What are Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating?

In the August 6th cover story for The New York Times Magazine titled “Losing it in the Anti-Diet Age,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner documents her journey through the winding and confusing landscape of diet and anti-diet culture. The story is told through the lens of Weight Watchers and their rebranding efforts to stay current (and maximally profitable) in a changing era. Dieting has fallen out of vogue in recent years (“diet fatigue” as the author calls it) while “the anti-diet movement” has gained popularity, primarily through grassroots activism and social media. Seeing the traction gained by the anti-dieting movement (and related movements including fat activism, body positivity, Health At Every Size, Intuitive Eating, and mindful eating), companies like Weight Watches started to co-opt the language of the anti-diet movement to try to convince customers that Weight Watchers isn’t a diet plan. Oprah (who owns 10% of Weight Watchers) actually describes Weight Watchers as mindful eating.

“This whole P.C. about accepting yourself as you are — you should, 100 percent,” she said. But it was that thinking that made her say yes to Weight Watchers. ‘‘It’s a mechanism to keep myself on track that brings a level of consciousness and awareness to my eating. It actually is, for me, mindful eating, because the points are so ingrained now.’’

Sorry Oprah but no. Weight Watchers is NOT mindful eating. Weight Watchers is a diet plan. I don’t care if they hire a shaman to cleanse their dieting energy, preach self-acceptance, offer meditation classes, or implant a chip with point calculations directly into the frontal cortex of your brain; Weight Watchers is a diet plan. It is NOT mindful eating. It’s just not. Internalizing points is a heart-breaking testament to how deeply diet-culture becomes embedded into our mind and our souls; it should not be confused with mindfulness.

The reason that this statement bothers me so much is because I spend most of my days talking with women who have been deeply harmed by the dieting culture that Oprah promotes. These are mothers, daughters, and wives; business women, innovators, and stay-at-home moms; women who have so much to offer the world yet judge their value by the numbers on a scale or the size on their pants. Instead of “living their best life” their minds are filled with calculations involving calories, carbohydrates, and those pesky Weight Watchers points. I can’t tell you how ingrained those damn points get in people’s heads. I have worked with women who, years into non-restrictive mindful eating, can’t help but calculate how many points were in their stir-fry. These calculations take us away from true mindful eating and reinforce the myth that our body is so flawed and untrustworthy that we need to rely on a point system to tell us how to feed ourselves.

Because there seems to be some confusion here, let me clarify what mindful eating and intuitive eating are:

Mindful Eating- Based on mindfulness meditation, mindful eating involves being fully aware and present in our experiences with food and our body. It is a process of regaining trust in our body and relying on our internal appetite regulation system to guide what, when, and how much to eat. In order to truly listen to our body’s internal GPS, we need to honor what that system is telling us. That means that if we are hungry and craving an English muffin with jam at 9pm, we should eat said English muffin with jam at said time, regardless of how many points you have eaten that day, how many fewer points the sugar-free low-calorie alternative jam food-like-product may offer, or how many moral judgments we may have about carbs, sugar, or eating after 5pm. Mindful eating is about learning to listen to our body and eating what we want when we want it (paying careful attention initially to what, when, and how much we actually want). We don’t need to be held accountable because mindful eating is about stepping out of the conflict we have waged with our body. It is about eating and moving in ways that feel pleasurable, doing things that we want to do to care for ourselves. It sounds simple but it can be one of the most challenging things in the world, especially when we’ve spent most of our lives viewing our body as a feral animal that needs to be beaten into submission.

Intuitive Eating-Similar to mindful eating in the endorsement of a non-restrictive weight-neutral anti-diet approach to food; intuitive eating differs from mindful eating in that it is not based on mindfulness meditation and instead is structured around the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, as laid out in the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The principles include: reject the diet mentality, honor your hunger, make peace with food, challenge the food police, respect your fullness, discover the satisfaction factor, honor your feelings without using food, respect your body, exercise—feel the difference, and honor your health.

In my opinion, both mindful eating and intuitive eating are slightly different ways of helping people recover from diet culture and develop a more peaceful and harmonious relationship with food and their body. Neither is compatible with Weight Watchers because both approaches are premised on using your body—not a points system– to guide your eating. It breaks my heart when I see mindful eating used in the service of weight loss. As mindfulness has become a buzzword, I see it more and more being used to dress up diet plans in sheep’s clothing and convince us that the same old is something new. In a culture that values thinness and encourages disordered eating, it is tempting to see the solution to your problems as weight loss. It is a real leap of faith to try something different; to move away from the main stream thinking about health, weight, and eating that has failed us time and time again and jump into the unknown realm of mindful or intuitive eating. I hope you’ll take that leap.