Why Mindful Eating is a Mindf*ck in ED Recovery!
When you are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder and are actively trying to STOP micromanaging your food, the very LAST thing you should be doing while eating is overthinking whether or not you should be eating! Nonetheless, "mindful eating" has become a very popular method of treatment for eating disorders in recent years. In this post, I turn the tables and explain why mindful eating is more harmful than helpful in ED recovery, especially for individuals who are also on the autism spectrum.
We need to talk about mindful eating. Honestly, the term just makes me want to cringe. Mindful eating is the very LAST thing you should be focusing on if you’re in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder. I can obviously only ever speak from personal experience, but throughout my illness I was way too damn mindful of every bite I put into my mouth! My days revolved around planning what I was going to eat, how I was going to eat it, whether I should eat out of a bowl or off a plate, which of my small spoons I should use to maximally enjoy the experience of eating…hell, I would even plan what I would be WEARING while eating! Basically, I was just trying to do anything and everything in my power to make the circumstances around food “perfect”.
I know I am NOT the only one who did this, and perhaps, you still do! So many of my coaching clients as well as community on Instagram have shared with me that when stuck in an eating disorder, anything and everything involving food or eating becomes some kind of special ritual. Food becomes a precious resource, and we therefore cherish any time we finally allow ourselves to eat it. This ritualizing of a basic human need, however, comes from a scarcity mindset. Ultimately, our brains will only see things as special or precious when they are of limited availability.
Just think about birthdays: we literally CELEBRATE birthdays because there’s only ONE time you turn a certain age. Or weddings: we do everything we can to plan the “perfect” wedding, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. We cherish holidays with our family when we live far apart, because those are the moments that only come once or twice a year before we have to say goodbye again. All of these events are truly precious, so we do everything in our power to enjoy them to the max!
Food however, isn’t supposed to be “special”. Of course, there ARE times and places when food is special (such as at aforementioned special events!!!), but every bite you take in a day is not supposed to be ritualized like some holy ceremony…because it isn’t! Food is a basic human need, and we would literally die without it. But because you deprive yourself of food, your body perceives food to be a scarce resource….and as I explain in depth in my brand-new course Extremely Hungry to Completely Satisfied, our brain will obsess over things we believe to be scarce.
All that to say, I believe the core of eating disorder recovery – and ending your obsession around food – comes down to shifting your mindset. Instead of coming from a place of restriction and limitation, recovery entails you to come from a place of abundance and empowerment. When we look at life through a lens of abundance—meaning food is abundant too—it loses its power over you. Food no longer controls your life, but simply becomes a part of your life!
This life, a life that doesn’t revolve around food, may seem unimaginable for you right now. You’ve gotten sooo used to planning your life around your exercise and eating routines, that you may fear giving that up. What will come in the place of your eating disorder? What if you end up feeling empty inside? Because the human brain is so averse to change, we often choose to stay in a life that we hate. Even if we’re absolutely miserable, at least it’s “safe” and at least it’s what we know.
However, change is the only constant in life. The only thing we can truly rely on, is that we are always changing. I mean literally, our cells are never not dividing and multiplying! For those of us neurodivergent individuals as well as people with the genetics for eating disorders, I know more than anyone that accepting change is SO hard. We cling to rituals and routines because they provide us with that safety net to deal with the ever-changing outer world! But change only becomes suffering when you resist the change, because resisting the change means staying stuck in limiting beliefs.
So yes, letting go of your eating disorder WILL require you to change. It means taking ACTION to break free from rigid rules and routines around food, so you can feel at ease when it comes to eating. No more overthinking what the “perfect” food is to eat, or what the “perfect” circumstances are, because eating is no longer perceived as a rare or special occasion. If you could truly eat WHATEVER and WHENEVER you wanted, there would be no need to eat “perfectly”! Because if the food doesn’t taste good, then guess what? You can eat something else!
The Problem with Mindful Eating
This is where I feel this whole concept of “mindful eating” can be so harmful in recovery. When you are in recovery and are actively trying to STOP micromanaging your food and gain a sense of flexibility around eating, the very LAST thing you need to hear is to “chew slowly” or to “put your fork down between bites”!
If mindful eating is the complete opposite of what’s helpful in recovery, why do so many people talk about it? And what should you focus on instead?
To answer that question, I think it’s important to first establish that we are on the same page as to what mindful eating is. Because the term is quite subjective and there’s a lot of nuances depending on the person talking about it, there were also a ton of different definitions I found when Google Searching what mindful eating is. Unfortunately, the term “mindful eating” isn’t clearly defined in the dictionary, oh well!
When it comes to a definition that is pretty much shared across the board, mindful eating can be defined as being fully attentive to your food. This means using all your senses to achieve a state of full presence with your experiences, cravings, and physical cues around eating. So, when you think about what this looks like, or rather what you will find when you Google Search “how to eat mindfully”, is a laundry list of “tips” ranging from “listening to your body and stopping when you are full” to “eating without distractions” or “eating in silence” to “focusing on how food makes you feel”.
I honestly don’t even know where to BEGIN when it comes to unpacking how unhelpful these quote on quote “tips” are, but I’ll start off with the physical aspect mentioned, and that is to “listen to your body” and “honor your hunger and fullness”. I think we can all agree on the fact that engaging in disordered behaviors totally FUCKS UP YOUR HUNGER AND FULLNESS CUES. This is another one of those topics that I get into real deep in my Extreme Hunger Course, so I highly encourage you to enroll in my course if you are looking for a step-by-step guide that teaches you the SCIENCE behind healing your relationship with food and everything that comes with recovery, so you can take data-driven action that ACTUALLY gives you results.
I don’t tell you to “just honor your hunger” and “stop when you’re full” because that was the most meaningless thing anyone ever told me during my own recovery! My course Extremely Hungry to Completely Satisfied provides you with tangible tips and addresses the root cause of your disordered relationship around food and weight, so you can uproot the unhealthy barriers and build a strong and healthy foundation towards full recovery.
Neurodivergence & Intuitive Eating
On top of the fact that ignoring your physical and mental hunger cues for so long messes them up, it is incredibly ableist to assume that everyone can just “listen to their body” and eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. As I explain in the post Interoception in Autism and Anorexia, individuals with autism and/or co-morbid eating disorders often lack interoceptive awareness, or the ability to sense and understand inner cues. This innate inability to even sense bodily cues such as hunger and fullness in the first place would make it quite difficult to just “honor your hunger”, don’t ya think?
Furthermore, this interoceptive perspective also helps explain why mindful eating tips such as “focusing on how food makes you feel” and “bringing all senses to the meal” is just SO unaccommodating for neurodivergent individuals and people struggling with eating disorders, because we are literally UNABLE to understand how we feel and clearly, not all of our senses work properly!
The Mental Side of Mindful Eating
Now, I want to touch on some tips regarding the mental side of mindful eating, such as “eating in silence” and “without distractions”. I’m going to be completely upfront with you in saying that I NEVER eat without distractions. Not because I want to be busy or don’t like my food (trust me, I do!), but because eating in silence makes me hella anxious. I’m a born overthinker, and I think it’s safe to say that most people with eating disorders are. I actually shared a recent post on the correlation between Autism, Anorexia, and Anxiety in which this concept of interoception comes back, so I definitely recommend adding that post to your reading list :)
Anyways, when I was still trying to navigate my way through the abundance of vague tools provided to me in recovery—mindful eating being one of them—I felt this pressure that I had to be able to eat in utter silence. It was honestly like torture for me! Eating the food was hard enough, and then having to also sit with the eating disorder thoughts in the silence? Like seriously, this is the most ridiculous way to encourage someone to make peace with food in recovery. Distracting yourself while eating is SUCH a helpful tool in recovery because it turns down the volume on those eating disorder thoughts during an already difficult moment. Personally, I love to watch Netflix, read, or just mindlessly scroll Instagram. Yup, I know this is going directly against what literally every “intuitive eating coach” or “mindful eating dietician” tells you to do on Instagram, but everyone is SO different and what’s helpful for one, can be harmful for another!
This leads me directly to my last point on mindful eating, which is about extending the duration of eating. When I read tips along the lines of “put your fork down between bites” and “chew slowly” and taking a certain number of bites before swallowing, I am honestly so appalled. I don’t know about you, but during my eating disorder, I was a PRO at slow eating. I swear, even a snail could probably eat faster than me!
All jokes aside though, I really had to retrain myself to eat faster in recovery. Eating at a snail’s pace was one of those things that had simply become a habit, that I had to take consistent action to eat faster in order to neurally rewire those pathways in my brain. Whereas I understand that slowing down eating can be helpful when it comes to gaining an understanding of whether or not you are full and should keep eating, this “mindful” approach to eating is a total MINDF*CK for those of us who are already way too hyper-aware of the way we eat! When I was going through recovery, the last thing I wanted to think about while I was eating was overthinking whether or not I should keep on eating!
What SHOULD you do if mindful eating isn’t it?
Well first of all, I’m never going to tell you what you should do, because that’s your business. What I can say, is that if you truly want to break free from your eating disorder and create new healthy habits that support a lifetime of happiness and fulfillment, you have to eat in a way that is opposite to the way in which your eating disorder wants you to eat. I believe mindful eating is often used as a socially acceptable way to mask and perpetuate disordered behaviors, just like veganism, going to the gym everyday, or all the other socially acceptable behaviors people do that they know are just an excuse to stay sick.
Taking small bites, eating slowly, and saying you’re full and that you can stop eating because you’re “listening to your body” is EXACTLY what your eating disorder wants…but what your eating disorder wants is the opposite of what YOU want. So here’s your permission to do what YOU want. Eat really fast. Eat past physical fullness to satisfy your mental hunger. Watch YouTube videos while eating. As long as you are brutally honest with yourself and are going against the eating disorder, you don’t have to follow any silly tips some mindful eating coach gave you online.
And that’s all I have for you today, my friend! If you enjoyed this post, be sure to screenshot it and share to your IG stories, tagging me @livlabelfree! I believe this message of mindful eating being harmful needs more recognition and acceptance, and YOUR sharing of this episode helps give other people that permission that they DO NOT NEED TO EAT MINDFULLY!
Want answers to the top 10 questions about Extreme Hunger?
Download your free guide!