Mindful Eating and Weight Management

by Yuen Ting Chow, RD 

mindful eating

Why Diets Don’t Work?

Most people know how to lose weight; most people know. To lose weight, you need to calculate your energy needs and make sure what you’re eating has less calories than what you need. Most people know the equation energy in < energy out — and most people will tell you what they think they “should” eat and “shouldn’t” eat to lose weight. Rather than “should’s” and “shouldn’ts”; we prefer to think of it in terms of “how much” and “how often” but that is for another blog. You may be counting calories and exercising to make sure to burn off those calories, but why is it so hard to keep it off? Well there are several factors.  One involves the whole focus on calories and counting them (again, another blog!). If most people know the idea of “energy in” and “energy out”, why is the obesity epidemic still an epidemic?  With all the initiatives and support a healthy lifestyle, why is it so hard? To answer this complex question, let’s start by looking at the Dieter’s Dilemma:

: Dieters Dilemma Cycle

The Dieter’s Dilemma summarized the vicious cycle of dieting.  You go “on” a diet, restrict yourself and avoid all those ‘forbidden foods’ because you are determined to lose the weight this time and keep it off.  These restrictions actually lead to cravings and the cravings lead to thinking about foods and then the temptation to want to eat the foods you are craving.  Then, in what people think of as a ‘weak moment’, you give in and end up overeating.  The cycle continues until eventually what usually happens is that you end up gaining all the weight back, perhaps even more than before. The body’s regulatory mechanism actually kicks in when you go on a restrictive diet.  When you are constantly restricting calories, you end up in what is called an “energy deficient state”.  Your body actually goes into ‘starvation mode’. This is the body’s way of protecting itself.  Your metabolism slows down and the few calories you do eat end up being stored for emergency purposes instead of being used for energy.  You feel tired and lethargic and often end up losing the motivation you started with, because your weight reaches a “plateau”. You aren’t losing weight. So, why bother, right? This is where people that went “on” a diet go “off” a diet. (That’s the main reason at Nutrition to You, we don’t “do” diets.  We’ll help you with implementing sustainable lifestyle changes that are close to what you are doing now but with the improvements built in — changes you can maintain because you aren’t starving yourself, aren’t exhausted all the time and don’t put your body into starvation mode.) Dieting affects you physically and mentally.  With the constant restrictions, you become increasingly preoccupied with food and thoughts of food.  Again, this is the body’s natural mechanisms licking in because it thinks you are starving. Often the social pressure of a specific (“ideal”) body image results in feelings of guilt and even depression, because you feel that you’ve “broken the rules” (unreasonable rules!) that you’ve created for yourself. See the vicious cycle?

Why Do We Eat What We Eat?

Often people are so focused on “losing weight” that they don’t think about what they are eating or how and why they eat.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is like eating on “auto-pilot”.  There are different styles of intuitive eating, each with different characteristics and triggers.  Here are some examples;

Eating Style Trigger Characteristic
Unconscious Eating Eating while doing something else at the same time Unaware of eating. Sitting down and eating is often viewed as a waste of time. Eating is usually paired with another activity to be productive.
Chaotic Eating Over-scheduled life Eating style is haphazard – “gulp’n go” when food is available. This eating is often associated with stress and tension.
Refuse-Not Eating Presence of food This eating is encouraged by candy jars on desks, or food present at social gatherings or sitting openly on the kitchen counter.
Waste-Not Eating Cheap or free food Eating is often influenced by monetary value or cost of food. This eating is promoted by all-you-can-eat buffets and cheap food.
Emotional Eating Uncomfortable emotions Stress or uncomfortable feelings trigger eating – especially when alone. This is eating in response to an emotion rather than physical hunger.
Careful Eating Fitness and health Appears to be perfect eating, yet anguishing over each food morsel and its effect on the body. On the surface, this eating seems health and fitness driven.
Professional Dieting Feeling Fat Perpetual dieting, often trying the latest commercial diet or diet book.
Adapted from: Intuitive Eating, by E. Tribole and E. Resch, 1995.

What is Mindful Eating and How Does it Help with Weight Management?

Mindful Eating is eating with intention and attention.  Mindfulness is a process that needs to be either rediscovered or learned for the first time.  Mindful Eating enables you to be aware of your body in the present moment and most importantly; what it is feeling. Mindfulness  is a powerful tool to improve your eating habits.

Mindful Eating

Eating Style Trigger Characteristic
Mindful Eating Biological hunger Making food choices without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma. Honoring hunger, respecting fullness, and enjoying the pleasure of eating.

(Adapted from: Intuitive Eating, by E. Tribole and E. Resch, 1995) Mindful Eating requires you to pay full attention to your internal body cues; hunger, fullness, thirst, what you are thinking and what you are feeling.  It also calls on you to fully attend to your environment; including the colours, smells, textures, flavours, temperatures and even the sounds of the food you are eating. Mindfulness to these cues can help prevent overeating while bringing the focus and pleasure back to eating — eating without judgement.

How to Master the Art of Mindful Eating?

  1. Set S.M.A.R.T goals: Every plan needs goals, setting SMART goals can help you achieve your goals and measure success.  S.M.A.R.T. = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.  Start by choosing one meal or snack each day and commit to focusing on mindful eating at that time.
  2. Be Aware of your Hunger and Fullness: Before you eat, rate your hunger from 1-10 then rate your fullness from 1-10 after eating.  This will help you rediscover your internal cues of hunger and fullness which will then be available to guide your decision to begin and stop eating. Paying attention to what hunger feels like can help you distinguish between ‘physical hunger’ and ’emotional hunger’.  Physical hunger cues can include mild gurgling in stomach, growling noises, maybe a feeling of light headedness, perhaps a bit of lack of concentration, irritability or moodiness and even a bit of a headache.  Eat regularly— this means 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks. This doesn’t mean you have to eat more food, but rather distribute the same food over more ‘eating occasions’. Eating regularly will help you get in touch with gentle hunger, rather than the extremes that often occur with chaotic eating.
  3. Avoid Multitasking: Set time aside for eating.  Turn off your TV, computer, phone – refocus your mind on eating.
  4. Setting the Stage: Fit eating in your schedule. Avoid eating on the run as much as possible and set a place aside in your home and workplace that is just for eating.
  5. Eat without Judgement: Acknowledge your response to food; foods that you like, dislike or are neutral toward — without judgement.  No one food has the power to make you fat or help you become slim, no food is “good” or “bad”.   Labeling food as “bad” or “forbidden” can create guilty feelings that may trigger either overeating or even binging as part of very human reaction to ‘wanting what we can’t have’.   On the other hand, being exposed to foods that used to trigger overeating (called “habituation “) often makes triggering food less appealing.
  6. Eat Mindfully: Think about the taste, texture, aroma, appearance and temperature of the food in your mouth. Focus on how much you like or even dislike these sensations.  Take time and savour your food. Chew and thoroughly taste your food before you swallow.  You’ll  notice that your pace of eating will drastically slow down.
  7. Talk and Share: Practice mindful eating with your friends, coworkers and your loved ones.  Sharing  the experience of mindful eating with one another can positively reinforce this practice of mindful eating, until it becomes a habit.
  8. Cope with Emotions without Using Food: Discover your emotions; stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt and learn how to cope with these emotions effectively without using food to “medicate’ those feelings.  Some healthy coping strategies can include calling your friends, doing something you love to do, writing a journal or listening to relaxing music.
  9. Respect Your Body: Learn and accept what is called your “set point”; your body’s natural weight range.  This is the weight you tend to be with when you’re eating normally and exercising moderately and not dieting.

When the focus becomes health instead of food, enjoyment instead of restricting or counting numbers (calories, “points” or pounds), you will settle into learning to accept that your body needs to be its natural set point weight to be healthy and function normally.

Finding This Difficult?

You don’t have to “go it alone”.  Nutrition to You’s specialized Dietitians can help support you as you learn to eat well without dieting and regain a positive relationship with food and with yourself.  Why not give us a call or send us a note by clicking here: Contact Us.


Tribole, Evelyn ; Resch, Elyse (2010-04-01). Intuitive Eating, 2nd Edition: A Revolutionary Program That Works (Kindle Locations 5492-5494). Macmillan. Intuitive Eating, by E. Tribole and E. Resch, 1995. The Principles of Mindful Eating. The Center for Mindful Eating. http://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org/