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Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating: What’s the Difference?


Q: I see a lot of info these days about mindful eating and I am confused about what that is. Is it the same as Intuitive Eating?


A: It is really easy to be confused about this and turning to the Googles for answers is not likely to return any consistent or helpful information. You have to go back to the late 80s/early 90s, to the early days of research on a non-diet way of eating. At that time, there wasn’t one way to refer to it. Names ranged from “natural eating” to “mindful eating” to “conscious eating.”


Intuitive Eating became popularized in 1995 when Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole published a book called Intuitive Eating. In this ground-breaking book, which is scheduled for a fresh edition in 2020, Resch and Tribole laid out an original, multi-step plan to becoming what they called an intuitive eater. Their process was based on their years of work with individual clients and what was then emerging research. Key to this approach was the idea that diets did not work for most people in the long-run, and in fact they often did damage to the body, mind, and spirit. Intuitive Eating is 100% anti-diet and is aligned with the principles of the Health at Every Size movement. This is an important point. The book helps readers to free themselves from diet-culture-influenced thinking. To learn what their particular hunger and fullness signals are and to heed them instead of restricting food. To work with core beliefs around food that may be harmful emotionally and otherwise. To know that emotional eating is part of our makeup, yet it should not be the only way we manage emotions. To give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods. Resch and Tribole are the originators of “all foods fit in a healthy human diet.”


Since the book was published, and refreshed in 2012, there have been dozens of studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the Intuitive Eating methodology. In addition to authoring studies on Intuitive Eating, Dr. Tracy Tylka has published an Intuitive Eating Scale (the IES-2) that is a short, scientifically validated instrument that you can take to determine the extent to which your eating habits and attitudes are “intuitive.” Resch and Tribole developed and oversee a certification for therapists and nutrition professionals to help people work through the process (and yes, I am a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor.) They also published the Intuitive Eating workbook in 2018 that is packed with exercises so that people can lead themselves through the process.


What all this means is that Intuitive Eating has generally come to mean the specific approach defined by Resche and Tribole: rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger and fullness, silencing the Food Police, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, and other concepts.


Mindful eating is a much less specific idea. It is the practice of eating with awareness and attention, and is generally, although not always, rooted in Buddhist mindfulness meditation. There are published books entitled “Mindful Eating” (several of them), plus ones called “Mindful Eating 101,” “Eating Mindfully,” and “The Art of Eating Mindfully.” No one person or entity can claim the term. There isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for it.


Typical instruction for mindful eating emphasizes getting rid of the distractions that often accompany meals, with electronics as a common culprit. Phone, TV, or even having a business lunch can interfere with your attention. Mindful meals can certainly be had in a car, but not while you are driving it. To practice eating mindfully, take time to eat and use all of your senses when you do it. Look at your food before you begin to eat, noticing the colors and shapes, and let your eyes feast. Smell the food to amp up your natural hunger. Then really taste your food, becoming aware of the flavor, temperature, crunch, smoothness, and overall experience of each bite. Eating a meal mindfully will take some set up and will definitely take longer than a meal inserted into the mouth while catching up on Season 3 of Hot Show of 2019. It is a worthwhile practice for as many of your eating opportunities as you can manage. And there is no need for perfection. I can’t think of a person I know who had time to eat every meal in that manner. Even my retired parents have busy lives, social meals, and sometimes eat on the fly. But practice helps.


Mindful eating is an important skill used to become an intuitive eater, particularly when you are learning to sense your fullness. If you aren’t paying attention at all to the eating process, it is extremely difficult to know when you are full. However, mindful eating can be used to support many styles of eating, including dieting. I have picked up many mindful eating books, opened to a random page, read a sentence or two, and immediately returned the book to the shelf because it is advocating diet culture. This seems to be particularly true with the books that are very attached to a Buddhist thought process, where you are often instructed to eat to less than your fullness and there is a lot of body shaming. And sometimes (I’m looking at you, Weight Watchers) the word “diet” is taken out, but the diet ethos is still there.


So the best short way to say it is that mindful eating is not necessarily Intuitive Eating (and often isn’t), but Intuitive Eating will always incorporate mindful eating techniques, in addition to many others.


Hit me up jane@ganeshayogachicago.com if you want to learn more about Intuitive Eating or have other questions.

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