Kari Dahlgren

Coach | Author | Advocate

feel normal around food again

Here’s What I Actually Think About Mindful Eating: Criticism from a Compulsive Eater’s Point of View

how to embrace mindful eating with compassion & accessibility in mind

There’s a TedTalk about mindful eating where the speaker makes a bold claim: “If we only just paid attention to our food when we eat, we would realize we don’t even like half the foods we eat. Much like smoking. If a smoker were to actually pay attention to the sensations and experience of smoking, they would realize they don’t actually like it.”

I agree with this in some ways… and strongly, strongly, vehemently disagree in many ways. The belief that “if we just paid attention to our food we’d realize it doesn’t even taste good” completely overlooks the feelings and beliefs that drive us to overeat in the first place.

It oversimplifies a painful experience (compulsive eating) and makes us doubt our inner strength. When we attempt to eat mindfully but then overeat anyway, we get mad at ourselves for our inability to put our fork down between bites.

But that’s the nature of compulsive eating: it’s compulsive and feels out of control. We can’t “just” pay attention – otherwise we’d also “just” eat less and our problems would be solved. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Though I talk more about my personal feelings towards mindful eating in my book, Daily Reminders on Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, I had another thought today. In order to explain it, I need to quickly tell you about the beautiful chaos that is my current life.

Side note: This post was originally sent as an email on April 4, 2023 as one of my popular “Tuesday newsletters.” In the words you’re about to read, I talk about how Psycho-Spiritual Wellness is not my full-time job, but I’ve actually since made the big leap! However, for the sake of this post, we’re time-hopping back to the days of holding down multiple jobs.

A Story of Why Mindful Eating Isn’t Actually That Helpful

You see, I have a full-time job along with what I do here because Psycho-Spiritual Wellness cannot support me full-time yet. And last month, I uprooted myself from my full-time job that I held for 8 years. It was really, really hard.

And while I expected it to be exactly that — very difficult — I was extremely surprised by something else that happened as a result: My driving slowed down. (This will related to eating psychology in a second, hang with me.)

I will admit, I can be a bit of an aggressive driver, especially on routes that I take frequently (i.e. my work commute). And yet, as soon as I left my old job, my driving slowed down. It slowed WAY down.

I thought it was going to be a phase that went away, so I just watched it. I watched the weeks go by, expecting myself to revert back to “normal” after about 2 weeks (the amount of time it usually takes for new things to lose their shine).

Yet, it’s now week 5, and my driving is chill AF. I had no idea how stressed I felt at my last job. I knew I was a bit stressed, but I didn’t think it was that bad. And yet, my driving is telling a completely different story.

When We Suddenly Have the Space for Mindful Eating

Today, I drove home mellow and chill. I went to pilates first, and that was also a mellow and chill class. (Hardly broke a sweat, but the moves were delightfully challenging.)

I made myself a small, quick dinner when I got home, and then headed to my favorite place to eat: on my bed while watching television. YUM!

[Related: My YouTube video on eating while distracted]

Except, on my way there… I took a right turn instead and headed to the reading room (oh it’s new and an absolute luxury) to sit on the sofa and eat in silence. This is very uncharacteristic of me.

And I sat there enjoying my favorite food: steamed potstickers with coconut aminos and soy sauce. DOUBLE YUM. When I was about halfway through, I realized something I ALSO never thought possible: I actually don’t even like potstickers!!! What?!

Could it be that paying attention to my food and “mindfully eating” helped me realize that my food doesn’t even taste good? Well, yes, but also, NO!!! NO NO NO NO NO.

Coming to the conclusion that if people “just” ate mindfully they would realize food doesn’t taste good completely overlooks EVERYTHING THAT YOU DID TO GET TO THAT POINT.

I didn't just decide to eat mindfully. Well, technically I did the moment I pivoted and entered the reading room to eat instead of eating while watching TV — but what did I do to remove the layer of compulsion that allowed me to make that decision in the first place?

Compulsion means that ‘normal behavior’ becomes inaccessible, like standing in the pantry at midnight shoveling cookies into your face even when you really don’t want to. I’m sure we all wish we were mindful eaters, but compulsion gets in the way.

So, what changed?

When Mindful Eating Suddenly Becomes Accessible

It’s not that I simply decided to eat in silence. While yes, that’s what I did at first glance, what I actually did was this:

I quit a job that I had for 8 years, a job where I was a lynchpin, that made me stressed as hell (apparently) and I took another job for lesser pay knowing that the trade-off between stress and relaxation is incredibly worth it for both my mental and physical health.

In other words, I didn’t have this epiphany that my potstickers actually suck because I decided to “mindfully eat.” I had that epiphany because I summoned an enormous amount of courage to quit a job that I both loved and was starting to hate.

It also took an enormous amount of courage and self-awareness to consciously choose to make less money for the sake of my health. And yes, I did it all for this very moment: feeling relaxed and chill.

I had a feeling that having a more relaxed work life would trickle over into my relationship with food and everything else. And golly, it has worked better than I imagined.

What I Hope Mindful Eating Comes to Mean

Anyways, the moral of the story is this:

1. Mindful eating is great, but compulsion is stronger. Most of us can’t just “choose” to mindfully eat because there’s a LOT of life-baggage that we have to unravel first. That’s why I’m not against eating while watching TV. Focus your willpower on other things, like the Stop, Drop, & Feel!

2. Making less money in order to stay less stressed is one of the greatest decisions you can make. I fully acknowledge that this is a privilege, because some of us cannot afford to make less. But I know a LOT of people that are breaking their backs to make great money but it is costing them their health. (Minimalism, anyone?)

3. After 7 years of writing these emails, it never gets any easier to talk about yourself and hit “send” and launch your self-narrative to a sea of thousands of unknown (and some known!) people. Lots and lots of self-doubt always creeps into my mind (“Will I look self-absorbed? Will anyone care? Is this even good?”) and I have to constantly remind myself that, even if one person somewhere in the world that I will never know needed to hear this… then it’s what I need to do. And want to do.

Because even the scary things can be so, so worth it.

(This post was originally sent as an email in April 2023 as part of my “Tuesday newsletters.” You can sign up to get these emails by opting in below. You’ll get a free ebook and free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness when you first sign up.)

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Some say ‘feel it to heal it’ but this workbook takes it a step deeper and helps you ‘see it to heal it.’ If you’re the kind of person who logically knows how to live a healthy lifestyle but you compulsively do the opposite, this workbook will illuminate what’s standing in the way. Then, you know exactly where to focus your energy.

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