw nerve endings. When people look at me, I feel naked and unprotected. I want a porous emotional skin that lets people in, and protects me from being afraid they are evaluating my body.

These statements are two examples of the many vivid metaphors people create to describe the experience of mindless, problematic eating. Creating and describing analogies, parables, myths, stories, and personal anecdotes encourages people to look beyond the surface of their problems. Transforming your experience into an image or a poetic metaphor can help you step back and examine your problem from a different perspective.  For example, Kate battled her guilt about eating and her tortured thoughts about her body by visualizing a mindful eating metaphor. She compared her body’s chronic fatigue, which she experienced from lack of calories, to a car sputtering to a stop because it’s out of gas. She visualized herself as a little blue Volvo, and the food she ate as putting fuel in the tank. The busier she was, and the harder she pushed down on the pedal, the more often she had to fill the tank with quality gas (protein, complex carbohydrates), not the cheap gas (diet sodas, cookies, chips). Kate became more mindful of the way her body moved, and of its many critical functions like breathing and walking. She realized that if she was not mindful, she would be driving down a road that would crash and ruin her body.


Skill Builder: Creating Mindful Eating Metaphors

If you could describe what your eating issue looks like, what would you see? Think about its color, shape, and size. Would it be like an animal, person, place, or object? Once you have observed and described the image, you can begin to transform it into a more mindful image.

Control Your Feelings with Your Nose

If you don’t know how you feel, your breathing will tell you. Breathing reflects your emotions. If you are anxious, it is shallow and fast, if you are relaxed, it is slow and rhythmic. When you “hold” your breath, it is a strong clue that you are frightened. When in love, your breath is “taken away.” Therefore, by paying attention to your breathing, you can become aware of your inner emotions. If you don’t know what you are feeling, stop, pay attention to your breathing, and let your breathing help you tune into your feelings.

Skill Builder: Deep Breathing Before You Eat

For many people, eating is a stressful event. If this is so for you, sit down at the table and prepare yourself to be in a mindful state before you eat. Focus all of your attention on your bodily sensations. Relax and make yourself comfortable. Lean back in your chair and be aware of the position of your body. Relax your muscles, close your eyes, and let your body unwind. Tense and release your muscles. Begin by taking a deep breath. Very slowly, take a deep breath that allows your diaphragm to move up and down. Concentrate on the sound of your breath. Listen to it and feel the sensations as you breathe. Feel yourself relax as the tension releases and leaves your body. Follow the journey of the air as it travels through your nose and throat, fills up your lungs, and moves your chest. Take just a moment to connect with your breathing as you gear up to eat mindfully.

How Much Do You Weigh (Psychologically)?

At times, a scale becomes not only the measure of your weight but the measure of your worth, and a strong determinant of your mood and well-being. Unfortunately, when this happens, you turn over your sense of control to something outside of yourself. When the scale presents you with a number you don’t like, you may judge yourself too harshly. This can jeopardize your balance because you become dominated or literally weighed down by your self-critical judgments. Rather than judging yourself, it would be more helpful to think about weighing yourself psychologically.

Skill Builder: Weighing Your Self-Esteem

Meditate on how much appetite and food problems weigh you down. Work more on diminishing the weight of other stresses in your life than on your gravitational physical weight. Your self-esteem is comprised of several components. Think about how you feel about yourself intellectually, morally, physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. Which aspect of your self is most out of balance and tipping your scales? Now, think about those times in your life when you felt good about yourself. Make sure you identify times that aren’t related to your body or physical appearance. Consider what you can do to feel good about yourself that is not related to eating or to your weight.

Mindful Eating and Relationships

The quality and depth of your relationships with the important people in your life are often good indicators of, and parallel to, your relationship with food. It can be useful to think about your interactions with food using “relationship” terms, because eating is an inescapable part of your daily routine. You make decisions every day about how much priority and attention to give to food in ways that may be similar to how you balance the priorities and attention you give to partners, family, and friends. The way you eat may reflect the nature of your relationships with people. For example, if you are a chronic dieter and you feel your worth is inseparable from your weight, your relationships may not have much depth. Or, if you restrict and avoid certain foods, your relationships are more likely to be more superficial, sometimes even one-dimensional, which leaves you feeling isolated and disconnected.

For example, Janet described her relationship to food to be like that of a defendant in a continual “court trial.” With each bite, she felt compelled to present all the nutritional reasons why she “should” be allowed to eat it, in order to convince the invisible jury in her head that she wouldn’t become fat from eating it. She interacted with friends in a suspiciously similar manner. Janet felt guilty saying “no” to anyone, and spent agonizing hours trying to make a simple decision about going somewhere with a friend.

Skill Builder: Stop Food Fights

Be mindful of the significance of food in your life and how that also may describe your relationships. How would you characterize your relationship to food? Is it a secret love affair occurring in quiet, hidden places? Do you keep your food and eating habits a secret from those around you? Or, is it a love/hate relationship? Do the foods you crave lead you to despise yourself after you have surrendered to their pleasure? Is food a reliable “friend” when you need it, or a constant “enemy” you try to avoid and/or conquer? Describe your current relationship with food, and think about the kind of relationship you would like it to become. Aim for a friendship or partnership that is even, fair, open to communication, and constantly negotiating the competing needs of your body and mind.

Relationships May Trigger Mindless Eating

Buddha said, “An insincere and evil friend is to be more feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind.” This saying succinctly captures how harmful a bad relationship can be to your state of mind and sense of well-being. Interpersonal problems are notoriously guilty of limiting one’s ability to live and act mindfully. People can become caught in constant worry about the state of their relationships. Questions like, “Do people like me?” and “What do they think of me?” may be in the forefront of your mind. Relationship difficulties can consume you, and keep you from focusing on the task at hand, which is being present for the important people in your life and really enjoying life.

One frequently asked question goes, “If my body isn’t really attractive, will people like me?” It is true that many people often make their first judgments based on appearances. But real relationships are based on far more substantial connections. When you are truly mindful of your relationships, you examine people from a holistic approach. You are appreciative of all aspects of who they are. Mindfulness doesn’t value anyone because of their past or future. Rather, it values people for who they are in the present moment. Get in touch with your reactions, and with what you “sense” and “feel” in a friend’s presence, as opposed to what you “know” about him or her in the past, or think about who he/she will be in the future.

People with eating issues are often people pleasers. People pleasers care a lot about making others happy, often at the expense of their own well-being. People pleasing inhibits mindfulness because you are always anticipating how people will react as opposed to being fully present, and making decisions based on what you sense and feel in the moment, instead of thinking things through.

Skill Builder: Relationship Check

  1. If you worry about what other people think about your body, start by evaluating the quality of your relationships. Do you judge other people exclusively on their appearance? If you are critical of yourself, do you “project” this onto other people and assume this is what they think about you? Consider how this might affect your relationships. What is it that you are afraid others will see if they really know you?
  2. When you are with people, really be with them. Look in their eyes, touch their hands, keep your mind focused on the conversation. Take note of the feelings and thoughts that arise for you.

Skill Builder: Mindful Body Talk

  1. Be more aware of the messages you receive and send to your friends. The Buddha said, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Don’t make fat-phobic comments, check out others’ bodies, or snicker about others’ weight. Refuse to engage in disparaging talk about someone else’s looks. When you find yourself giving someone the once-over and you make a critical comment, counter it with a positive observation. Genuinely compliment others.
  2. Never, never, never comment on anyone’s weight. You don’t know what your comment may mean to someone, and you have no idea what kind of effect your comment may have on that person. Mindless eaters repeatedly report that other people’s comments (both positive and negative) about their weight dramatically sway their eating habits. Unhealthy, even dangerous, mindless undereating is reinforced by well-meaning loved ones and coworkers saying, “Oh you look so thin,” or “You don’t need to lose weight.” If you must say something, use a generalized compliment like, “You look really nice today.” Don’t emphasize weight. Saying that someone looks “fat” or has “gained weight” can be very cruel. Value people not for their butts, thighs, or stomachs, but for their hearts and minds.

Heart versus Hunger Cravings

Marie had one desire for St. Valentine’s Day. She wanted to receive a large, red velvet heart full of chocolates. Days before the holiday she waited, craving the gift and imagining how pretty the box would be. Ironically, because of a mild food allergy, she didn’t even like chocolate, and rarely ate it. Marie didn’t realize that it wasn’t chocolate she hungered for, but what the large, red heart symbolized. She wanted to be loved, and for her lover to express his love with a symbolic gift. This anecdote illustrates the kind of confusion that can exist between what your heart longs for and what your stomach craves.

Buddhist theory identifies cravings as the root of suffering. Emotional cravings can be more powerful, insatiable, and destructive than physical hunger. Your emotional desires aren’t as clear-cut or as predictable as your desire to eat. As you become more mindful, you will begin to realize exactly what your heart hungers for. Examples include cravings for companionship, love, power, and control. In contrast to food, these longings are not as easily fulfilled. Sometimes, people misinterpret their heart cravings, and try to feed their bodies when they actually need to take better care of their souls.

For example, before Jessica became a mindful eater she was particularly vulnerable to overeating when lonely or sad. Now, instead of reaching for food as comfort, she mindfully calls a friend. It feels so good to talk to others that she stops thinking about overeating and rejoices in companionship.

Skill Builder: Keep a Mindfulness Journal

Keep track of your constantly changing emotions and desires. Carry a small pocket journal with you wherever you go. Make it easily accessible so you can reach it in the moment you experience fleeting, powerful, intense emotions or cravings. Or, buy a daily calendar that breaks down the day by hour. Jot down the emotions you felt at particular hours. Examine the calendar at the end of the day to see whether any patterns or trends emerge. If you spend most of your time in front of a computer, create an easily accessible, secure document file to record what happens to you emotionally when your mind wanders during the day.

In addition to your feelings, record and examine your daydreams. These can give you a good idea of what you are consciously craving. If you imagine a special relationship, you are likely craving love and attention. If you dream about a job promotion, you may be longing for power, control, and intellectual stimulation. Consider what you can do to satisfy your heart’s cravings.

Mindful Holiday Feasting

Most people look forward to the joy of traditional holiday feasts. They are times of celebration for everyone, except mindless eaters. For mindless eaters, gatherings centered exclusively around food can turn not-so-merry. Worry about gaining extra holiday pounds is nothing to celebrate. Holidays elevate feasting to a special status, and they encourage mindless eating by inviting all to overeat.


Spending time with relatives during holidays is another surefire way to trigger mindless eating. Reconnecting with family can be as stressful as it is joyous. People get very emotional, and conflict is more likely to erupt. Hanging out with your family can reignite feelings of inadequacy or of being controlled, rejected, or wanting to please. Or, it may bring up intense memories of happy holidays from the past, which can make you miss more regular contact with your family. One woman described the Christmas holidays as the ultimate challenge because they are a double-dose of her two weaknesses: family and food.

Skill Builder: Planning Holiday Meals

  1. Plan ahead mindfully. Think about which foods define the holiday for you. Plan to have some of that special food. Offer to prepare the meal to have greater control over the menu. Make foods that don’t trigger or increase your vulnerability to mindless eating.
  2. If the holiday meal is to be eaten at someone else’s home, eat a mindful snack before you go. Don’t wait until after the football game or holiday parade. If you do, your body will send you hunger cues that may be difficult to satiate in a controlled manner.
  3. Be mindful of unique ethnic and cultural traditions.
  4. If you are a chronic undereater, holidays can be extremely difficult. Reach back in your memory and identify what you liked to eat before your eating issues began. Eat what would make you happy. Connect yourself with the meaning of the holiday; for example, if it is the Fourth of July, celebrate the liberty you have to choose your foods.
  5. To prevent overeating, stay in touch with the experience moment-to-moment. At the table, eat slowly and look at everything. Smell and taste your food. Breathe in the holiday atmosphere.
  6. After finishing your plate, wait twenty minutes before getting a second helping. It takes the part of your brain that helps to regulate your appetite, about twenty minutes to register what you ate, and to send the information that you are full to your body and brain. Allow your body and mind the necessary time to send and receive these signals.
  7. If the same food is prepared in different ways, choose your favorite. For example, if there are mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, consider which will give you the most pleasure, or have a small amount of both.
  8. If you have trouble knowing how much you have eaten, put the food on your plate in piles that don’t overlap. Start with this, and then wait and see how your body responds.

Mindful Dining Out

Depending on your relationship to food, eating out can either be a special treat or a nightmare. Jill, for example, loved interesting, quaint cafés and was a regular at many local Thai restaurants. She didn’t have to cook, and the flavor far surpassed anything she could create. The dark side of eating out was worrying about the excess calories. She had no control over how the food was prepared, and didn’t know how many calories she was consuming, so she felt guilty. When she dined out as a reward to herself, she mindlessly overate. Eating out was a mixture of intense pleasure and equally intense remorse.

If dining out is a special event for you, that doesn’t give you permission to eat mindlessly. Attentive, aware, nonjudgmental eating can take place anywhere. You can eat mindfully at restaurants exactly the way you do at home, by eating slowly and savoring your food. Learn to think of the restaurant’s ambience and service as the real treat, rather than the food. Going out to eat is often a form of entertainment or a social event. Sometimes you may feel forced to choose between being social or engaging in mindless eating. However, the two need not be mutually exclusive. If dining out with friends brings up negative feelings, or causes you stress, be mindful of what’s behind your concern. Your fear may cause you to assume that you will lose control. To combat the fear, use it as an opportunity to be mindful of your relationships, and to practice your mindful eating skills.

Food comparison is a common but disturbing phenomenon that people must deal with when eating with friends. Food comparers place their orders based on what other people are eating. This is an example of mindless eating because it is more mindful of someone else’s behavior than your own. Both your experience of and relationship to food are uniquely yours. For this reason, it is important for you to focus and meditate on your own experience. Eat from your own plate.


Skill Builder: Eleven Ways to Dine Out

  1. The first step in planning an evening out is to choose a restaurant mindfully. This means picking one with a large selection of healthy, interesting foods. Avoid buffet style, “All You Can Eat,” one-price, three-course meals, or places with limited selections. This falls under the same set of rules as avoiding the grocery store when hungry.
  2. To help avoid mindless eating, have a small snack before you go. Don’t go really hungry, and don’t “save up” calories for this meal. When you are moderately hungry as opposed to very hungry, it is much easier to make mindful choices and to refuse food you normally wouldn’t eat. Very hungry people are likely to eat anything put in front of them. Moderately hungry people are choosier. If you are really hungry, you will likely order too much. To avoid overeating, choose something similar to what you would prepare at home. Eat slowly and savor the entire experience.
  3. Eat mindfully and stay attuned to your relationships with people and with food. Talk, laugh, and have a good time. If you are attacked by guilt-ridden thoughts about eating, keep your eyes and 90 percent of your attention on the people with you.
  4. If you are a “food comparer” or are competitive about your weight, order first so you won’t be tempted to change your pick. Focus on positive food talk. Compliment the taste. Don’t join with others if they are engaging in hypercritical food talk. Consider not dining out with people who raise your anxiety level or with people who are overly focused on their own eating issues. Find people who are good, mindful eating role models.
  5. Become more relationship-focused by ordering together and sharing the food. If you are hungry for a particular food that is normally off-limits for you, such as an appetizer or a dessert, ask someone at your table to share half of an order with you. Sharing exotic food can be fun. Make a joint decision about your pick. Discuss your likes and dislikes rather than dwelling on food that you can’t have. Have fun. Enjoy your meal.
  6. Do not judge what others eat. No one wants to dine with someone who criticizes their food choices. If someone chooses greasy French fries that you wouldn’t dare touch, be aware of your reaction. Say to yourself, “I’m judging and I need to be more compassionate. I notice that I become envious and critical at the same time. I need to focus on my eating and my eating alone.” At other times, you might feel guilty that your “thinner” companion is eating less than you are. Again, be mindful of your needs and everything going on within yourself.
  7. Minimize using food as a way to celebrate or provide pleasure. Buy a gift, send a card, leave a very thoughtful voice-mail message. Sometimes people joke about needing a “chocolate fix” to mend the strains of a stressful day. You know that in the long run, food just won’t do it. Reinforcing the notion that food provides the ultimate comfort is just plain dangerous.
  8. Don’t make a show of what you order. Sometimes people like to get validation (or an envious reaction) by ordering their meal to be served without cheese, oil, butter, etc. Give the waitperson your order based on your taste preferences, not to provoke a reaction.
  9. Avoid picking at your food mindlessly. When bread is brought to your table, take a piece or two, and send the rest away. Bread (and butter) are among the most common mindlessly eaten foods. Also, when you are done with your meal, move your plate to the side, or ask to have it removed. It’s easy to put more food on your plate mindlessly, or pick at it when it is in front of you.
  10. Loosen the connection between eating and socializing. If your friends ask you out to dinner frequently, suggest meeting for coffee or tea instead. Plan nonfood-related activities like walks or movies. Or, invite your friends to a dinner you will prepare.
  11. Don’t conduct business meetings or important discussions over a meal. It is difficult to be attentive to your eating when you must engage in critical or emotional conversation at the table. People tend to use food unconsciously to soothe tension.

Accept Your Genes

Betsy’s family joked that she, like other women in the family, had been cursed with the “Cervellonis’ hips.” The women on her father’s side all had wide, sturdy hips and buttocks that were a painful contrast to the thin, elegant hips and dainty butt that she fantasized about when she worked out. When she examined her family lineage, it was clear that her desire to fit into size six pants was unrealistic. No matter how much she dieted and worked out, her bone structure and her body type would not change. Also, if your family members have difficulty modulating their eating, unfortunately, it is likely that you, too, will also have to struggle to modulate your eating.


Body shape and weight range are largely influenced by genetics. Your bone size, metabolism rate, and fat deposit locations are determined by your genetic code as much as your eye, hair color, and height are.

According to the “set point” theory, it is postulated that your body has a genetically predetermined weight range. Your body tries to keep your weight within that range and will automatically adjust your metabolism and food storage capacity to keep you from losing or gaining weight outside of that range or set point. The set point theory suggests that little can be done to change your overall body shape in the same way that your shoe size, height, and eye color are a predetermined part of who you are. All you can do to alter this is to tint your contacts and wear high-heeled shoes. Similarly, you can subtly alter the appearance of your body shape by the clothes you wear, or by toning your muscles with exercise.

Angie, for example, was five feet, three inches tall. Her weight fell naturally within a range of 115125 pounds. If she ate mindfully, her body weight stayed comfortably within this range. She noticed that it was extremely difficult to lose any weight if she weighed 115 pounds, and her body felt uncomfortable when it broached the upper limit. Angie’s ability to listen to her body helped her to eat mindfully and to stay within her natural range.

Skill Builder: Identify Your Natural Body Shape

Draw a family tree. Identify those family members who have struggled with mindless eating. If food and weight haven’t been a topic of conversation, look at family pictures. Take into account how bodies changed from childhood to old age. Think about whether over-, under-, or chaotic eating is a family pattern. While you are at it, appreciate the family traits that people admire and compliment, like unique green eyes or naturally curly hair.

Adopted Families and Food Anxiety

If you were adopted or frequently ate with people other than your biological parents, your primary caregivers still played a significant role in shaping your eating habits. They did this by what they fed you and the messages about food they taught to you. Linda’s adoptive mother provides a poignant example of how subtle, mindless eating habits are learned. Although Linda’s mother did not encourage her daughter to diet, she constantly restricted her own food intake. She never ate the elaborate meals she prepared for her family. Linda observed her mother’s eating habits and subconsciously incorporated them into her own routines. She wouldn’t eat foods her mom avoided because they had “too much fat.” Never underestimate the importance of your environment and role models.

Skill Builder: Identify Learned Food Habits

Write a list of what constituted a “typical meal” when you were growing up. List how many times a day you ate, and what the common foods and snacks were. What kind of messages did you receive about your body, food, and how to eat as a child and adolescent? How do those messages affect you now? What kind of food culture do you want to create in your own family, dorm, or household?

Change Mindless Eating Traps

Mindless eating is more likely to occur in the same place, over and over again. To make life simpler, the mind takes advantage of any shortcuts it can. For example, when looking for underwear, your hand will automatically go to your underwear drawer. If you rearrange your drawers and put your underwear in a new location, your hand will still tend to travel automatically to the old drawer, until new shortcuts are formed in your brain. We make connections between events and we have to work hard to break and form new links.


If you practice mindless eating in certain places, your brain is likely to subconsciously remember that and act out of habit. Never, under any circumstances, eat in front of the TV, computer screen, while driving, or on the phone. These are the most notorious locations for mindless eating. Jessica’s vulnerable spot was in her kitchen. To take control, Jessica created a mindful eating haven in her home. This was away from the refrigerator, phone, TV, and other distractions. Before eating, she put all the food portions she planned to eat on the table, so she would not have to return to the kitchen. She learned to relax and breathe between each bite, and to watch herself in the process of eating. This slowed her down enough to enjoy her meals in a mindful way.

Cafeteria-style dining encourages uncontrolled, unaware eating. The unstructured abundance of food is a dangerous place for automatic, mindless eating. Instead of choosing what is appealing, choices are often based on thoughts like, “I want to get my money’s worth,” or “I want to try everything.” For overeaters, buffets are an overwhelming sea of choices. Mindless undereaters also find buffets difficult. To cope, they eat only their familiar foods rather than trying anything new. For under-, over-, and chaotic eaters, the anxiety caused by too much food can supercede any enjoyment a buffet might offer. It is wise not to go to them before you have mindless eating skills down pat.

Skill Builder: Pinpoint Your Mindless Eating Cues

Learn which situations tend to act as the cues that entice you to eat without thoughtfulness. Identify the places you are most likely to eat mindlessly. In the kitchen, at the local coffee shop, at your desk? Find ways to turn a space in your environment into a place that fosters mindful eating. In that place, remove any clutter that could distract you while you eat. Objects like phones or clocks that pull you away from a mindful state should be moved elsewhere.

Put your place setting so that it faces away from the kitchen (or refrigerator). Bring food to the table before you eat, so you won’t have to get up. Or, create a new space. Tailor it to be a calm, peaceful environment that brings you to a mindful state. If you wish, burn incense or change the lighting. Add a pretty tablecloth and fresh flowers. Play soothing music. Hang up a sign in your danger area that says, “Eat Mindfully” to realert you to your mindful stance.

Filling Up on Fun

Unfortunately, boredom and/or a feeling of emptiness are very common reasons that people eat when they are not hungry. Eating, or continuously thinking about eating, fills up a stretch of time and can feel purposeful. The emptiness of being alone can be as painful as a hollow stomach. If thinking about eating takes over a significant amount of your day, you may want to consider reorganizing your energy. Be mindful of other activities that will satisfy you as much as food does, and feed your soul, as well. Skill Builder: Boredom Blockers

Make a list of activities that will keep you from turning to food or thoughts of food in downtimes. Remember, “A generous heart, kind speech, and compassionate service to others are renewing forces.” Be actively aware, awake, and moving. Mindfully go shopping, read, participate in hobbies and sports, call someone, take a nap. Write in your journal. Turn your thoughts to being mindful of others. By far, the best way to fill your heart and mind is to spend time with caring friends. Whatever you choose to do, feed your mind by participating actively in the world.

Mindfully Imperfect

Julie didn’t think she had any food issues or problems. She was a perfectionist, and, on the surface, everything in her life seemed to be perfect. Except it wasn’t. She had received stellar grades in school, found an excellent job, and won the admiration of her peers. But she was constantly unhappy about her body, and practiced never-ending self-disapproval. Her self-criticism plagued her thoughts and prevented her from appreciating all that she had accomplished.


Feeling bad about yourself is a common source of mindless eating. A poor self-image usually begins early in life and is fostered by a variety of life experiences. Acting “perfectly” often results in attention, validation, and praise. Whether it’s straight A’s, or a toned body, living up to extremely high standards is praised and envied by others. This can create the illusion that everything is okay. But the consequences of trying to live up to unrealistically high standards for your body are that you may spend your life in misery, and believe you are a “failure,” despite whatever else you accomplish.

If you look beneath your obsessive concerns about your appearance, you may find that you really fear the possibility that you are not “good” enough or “smart” enough or “interesting enough” to win others’ interest or approval. Or you may find that you don’t want to let others into your life at all. You can hide more easily behind a “perfect” appearance. Having a great body is one aspect of seeming to “have it all together.” Typically, perfectionism in any area of your life may intensify your desire to have a “perfect body.” But the need for perfection can be a trap that keeps you from enjoying your life and being proud of your accomplishments.

Skill Builder: Striving for Mindful Imperfection

Are you a perfectionist? Do you catch yourself saying things to yourself (or others) like “I’m not good enough” or “People won’t like me if I make mistakes,” or “I have to be the very best”? Think about where such unrealistic expectations of yourself originated. Did your parents pressure you to succeed, or is this need to be the best self-inflicted? To feel good about yourself, do you depend on praise from others?

  1. If you answered “yes” to the questions above, consider the “cost” of perfectionism, particularly in terms of your heath, and the wear and tear of stress on your emotional well-being. Learn how to weigh the costs and benefits of doing your best as opposed to striving for unobtainable perfection.
  2. Develop a list of your expectations and goals. Evaluate how “realistic” each one is.
  3. Intentionally do something imperfectly on a small scale, and evaluate what happens.
  4. Be mindful of the processes, instead of the outcomes.
  5. If you feel you’ve “messed up” or had a difficult eating day, remember the broader scope of your life. Make a list of your positive qualities and achievements (finishing your degree, your talent for writing, taking care of your two babies, the way you care for other people, etc.). This may sound like a simplistic, trite exercise, but sometimes, when you feel as if nothing is going right for you, you may need a tangible reminder that you are okay and that you’ve accomplished a lot in your life.

After you make your list, hang it up where you can see it when you need it. When you are sad and blue, it is easier to wallow in negatives than to remember the positives about yourself. If you can’t identify your own positives, make a list with a friend. Or, create a list for each other. Give a copy to your friend and call him or her when you need a reminder from the outside world. Someone who can remind you of your strengths should be a treasured friend.


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