Emotional Eating: Mindful vs. Mindfulness

This is a piece updated from the Weekly Forum Roundups of 2012 revisiting the confusion we have about intuitive eating, mindfulness and honoring hunger.

Mindful eating is often the misapplication of mindfulness practice as defined from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness practice is Kabat-Zinn’s term for the application of meditation for the purpose of managing chronic illness and pain. 

Mindful eating is often just shorthand for thinxiety behaviors in our society— the fear and dread associated with the possibility that if we eat 'mindlessly' then we get huge.

Mindful eating in that sense is no more applicable for non-ED people than it is for ED patients. It's about fear, and presuming that conscious identification of food intake will avoid the inevitability of "I will get fat if I don't pay attention."

Conversely mindfulness practice has nothing to do with suppressing anything through conscious thought.

Mindfulness as a practice is about registering each emotion and thought as it passes through the gates of your conscious mind and moves on to other areas of the brain. It is not actually about assessing why these emotions and thoughts are there, rather simply recognizing they exist and that they are each only one of many thoughts or feelings you can hold in your mind at once.

However, there are many things that occur in us as living creatures that are meant to function below consciousness all the time or most of the time.

Our challenge is to understand whether things that can be identified within our conscious mind are best directed by our conscious mind or not. 

Some Mind Control Exercises as Examples 

Imagine if I encouraged you to apply mindful blinking.

Before you blink, I would like to register the fact that you are about to blink. Then recognize that it is o.k. to blink, that the body has determined it is needed to keep the cornea moist and just be aware that you are about to blink and this will help you to avoid feeling panic that you have indeed blinked, after the fact. 

That entire paragraph sounds absolutely ridiculous doesn’t it? And yet, look at how it supposedly makes sense when I replace the word “blink” with “eat”.

Before you eat, I would like to register the fact that you are about to eat. Then recognize that it is o.k. to eat, that the body has determined it is needed to keep the body going and just be aware that you are about to eat and this will help you to avoid feeling panic after the fact, that you have indeed eaten.

Now, try not to blink for as long as possible. That's unpleasant. The same is true for not eating, but a restrictive eating disorder can mask that unpleasantness. 

We can apply conscious control to our breath to some extent because we have to be able to have some control or we could not speak or sing. However, try holding your breath and it becomes clear that at some point your conscious mind has absolutely no say in the fact that you'll be taking a breath in sooner rather than later!

That means for most of the time you mindlessly blink and you mostly mindlessly breathe. But is your ‘mind’ only your conscious/executive function/frontal lobes part of your brain?

Your conscious mind is a squashed section behind your forehead that has delusions of grandeur. It doesn't control much of anything (thankfully). It depends on much older and more distributed structures in the brain to actually make decisions.

Appetite and hunger are monstrously complex systems with a lot of back-up and if you want to eat mindfully, then all that means is your conscious mind starts to pay attention to the stream of information over which it has no say (nor should it). That this stream of information is mostly using ‘words’ that are too arcane for the language comprehension skills of your conscious mind as well. 

What mindfulness practice in its true sense can provide to your eating is reinforcement of appetite and hunger. Basically it can allow you to say "Namasté" to your own brilliant energy balance system by taking the time to sit down, savor and enjoy the food and be enriched by all the added joy that paying attention to eating can bring you. 

I discuss this further in Part IV of the fat series on the blog, behavioral eating is how our bodies are optimized to function.

For patients with trauma and lesions in the emotional centers of the brain, they have to be in 24/7 care facilities. Their cognitive functions are completely intact. They can remember you, conversations, history, their IQ is intact— you can discuss politics, current affairs, celebrities, and you name it with them.

So why do they need to be in care? Because they can no longer make any decisions. It turns out that our emotions create the salience of one choice over another. These individuals literally cannot decide what to have for lunch.

Emotional eating is the only way we can stay healthy and alive. Mindless eating is an unfortunate misnomer— the mind is most definitely involved, just not the part that we think is somehow superior, namely the logic centers of our mind.

The critical element of mindfulness practice is to register something without judgment.

So mindful eating in its correct application would be "I intend to eat a Magnum ice cream and I have identified that fact. I am eating now. Go in peace, wonderful thought."

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