An ever-constant presence in my life is the fragile relationship between mental health and food. We all have different relationships with food, whether you don’t think about it at all or if it consumes every waking moment. I know I’m not immune to emotional hunger, and as I further investigate the relationship between food, my body and my mind, it becomes so much more complicated. This is where lessons in mindfulness have come to save me.
Being mindful during daily life, not just while eating, can change your life for the better. Awareness without judgment is central to living mindfully, and it’s not easy. I’ve been practicing for years, and I’m still not great at it, but it has made a major difference. So how can we apply mindfulness to how we eat?
Intuitive eating is about rejecting the diet mindset and learning to respect and listen to your body. In their book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works,” Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch outline 10 principles of intuitive eating.
The harm in dieting
Principles one and four suggest dropping your current fad diet and any preconceived ideas of “good” and “bad” food. We see dieting everywhere — on the packaging of food, on Facebook, from friends and family. We label foods like lettuce as “good” and cake as “bad.”
However, these habits can be harmful in the long run. Fad diets pop up constantly, promising quick results and a slim waist, but they tend to end with dissatisfaction and, sometimes, weight gain. And foods can’t really be labeled as “good” or “bad” — what’s more important is their nutritional value. So, yes, even though fruit has sugar in it, it’s not necessarily “bad” for you; it’s about its overall nutritional impact.
Principles two and three take a look at hunger: our body’s natural mechanism that lets us know we need food. You need food to survive, so allow yourself to eat. Of course, we should try to prioritize nutritious foods in our daily lives, but eating anything at all is more important than making sure you’re not exceeding 1,400 calories a day.
There is a lot of emotional weight around food. Some people feel like they don’t deserve it, or they can’t afford it, or they are struggling with an eating disorder. Sometimes we don’t have time to go grocery shopping and cook, or our mental health is making the day a lot harder, or we just had a long week. Life happens. No matter the reason, it is more important that you eat something, whether it’s McDonald’s or a salad, than nothing at all.
Use mindfulness, show kindness
The remaining principles focus on using mindfulness skills to eat and treating your mind and body with kindness. This means allowing yourself to have emotions. This means listening to your body for cues. This means eating when you need to. This means spending time moving and exercising your body.
Mindfulness is a tool that can be helpful in changing your mindset. Instead of making your goal to lose 10 pounds or lose an inch around your waist, focus on your mental health and well-being instead. Exercise and diet don’t have to be synonymous with fear, restriction and disappointment. They can be tools to improve your core goal: improving your health.
When your only focus is to lose weight, it’s easy to become discouraged, to make self-deprecating comments, to only focus on the numbers. Maybe you hate your belly fat or your hip dips, or you wish you could just take the fat from one spot and put it in another.
Spoiler alert: you’re not going to magically gain a new body overnight. You’re you — and although you may not be quite comfortable with who you are now, you can get there without a single number. With a change in mindset, the numbers just fade to the background. What begins to matter most is your mental and physical well-being.
Learn to love yourself. Learn to honor your body and love every single thing about it. Learn to prioritize your body because it’s the only one you get.
For example, when working out, focus on how you feel in the moment and how the movement makes you feel afterward. Working out releases endorphins, and it can be a rewarding experience. You feel stronger, more capable, more confident, physically and mentally, with every movement. You don’t have to be the person who gets up at 6 a.m. to run every day; I’m certainly not, and many other people aren’t either. But if you can’t find joy in moving, look for joy instead in how it feels after the fact, and how you learn to respect your mind and body as you give it what it needs.
Intuitive eating doesn’t mean you just get to eat whatever you want. It doesn’t mean you’re going to lose or gain weight. It’s not a guarantee. But it is a start; it’s a step in the right direction. It prioritizes your own mental health at its core. It emphasizes mindfulness and being in tune with our bodies and minds.
All you have to do is listen.