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March 27, 2024

Mindful eating: what's the deal?

In recent years, words such as ‘mindful eating’ and ‘intuitive eating’ have appeared in social media and the press. This has built up from the backlash against diet and slimming culture’s focus on losing the most weight and food restriction.

In recent years, words such as ‘mindful eating’ and ‘intuitive eating’ have appeared in social media and the press. This has built up from the backlash against diet and slimming culture’s focus on losing the most weight and food restriction.

One of the things that a diet or constant focus on weight loss costs us enormous amounts of time, worry and thinking, which can often lead to a form of stress around the food we eat, how much we eat, what our bodies look like and how much we have to move, because you’re afraid you might do something wrong.

Everyday we are bombarded with tons of information about what is ‘good’, ‘healthy’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Each piece of information has different preferences and bias toward the information they are sharing. You may have seen a confusing lot of information, such as ‘carbohydrates are unhealthy’, ‘sugar is bad’, ‘sugar makes you addicted’, ‘fruit contains too much sugar’, ‘fat is bad’, ‘fat is healthy’ - with all this contradicting information, how are you meant to know what is true and what is fake information? We spend too much time worrying about the information we’ve read, heard, seen or been told about food (Nagler et al (2014)).

You may have previously tried to do the ‘right thing’ by taking control of your eating, by adding in rules, restrictions and plans that lead you to think more about food, increase your food cravings and feel a loss of control around food - all which increase your experience around food stress.

The big challenge is that the way to improve your relationship with food, to feel more calm and relaxed, is to let go of your rigid food rules. Letting go of that control around food is usually the harvest thing to do, as it feels like a safety net. If you have tried many diets in the past, you may know the cycle of feeling positive around the food rules set and then feeling like you are not able to control yourself around food.

But, it is important to understand that it is often precisely the attempt to overcontrol, restrict and control your eating that often leads to your experience of overeating and loss of control around food - which can be the starting points of food guilt, another driver of the diet cycle.

Why restrictions often lead to you eating more

Restrictions affect us psychologically in different ways, which means that we may actually end up eating more of the food in question than we would otherwise. This all comes down to the fact that as soon as you label a certain food as ‘forbidden’ or must be restricted, it makes you want it all the more.

Here are a few example of the mechanisms behind this:

Now-or-never eating

Restrictions on when you can eat specific foods often lead to an unconscious ‘it’s now or never’ experience, which makes you eat more of the food in question than you need or want to. You unconsciously eat more, purely for the fact that you have only allowed yourself to eat it for a specific reason eg. because it’s Friday, you’ve given yourself a ‘cheat day’, it’s a birthday celebration etc. Or sometimes it can be because you don’t know when you will be ‘allowed’ to eat this specific food again.

Defiance eating

Even if you have given yourself a ban or restrictions on specific foods, you may unconsciously eat in defiance. It’s a mindset similar to ‘you don’t get to decide that’, a reaction that often is experienced when others try to tell you what to do.

The ‘what the hell’ effect

This is a mindset that can be created when you feel like you have ‘failed’ one of your rules, it shifts your thinking to ‘what the hell’ as it’s been ‘ruined’ or ‘failed’ now, so you may as well eat more and continue on.

Increased cravings for the foods you’ve not allowed yourself to have

Cravings for a certain food often arise due to exposure or temptation from outside sources and are foods that you have not allowed yourself to have - this stimulates an overthinking and obsession over these foods, leading to you thinking more and more about the taste, texture and pleasure that arises from eating these foods (Kavanagh et al, 2005). There have been many studies that show when you ban or limit yourself around certain foods, that you can not only increase your cravings for these foods, but also increase the amount you would eat compared to normal.

Less enjoyment for what you ‘should eat’

The health-promoting suggestions, such as eating more vegetables, can end up having the opposite effect on your desire to eat them and decrease the enjoyment of eating them.

Restrictions and rules also create an increase in the amount of time you spend thinking about and having a preoccupation with food. It can make it difficult to concentrate on your day to day activities and other important things in your life.

The road from food stress to mindful eating

There has been a lot of work over the years to develop the pathway to mindful eating and intuitive eating. According to Morten Elsøe, who is a Danish co-author of the books “Madro” and “End the forbidden”, there are 3 things we must do to get rid of food stress and work towards mindfulness, where thoughts about your next meal or all the foods you must not eat do not take over your life:

Let go of rigid food rules

With many years of experience with diets and slimming programs, you often get a set of rules to follow, telling you what you can eat, when you can eat and how much you can eat. It is important to take a step back, seek support from a healthcare professional, and explore where these food rules have come from and what you can do about them.

It can take time to build confidence around your flexibility with foods, and to psychologically remove the focus on those rules, it can help to find the source of where your rules came from and develop a curiosity in understanding how and why you eat the way you do.

Do away with misinformation

Often, the origins of these rigid food rules come from the tons of health and nutritional misinformation that create a fear of being ‘unhealthy’ or eating ‘wrong’. This can mean you need time to reflect on your worries and fears, and to myth bust the harmful thinking processes and relationships with food that these wrong pieces of information have caused within yourself. This requires an open and ready mindset to change the way you see food, that food is food and there are no inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to eat.

Stop overcontrolling the diet

XXX use a concept called ‘unlimited permission’ - this also stems from the Danish concepts by Elsøe and Gaardmand. It’s a process of mentally allowing yourself to eat all foods in all situations. Giving yourself this unlimited permission will lead to eating moderate amounts when you feel like it, versus overeating and consuming more than you intended to when you have feelings of ‘failing’ or having a ‘cheat day’.

The concept of unlimited permission can often be overwhelming and too much for people who are afraid to lose the control they feel in relation to food. However, you can work toward this in much smaller steps, especially when you work with a health coach. For example, you can challenge yourself with small experiments, such as eating chocolate every night for 14 days. What happens if you do this? How do you feel? Do you still enjoy and want it everyday? Do you eat the same amount each night?

Weight loss and diet

When you want to lose weight, it usually involves some form of restriction. Meaning that you have to cut back on something or change something in order to see a change in your weight. Having a primary focus on weight loss normally means that the biggest impact comes to your diet, awakening your ‘diet brain’ and the psychological mechanisms that come alongside the restrictions. 

A weight loss program, which should support less food stress and greater food intake, requires that the overall focus be shifted from what and how much you eat, you move and lose weight.

The focus can be advantageous on how and why you eat, the movement you enjoy or why you do not move. With embla, we support and help our members to recognise their patterns and barriers in their eating and movement habits, an awareness is then created that can help put your ‘diet brain’ on pause, and support your desire to do something different to your usual diet cycle (Sairanen et al 2014).

Another important element is to place less emphasis onn external control (those coaches who ‘keep you on a tight leash’), and negative self-talk and ‘whip’ as motivation (when you are praised for abstaining from the ‘unhealthy’). Instead, an approach as a coach might be toward educating, like we do with our members, to be aware of and act on your own basic needs and values. Habit changes are often linked to be great motivators and help to create a higher quality of life, more enjoyment, and well-being for yourself, rather than gaining recognition and acceptance from a trainer and the outside world (Lillis et al, 2009).

Nagler et al (2014) Adverse outcomes associated with media exposure to contradictory nutrition messages.


Kavanagh et al (2005) Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: the elaborated intrusion theory of desire. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15783293/ 

Lillis et al(2009) Teaching Acceptance and Mindfulness to Improve the Lives of the Obese: A Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model https://academic.oup.com/abm/article/37/1/58/4565838?login=false 

Sairanen et al (2014) Flexibility in weight management.