What is the Difference Between Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating?

stacked stones as symbol of mindful
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

An Introduction

Since starting this blog, I have had a blast connecting with people who read my posts and those who follow me on social media. I have heard incredible stories of people triumphing over disordered eating, body image issues, and diet culture as a whole. Another part of this whole thing called The Diabolical Dietitian that I love is when people ask me thoughtful questions! One question I have received a few times is, “what is the difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating?” I also see it come up on my Google recommendations when I type the term “intuitive eating” into my search bar.

Woman saying oh the things I have googled

I understand the confusion! Both sound a little hippie dippy or new-agey, though I can assure you they don’t require you to purchase healing crystals or align all of your chakras. By the end of this post, my hope is that you can understand and identify the difference between these two terms, even though many people use these terms interchangeably.

We’ll start with mindful eating.

What is Mindful Eating?

Have you ever heard of the term “mindfulness”? Probably, especially if you have ever googled anything about reducing stress or feeling more at peace with yourself and the chaotic world around you. Mindfulness is simply about being in the present moment, which for most of us, is much easier said than done.

DJ Khalid mindfully breathing

Meditation has become a more mainstream mental exercise to achieve mindfulness in the last few years, though it has been around for thousands of years. Sitting still and focusing on one’s breath for any length of time feels impossible and discouraging at times, but it gets easier with practice. Headspace offers a free 10-day course for beginners, which is where I got my start over four years ago!

You don’t have to meditate to achieve mindfulness, however. Mindfulness can also be about taking in your surroundings and holding onto it for at least a few seconds- feeling the cool breeze on your skin, noticing how cute your pet or child looks while they sleep, or appreciating the comfort and warmth of your bed before falling asleep are excellent examples of mindful moments.

Cartoon dog mindfully feeling the wind

These have become more and more difficult to find, thanks to a constant barrage of podcasts, TikToks, Instagram posts, tweets, and everything else. Rarely do we look up from our screens and take in the world around us. We like and seek out distractions, which is why most of us automatically reach for our phones at any hint of boredom.

I am far from a truly mindful person, especially compared to buddhist monks in Southeast Asia. They practice mindfulness during most, or all, waking hours. The goal here isn’t to find mindfulness for eight or more hours a day, but I have personally found that getting a few minutes per day of intentional mindfulness or stillness makes a palpable difference in my mental state and outlook.

Lately I have made a point to sit outside on my deck while I sip a cup of tea in the morning. I have learned that I can’t trust myself to avoid doom scrolling or listening to a podcast during this time unless I leave my phone and earbuds inside. It’s a great way to start the day, as it leaves me feeling clear-headed and refreshed.

Dolly Parton winking after a sip of tea

Of course my mind wanders, and I think about things that anger, frustrate, or sadden me. Overall though, it gives me time to sit and get some gosh darn peace and quiet. Plus, I have noticed that the more often I intentionally sit somewhere and leave electronics behind, the less often I reach for them throughout the day.

This is mindfulness approach can be applied to mealtimes and snacks, which is basically the practice of mindful eating. Simply put, mindful eating is being present and focusing on your food in front of you while you eat it. It’s noticing the flavors, aromas, and textures of your food. It can also involve putting your fork or spoon down in between bites, which can allow you truly enjoy the food much more, instead of shoveling it all in.

Squidward shoveling food into his mouth
That is NOT mindful, Squidward!

I appreciate the value of mindful eating. There were too many times in the past that I have inhaled my food without actually tasting it, frantically, because I had restricted my intake all day, and I finally couldn’t take it anymore. Sometimes that still happens when I let myself get too hungry by accident, but it’s never due to intentional restricting like it used to be.

Sitting down and focusing on a meal, and only the meal, can be a tall order. This is especially true for busy adults who don’t have much time to set aside for lunch breaks or are still dealing with their kids’ virtual schooling. Even if you can have uninterrupted breakfast, lunch, or dinner time, most of us reach for distractions anyway. Just sitting there and eating feels boring, especially since most of us are used to external stimulation from our screens whenever we feel even a little bored. I mean, think about all the Instagram posts we have to like and all of emails we must check!

Truly though, eating mindfully is difficult to do, especially at first. I have inhaled countless snacks, like Larabars, in three bites, only to realize I didn’t really taste it. The times where I do decide to eat one mindfully, it takes at \least a few minutes and maybe 10 smaller bites. The second situation leads to a much more enjoyable experience all around, and I tend to feel so much more relaxed and refreshed after a snack sesh like that one.

So yes, I am down with the idea of mindful eating. I think we could all benefit from slower, more attentive meals at least once in a while. But, like all good things, diet culture has managed to get its hooks in mindful eating too.

David Rose saying that's disgusting

Some have advertised mindful eating as a vehicle for weight loss. Booooooo, am I right? The thought process is that when you eat mindfully, and slowly, you can feel yourself getting full, so you eat less. Eating less means weight loss. I suppose that logic isn’t flawed, but I think the goal of having a mindful meal is incredibly lofty when one’s body has been deprived of precious calories, and it is crying out for nourishment.

Mindful eating is much easier to achieve on a regular basis when one is already eating intuitively. Confused? Let’s dive into a little overview of IE, and it will make a bit more sense.

Boy jumping of diving board symbolizing me diving into mindful eating intuitive eating discussion
Me diving into an IE discussion

What is Intuitive Eating?

To put it simply, intuitive eating is a practice and mindset that extends far beyond the meal in front of you. Check out my past blog posts What is Intuitive Eating and How to Eat Intuitively if you want to get into it more deeply and comprehensively. For the purpose of this post, we will stick with an overview of IE.

No explanation of intuitive eating would be complete without the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating outlined in the book and on the IE website:

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make Peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor
  6. Feel your fullness
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement- feel the difference
  10. Honor your health- gentle nutrition

After looking over this list, it’s apparent that intuitive eating transcends your entire lifestyle instead of only changing mealtime habits. My favorite thing about intuitive eating is that it’s a comprehensive system, meaning that it takes physical, mental, and emotional health all into account, and it encourages you to find balance in all of these areas of your life.

Dog balancing treats on head
An admirable level of balance, at least at first.

Right off the bat with principle number 1, we are already talking about how crappy diet culture is and investigating how to overcome the feeling of not being good enough. In the end, it’s that very feeling that diet culture feeds off, so if we can successfully reject it, we will be well on our way.

Principle number 7 also discusses coping with your emotions with kindness. Basically, this means that you ask yourself why you feel the way you feel, and then you observe it without judgement. It also entails getting to the bottom of certain emotions, instead of turning to outside comforts like food, alcohol, or drugs. This isn’t always easy or fun, but figuring out the roots of emotions can make you a much better, more grounded person overall.

Woman saying she has a lot of feelings

I believe many of humanity’s problems stem from people being unable to talk about or lean into the hard stuff, leading them to have even more emotional problems. Talking with trusted friends or family members about difficult topics can feel scary, but more often than not, it can make you feel supported, loved, and strong.

If you can afford it, seeing a therapist or counselor can be incredibly helpful in exploring these issues. If that’s not an option, a daily journaling practice can also provide some insight into emotional roots. The older I get, the more I realize the importance of finding the origin of emotional problems, rather than constantly using metaphorically bandaids to cover them up.

Man getting bandaids put on his face

Intuitive eating captures that importance well, which only makes sense. Many of us lose the intuitive eating we are born with because of emotional scars and traumas, like the feeling of not being enough in some way, so dealing with those can provide us with a path back to peace with food and our bodies.

While mindful eating focuses on the meal in the moment, intuitive eating is more about the bigger picture of a balanced relationship with food and our bodies. Mindful eating can certainly be a part of intuitive eating, but not all intuitive eating is necessarily mindful.

For example, let’s say you are driving in the car and you feel incredibly hungry. You have a granola bar in your car, so you decide to eat that while you are driving and listening to a podcast. Most people wouldn’t say that’s an example of mindful eating, but it can be an example of intuitive eating.

You may not have eating the granola bar without distractions, and you may not have taken in the aromas, flavors, or textures. But, you listened to your body when it told you it was hungry. That’s intuitive.

The opposite can be true too. You can eat a mindful meal while not following the intuitive eating principles. Let’s say you have starved yourself all day in hopes that you will lose a few pounds, or you work out extra hard because you overate the night before. After you get home, you sit down for a slow, mindful meal of salad, even though that doesn’t sound satisfying. You really want lasagna. Even still, you stay in the present, taste each bite, notice the aroma, and feel the textures of your salad. That’s mostly mindful.

Woman frustrated with salad, salad choppers appear
The salad gods have spoken

But, since you didn’t listen to what your body actually asked for, you may find yourself rummaging through the cupboards just a few hours later, eating desperately as you hate yourself more and more with each bite. The meal you had earlier was mindful, but it wasn’t intuitive. In this hypothetical, though common scenario, over exercising to “earn” or “make up for” other meals is also not intuitive, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent you from having a mindful meal.

That being said, it is so much easier to slow down and have a mindful meal when you are following the intuitive eating principles. Choosing a meal that satisfies you, without exercising to compensate, or starving yourself all day beforehand, all make it easier to sit down and actually enjoy the meal you in front of you. Dealing with the emotional stuff and getting curious about food habits can also help you slow down and experience meals in a much more delightful, pleasant way.

Hey Arnold tying napkin around neck to eat dinner

In Conclusion

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same thing. They can compliment one another, and I see the value in both. When it comes down to it, intuitive eating is a full lifestyle overhaul, whereas mindful eating pretty much only takes place at meals.

Both are awesome tools at helping you listen to your body and feel less anxious at meal times and, honestly, in life overall. Intuitive eating and mindful eating take practice, and you likely won’t master one or the other after giving it just a few tries. But, I can assure you both are worth a genuine effort, as they can help you transform your relationship with food and your body.

Man saying totally worth it about mindful eating and intuitive eating

If you want to learn more about mindful eating, check out The Center for Mindful Eating. They have blog posts, webinars, and even a membership for professionals! It’s pretty cool and informative.

If you also want to explore intuitive eating more in depth, check out intuitiveeating.org for resources, a counselor directory, and more!

As Always, a Book Recommendation

Can you guess what I’m recommending here? If you said the 4th edish of Intuitive Eating, you are correct! This book in an important one for everyone who is on an anti-diet, intuitive eating journey. It’s where I got my start down this wonderful rabbit hole of rejecting diet culture, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It outlines the 10 principles listed above in greater detail, and it gives you practical tips and tools to apply them to your life. This book shows that intuitive eating isn’t a diet to be followed strictly based on rigid rules and rituals, and it shows how intuitive eating really is for everyone.

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You can get the audiobook version of the 3rd edition for free with a free trial of Audible using my link below! If you can’t afford to purchase a paper copy, or you don’t want a free trial, check to see if your local library has it. This book’s messages are important, and they help lay the base for any intuitive eating journey to come.

As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!

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