Heard of Mindful Eating?
Try Intentional Eating and Turn it Into Your Superpower
As a mental health professional and integrative health and wellness coach, I gravitate toward approaches that prevent illness and promote optimal wellbeing, all while being sustainable, practical, nourishing, and destigmatizing.
That may sound lofty, but I’ve come to this through a more nuanced understanding of the latest research in a range of areas from functional and lifestyle medicine, to eating psychology, nutritional psychology, as well as the experience of dozens of clients, and yes, my own experience.
When it comes to health, food, eating, and body image, my idea of what’s “optimal” has evolved.
These days, I tend to advocate a pattern of eating for whole health and wellbeing, not a binary idea of ‘fuel vs pleasure’.
That said, the what, where, why, when, and how of eating can get overly complicated. Sometimes it is complex, especially if you have a tumultuous relationship with food or a history of disordered eating.
I also recognize the realities of food insecurity may add an additional layer of complexity to an already-challenging topic.
This can be even more confusing if you struggle with a chronic condition and follow a specialized dietary pattern or plan.
One way to experience more peace with food and body is to be intentional about your choices. It allows you to have a way of eating that makes sense to you. Ultimately, you’re in charge.
If you’re familiar with mindful eating or even intuitive eating, but still struggle with your relationship with food, consider intentional eating.
What’s that? Well, I mostly made it up. Mindful eating and intuitive eating were pivotal in my own health journey, but in my coaching approach, which is non-dogmatic and client-driven, I prefer the idea of intentional eating.
Intentional eating is similar to mindful and intuitive eating, in that you bring awareness and consciousness into the process. It includes partnering with your body (rather than against it) to identify what serves you best.
With intentional eating, you’re making choices, one choice-point at a time, that serve your body, mind, spirit, tastes, needs and interests. There are no “rules.” You decide what makes sense for you, based on a range of different variables, and adopt a mindset of experimentation and non-judgment.
Here are a few examples:
- You generally choose not to eat sugar because it makes you feel lethargic or swollen and that’s not how you want to feel, and you choose to eat a cupcake for a particular occasion, like your child’s birthday.
- You decide to experiment with a particular dietary pattern to see how it makes you feel, especially when you’re experiencing gut issues, or suspect a symptom you’re having may be food-related.
- You’re following a plan recommended by your practitioner that excludes a few ingredients, and learn how to make the meals you love with satisfying alternatives to avoid the uncomfortable effects.
- You choose not to eat meat, but gather with your family to make a traditional recipe that contains meat, and enjoy it as you celebrate a holiday. You’ve relinquished the worry of being called a “quitter” or the detrimental emotional stigma of “cheating.”
- You look forward to a particular meal at your favorite restaurant, but it’s not something you enjoy preparing or eating at home.
- Generally, you have a consistent lunch routine, but before an exercise class or a big presentation, you skip lunch and wait until after so you can fully enjoy your meal.
- You’ve learned to eat your food plated, seated and with presence. And you choose to eat in your car the one night a week you are on the go from 5:00 to 9:00 at night due to work, errands and your kids’ activities.
There’s no secrecy, shame, guilt, or “wagons” to be on or off. You can make a different choice at another choice-point for a different reason, assuming you are doing so with intentionality.
This might seem like a tall order too. Few of us escape decades of powerful media, family or cultural messages, which ‘moralize’ food and which we often extend to ourself.
Notice the subtle influence of internalized weight stigma when you’re relearning how and what to eat for your optimal wellbeing.
You can integrate your love, appreciation, and enjoyment of food and have a way of eating that makes you feel your best, physically, mentally, emotionally and otherwise.
But isn’t that just “everything in moderation?” Perhaps, but the difference is that some people experience ill-effects from certain foods. Others notice conditions that trigger a cascade that leads to mental or physical upset. In either case, you can intentionally choose not to eat certain foods, or at specific times, even in moderation.
But isn’t that restriction? Not if you feel empowered and don’t feel restricted!
When you allow yourself this flexibility, choice, non-judgment and attunement to the needs of your whole self, it reduces stress, fear, conflict, and loss of control, and offers the serenity and confidence around food that most are craving (no pun intended!)
It takes practice, and often support, to relearn how to eat this way. Your mind and body are one, not separate. There is an inextricable link between food and mood, gut and brain, that influences who we become as eaters.
Start by noticing – without judgment – how you feel mentally, emotionally and physically when you eat. Notice the impact of what, where, when and even with whom, you eat.
Here’s a simple way to start: Notice the following variables:
- Emotions and needs
- Time of day
- Presence or absence of others
- Types of foods
- Level of presence or distraction
- Location and environment
- Rate of consumption
You don’t need to observe these all at once; choose what feels most relevant to you.
With compassion and curiosity, notice when you eat in a way that results in emotional or physical discomfort. Notice when you eat in a way that feels nourishing, satisfying, and able to move on with your day without preoccupation with food or body.
- What was different?
- Did the food you thought would bring comfort actually bring comfort? If yes, you can probably move on.
- If not, what else was needing your attention?
- How can you address that in a way that serves you?
- What do you actually want, enjoy and look forward to eating?
- What makes you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically content, satisfied and nourished?
When you understand the needs of your body, mind, emotions and spirit, and how to meet them, these questions get easier to answer. Start with a mindset of openness, curiosity and love, rather than fear and mistrust. There are no right or wrong answers.
If you do find yourself using food to manage overwhelming emotions, know that this is a learned coping resource. Food can be soothing, grounding and changes our neurochemistry.
Managing emotions with food can be an unwelcome and unpleasant habit, but it’s not a moral issue or character defect. Your system is designed to take actions that make you feel safe and protected emotionally.
We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This includes uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions.
In essence, food “works” to alleviate distress, typically quickly, without the same stigma as other strategies used to manage life’s challenges. But it doesn’t solve problems.
We all have the power to influence our own conditioning and neurobiology throughout the lifespan, through intention, mindful awareness, consistent action, and self-compassion.
Stay tuned for more articles addressing relationship with food and body, and learn practical strategies and mindsets to consider.
If you’re ready to release the struggle in your relationship with food, and want a compassionate and sustainable approach, reach out to schedule your FREE Clarity Call
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice, or replace treatment or intervention by a qualified medical or mental health professional. If you’re struggling with a known or suspected eating disorder, this is more appropriately assessed and treated by a qualified professional. If you have an illness or chronic condition, always consult with a qualified professional prior to making any changes to your dietary pattern or exercise plan.