The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that 30 million people in the U.S. have an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. For people struggling with these potentially life-threatening eating habits, mindfulness can be a very important part of treatment. Mindfulness is defined as a a full awareness of what’s going on in the present moment, both what’s happening in our environment and our thoughts and feelings within.
Mindfulness further means receiving these signals in a non-judgmental space that simply allows us to “be” in that moment. While not a panacea that will cure all the issues of an eating disorder, learning how to eat mindfully can be a very important part of improving your relationship to food, your body, and yourself. Doctors Jean Kristeller and Ruth Wolvever say the goals of therapeutic teaching of mindful eating are to ” controlling responses to varying emotional states; making conscious food choices; developing an awareness of hunger and satiety cues; and cultivating self-acceptance.”
Simply being told how to eat healthfully, or taught principles of nutrition is often not enough. That’s because disordered eating is driven at a deeper level than the rational brain. Many people’s decisions to eat (or not eat) are triggered by strong emotions and grounded in external “rules” they either follow strictly, or rebel against. It’s easy enough for new principles of eating to be “learned” in your head, but it won’t make a different unless it’s absorbed by deeper parts of you. With such a disordered relationship to food, it stops becoming something to enjoy and nourish you, and instead becomes something you either indulge in compulsively, or avoid fearfully. This means eating is no longer tied to your body’s needs, no longer related to your physical needs to have your hunger satisfied.
Listening to Physical Cues:
Your body is fully capable of knowing what its true needs are. Healthy food, filled with fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates are the best sources of “fuel” that allow you go throughout the day with energy and good feelings. “Hunger” is the body’s way of saying it needs more of this fuel, and is a cue to make you eat, until you are “full,” meaning have taken in enough for the time being.
Mindfully attending to your body means choosing to eat when the body feels hunger, paying attention to cues like tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and a rumbling, aching feeling in the stomach, located just below your ribcage. People with eating disorders have often gotten used to suppressing their natural hunger and feel the need to “discipline” their way into numbness. For that reason, it takes extra time and work to learn how to get reacquainted with your body and its needs. Pay attention to the signs of hunger, and the signs of a satisfied stomach, so that you can gradually develop habits of eating what you need when you need it.
Eating with Awareness:
Once you have decided it’s a good time to eat, practice eating slowly, taking in the food with all your senses. Try to be totally aware of the smell, flavors, and textures, so that eating becomes a truly enjoyable experience in and of itself. This careful, deliberate, and thoughtful process of eating should be followed by thinking about what is going on inside you. How is this food making you feel? Do you feel driven to more, or are you feeling full? This may be a radically different way of approaching food, and a habit that might take a lot of practice to develop, but over time, it can help you become more aware and in control of your attitudes to eating.
Know your Emotions:
This deep sense of “stomach hunger” is different from what is called “emotional hunger.” Emotional hunger is not triggered by your real needs, but turns to food as a way to deal with anxious, sad, or happy feelings. Other people may respond to a feeling of a lack of control by abstaining or controlling their food intake. Mindfulness can be helpful as a way of understanding your emotions, and getting at the root of their true causes. Achieving this better understanding can lead to coping devices that respond to your real needs, separating them from your eating habits.