Excerpted from The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food, in which Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., along with Alisa Bowman, teaches readers to reframe their relationships with food by cultivating mindful awareness. 

Cultivating the habit of mindful eating

Mindful eating is the middle way between mindless eating and restricted eating, and it’s based on several principles.

Only you know what your mind and body needs – No one can tell you how hungry you feel or when you’ve eaten enough to feel full. Your friends don’t know how much you need to eat to feel satisfied. Neither does the chef in the kitchen. Nor does any popular diet.

Once you tap into your inner wisdom—informed by your hunger, satisfaction and enjoyment—and balance it with outer wisdom—informed by knowledge about food energy and nutrition—you’ll make the wise, but flexible decisions for your health, your weight and your life.

Use your thoughts and feelings to inform yourself, not punish yourself – Rather than constantly being caught up in “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” you’ll learn to open yourself up to the way your body, your eating habits, your desire for certain foods, your cravings and your moods really are, rather than the way you think they should be. Rather than reacting to such things, you’ll simply notice them with non-judgmental awareness. This awareness will help you make wiser decisions about whether you really want a food and how much of it will satisfy you.

There are no bad foods – Yes, some foods might contain more nutrients than others, but no foods are completely off-limits (unless they need to be, for you). When part of a balanced diet, small tastes of your favourite foods will not lead to weight gain or disease. You really can indulge (modestly) without guilt. There are no absolutely right or wrong foods to eat, but rather varying degrees of value and satisfaction from what you choose.

Calories do count – While inner wisdom will go a long way to helping you feel satisfied with fewer calories, your success hinges on developing outer wisdom, too. If you’re on a budget, you probably don’t track every single purchase, but you probably do look at price tags, comparison shop and have a general idea of whether you can afford something. You’ll soon learn how to do the same with eating.

If you know about the energy value in the foods you eat or want to eat, your own energy needs and the health effects of certain foods, you’ll be able to make wiser decisions about which foods and how much are most appropriate for you and why. You’ll be able to choose foods you love in amounts that satisfy while you opt to forgo other foods that you don’t love or need quite as much.

Inner and outer wisdom work together – These two wisdoms blend together, and arise from being mindful, so you’ll be able to focus your mind in productive ways. By being gently aware of your thoughts, emotions and triggers to eat as they arise, you’ll create space to consider what you wish to do about them. Sometimes you may decide to eat a little bit. Sometimes you might decide to eat more. The choice will vary from moment to moment and situation to situation, with mindfulness as your guide.

Relying on willpower and guilt leads to dissatisfaction and struggle – Exchange willpower and guilt for exploration and understanding, and invite yourself to get in touch with all of the thoughts and emotions—positive and negative—that call up a desire to eat.

You’ll always have a relationship with food – Whether it’s a positive one or a negative one will depend on the state of mind you bring to every bite.

Joy can be found in every bite – When you become mindful, you can bring joy back into every bite, as you savour your experience, nurturing yourself and respecting the food that brings you life and energy.

Your life is about much more than how you eat – It’s my hope that you’ll develop a relationship with food that’s nourishing and in balance with the rest of your life. Rather than being in a constant struggle, you’ll experience a sense of freedom, knowing that you’re the one who is in charge and recognizing that your life is about far more than your concerns about eating or your weight—and that those other areas of your life may deserve more of your awareness, attention and appreciation.

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Mindful eating is…Senior lady eating apple outside - 9 principles of mindful eating

» Deliberately paying attention to your experience of food and eating, without judgment.

» Becoming aware in each moment, both internally (of thoughts, emotions, hunger, flavour and fullness) and externally (of the nutritional value of various foods).

» Appreciating the difference between physical hunger and other triggers for eating, such as strong emotions, thoughts and social pressure.

» Choosing to eat foods, as often as possible, that you enjoy and that nourish your body.

» Experiencing the flavour of a food as it shifts and evolves from one bite to the next.

» Noticing how fullness develops in your stomach and how you feel once you’ve eaten enough.

» Using information about the nutritional value and energy of food to meet your personal needs and inform your choices of what and how much to eat.

» Freeing energy from worries about food and giving it to other important areas of your life.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your experience with mindful or mindless eating? Add your comments below.

Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana State University and the creator of the NIH-funded Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT). Self, Redbook, NPR’s The Salt, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun and many other outlets interview her regularly and cover her research.

Alisa Bowman is a professional writer and ghostwriter who has penned more than 30 titles, including seven New York Times bestsellers, and is the creator of ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com. Bowman has appeared on Today, The CBS Early Show, FOX, and the Discovery Health channel.

From The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food by Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., with Alisa Bowman. © 2015 by Jean Kristeller, Ph.D. A Perigee Book, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
image 1: Half a chocolate chip cookie via Shutterstock; image 2: Old grandmother eating apple via Shutterstock