People often ask about the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating. This is a wonderful question that I have reflected on for many years. In my experience, I appreciate them as kindred spirits with practices that address the needs of the body in compassionate, caring ways and that complement and support each other. Knowing and understanding both can lead to a beautiful relationship to food and body, as well as to the rest of your life.
The important similarities are the focus on a non-diet approach to eating and taking care of your body which is outside the cultural norm of diet culture. Mindful eating and intuitive eating have been the subject of research looking at their effects on eating behavior and related psychological correlates, both with encouraging results.
The distinct differences are rooted in the origin of each. Although mindful eating is a secular practice not dependent on adopting a particular spiritual path, it derives from the practice of mindfulness and from the over 2500-year-old teachings of Buddhism. These teachings provide a complete path for living in the world with ease—listening to your internal wisdom to guide your entire life, including how you eat and relate to your body. Intuitive Eating (IE) was created in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, based on their extensive experience working with clients.
My perspective on mindful eating arises from an initial in-depth grounding in secular mindfulness practice through training at The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society, as well as non-secular training in Buddhism. Teaching mindful eating with an understanding of the millennia-old teachings of mindfulness can help integrate one’s approach to eating with every other aspect of life.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” ( 2017 interview in Mindful with Jon Kabat-Zinn). Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg said, “Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way — with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.” (2015 interview with On Being)
Both definitions point to an important aspect of mindfulness—it is a way of being with all aspects of life, including eating, in a way that teaches you how to make choices that lead to greater peace and ease. When I define mindfulness, I add the important attitudinal qualities of mindfulness, such as compassion, kindness, patience, curiosity, acceptance, non-striving, and beginner’s mind, which bring balance and kindness to mindful eating practice.
Four Foundations of Mindfulness
In the Buddhist teachings, there are four foundations of mindfulness—all of which can be practiced throughout our lives as well as when we engage in mindful eating. The four foundations of mindfulness are (1) mindfulness of the body, (2) mindfulness of feelings, (3) mindfulness of mind, and (4) mindfulness of mental objects. In our certificate program for mindful eating professionals, we are introducing people to these underlying teachings from Buddhism because there is rich wisdom that can be applied to your secular work with clients that goes much deeper than practicing mindfulness while taking a bite of food.
Mindfulness of the Body
Mindfulness of the body includes the actual act of eating, but also includes awareness of the body throughout the day so that we are more likely to address all of its needs (e.g. eating, exercise, rest, play). Mindfulness of the body teaches us to live fully in our bodies through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell and how to be more fully grounded in our experience of being alive as we eat, move, and live.
Mindfulness of Feelings
Mindfulness of feelings brings awareness of different experiences as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Regarding eating, we can see clearly that when something is pleasant, we want more of it! When something is unpleasant, we want less of it. This foundation is particularly useful when looking at our cravings and our understanding of what drives them. For instance, when something is experienced as pleasant, we can override the signals from the belly to stop eating and only respond to the taste of pleasure. Mindful awareness helps us to respond to both the belly and the taste.
Mindfulness of Mind
Mindfulness of mind helps us to use the skill of mindfulness to address difficult emotions and the thoughts and stories that we tell ourselves. As an alternative to turning to food under duress, we learn to be aware of our emotions and thoughts without judgment and with kindness and compassion. We learn to accept and allow all emotions as part of the human fabric of life.
Mindfulness of Mental Objects
Mindfulness of mental objects is the practice of looking at our experience through the framework of the central Buddhist teachings including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the five hindrances, and more. In mindful eating classes or when working with clients, these are not spoken about in Buddhist terms, but the understanding of these teachings lays the foundation for a truly holistic model of mindful eating.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness support and inform mindful eating. For brevity’s sake, this link to the TCME website describes in more detail what “mindful eating is” and describes “someone who mindfully eats.” While eating mindfully is itself a worthy endeavor, a deeper understanding of mindfulness can bring an even richer and deeper connection to our whole lives, both in the realm of eating and in every human experience. In other words, a deeper understanding of the Four Foundations is an invitation to savor the whole banquet of this life in all our experiences, including but not limited to the aspect of eating.
Misconceptions about Mindful Eating
I have sometimes read that mindful eating is a narrower concept than Intuitive Eating (IE) because it is only about the act of eating and doesn’t cover some of the territories, such as body movement, found in the principles of IE. This is a misconception that doesn’t consider that mindful eating is not taught in a vacuum. Teaching mindfulness of the body guides people to understand what kind of movement the body needs, as well as its needs for food, rest, play, etc.
Another misconception about mindful eating is that you aren’t ever supposed to mindlessly eat. Anyone who has ever practiced mindfulness, me included, will be quick to tell you that no one is mindful all the time, eating or otherwise! Mindfulness teaches us not to judge ourselves for being mindless, but to notice the results of going unconscious and, at least to some extent, letting that knowledge guide us in the future.
We can also mindfully choose to eat for emotional reasons. The skill of mindfulness helps us to be with all choices with great kindness and curiosity so that we can gain insight into what leads to suffering and what doesn’t. Mindfulness also provides a method for being with difficult emotions by acknowledging and accepting them, as well as investigating them and viewing them less personally. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness is to end unnecessary suffering.
Finally, neither mindful eating nor intuitive eating is meant to be used, taught, advertised, or researched as weight loss programs. Unfortunately, there are people co-opting mindful eating for just that reason.
As mentioned earlier, the term Intuitive Eating (IE) was originally coined by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN who wrote the book with the same name. There are ten principles of intuitive eating:
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
Principle 9: Movement—Feel the Difference
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Research on IE has revealed four key aspects namely (1) unconditional permission to eat when hungry and whatever food is desired, (2) eating for physical (rather than emotional or environmental) reasons, (3) reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat, and (4) body–food choice congruence which means the extent to which individuals match their food choices with their bodies’ needs.
According to Evelyn Tribole, RD, “The principles work by either cultivating or removing obstacles to body awareness, a process known as interoceptive awareness.” While the ten principles give you a beautiful outline for eating and moving in your body with ease, the skill of awareness is clearly the process by which they are successfully practiced.
The Underlying Skill
The practice of mindfulness (or awareness) provides the underlying skill needed to eat mindfully and intuitively. This proposition is supported by both research and anecdotal data. Mindfulness is a skill that is learned and supported through formal meditation practices like awareness of breath, body scan, open awareness, lovingkindness, self-compassion, eating, as well as mindful yoga.
Our team at the University of Missouri conducted research on the Eat for Life program, which teaches a variety of mindfulness practices and intuitive eating principles. In that research, mindfulness was found to be related to positive changes in intuitive eating, body appreciation, and eating disorder symptoms. In other words, higher levels of mindfulness were associated with greater intuitive eating and greater body appreciation. Just as important, with higher levels of mindfulness, we found lower levels of eating disorder symptoms.
Interoceptive awareness is the awareness of inner body sensations, involving the sensory process of receiving, accessing, and appraising internal bodily signals (Craig, 2009). Focused attention on internal signals, such as that developed through mindfulness practice, is necessary to develop interoceptive awareness and to recognize emotions, as well as other bodily signals. This awareness is a key component of both mindful eating and intuitive eating practices (Gibson, 2019).
Others have noted the importance of mindfulness skills. Vincci Tsui (author of The Mindful Eating Workbook), wrote: “While it’s possible to engage in mindful eating without becoming an intuitive eater, I don’t think intuitive eating is possible without some mindfulness.” In a similar vein, a trained Intuitive Eating professional had an “aha” moment toward the end of the Eat for Life program, stating, “Mindfulness is the necessary skill for practicing both mindful eating and intuitive eating.”
This blog post is an invitation to all who are passionate about making peace with our bodies to consider the ways in which mindful eating and intuitive eating overlap, as well as to respect the unique aspects of each approach. A fuller understanding of the principles and rich influences of each perspective can bring us into a conversation that transcends either/or thinking about each approach. To learn more on this topic, check out my books, Savor Every Bite and The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, or join my Eat for Life Program starting soon.
Bush, H. E., Rossy, R. Mintz, L. B., and Schopp, L. (2014). Eat for Life: A Work Site Feasibility Study of a Novel Mindfulness-Based Intuitive Eating Intervention. American Journal of Health Promotion. Vol. 28, No. 6., 380-388.
Craig, A. D. (2009). How do you feel—now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 10, 59–70. doi: 10.1038/nrn2555
Gibson, Jonathan (2019) Mindfulness, Interoception, and the Body: A Contemporary Perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02012
Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials.
Tsui, V. (2018). The Mindful Eating Workbook: Simple Mindfulness Practices to Nurture a Healthy Relationship with Food. Emeryville, CA: Althea Press.
Tylka, T. L. and Kroon Van Diest, A.M.. (2013). “The Intuitive Eating Scale–2: Item Refinement and Psychometric Evaluation with College Women and Men.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(1), 137–153.