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A Little Less Mindfulness?

There's a movement in the field toward mindful eating, focusing on our meals and attuning to hunger and satiety, pace of eating, etc. As a mindful eater, you might tune into the texture and flavor combinations of certain foods. You might revel in the color palette on the plate before you, or the warmth of a reduction as it first hits your palate. Perhaps you'll focus on the people and process that culminated in the fare in front of you. A move toward mindfulness can promote intuitive eating and reduce inattentive (or dissociative) overeating in those who identify this as a concern, and a likely majority of eaters could benefit from a more mindful approach.

But I think there's a limit to all this mindfulness.

I've heard some people report that they have trouble going out to eat because it interferes with their conscious eating. And sometimes, we're so focused on the need to eat mindfully, that we counter-intuitively forego eating when we're hungry because we're in the middle of something else.

One of Geneen Roth's eating guidelines, for instance, suggest you "Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations or music."

While I like Roth's guidelines in general, I think it's possible to cultivate a healthy relationship with food, even if you eat with music or television in the background, or (gasp!) with a book, magazine, newspaper, or your smartphone in front of you. When I used to lead meal process groups at an eating disorder treatment center, we often had music on to accompany our meals. And, with increasing frequency, I eat at my desk with my computer as a backdrop to my meal. Sometimes, I even eat in my car.

There, I said it.

But, this doesn't mean I'm 100% checked out. Conscious eating starts when you decide what to eat and when you plate your food. It means checking in to hunger signals before you begin to eat. And it means checking in with your body for fullness and satiety at times throughout the eating experience. It doesn't mean sitting down at your computer with a Costco-sized meal, checking out, and letting the chips fall where they may. 

Where I differ from many of the mindful eating folks is that I think it can be healthy and flexible to tune out, too, as long as you check back in. Granted, this won't necessarily work for someone early in process of recovery from binge- or emotional eating, but I see it as a goal for most. Perhaps some meals we'll eat mindfully, and some we'll go back and forth. 

Having to eat always with no distractions seems overly rigid to me, the kind of rule that gets people into trouble with food in the first place. To me, fluidity in conscious eating seems more on the mark. It's a commitment to responsibility and pleasure. It allows you to converse with others, to watch your favorite program, or listen to some background music, while enjoying the food in front of you. It allows you to eat at movie theaters, ball games, and on the road. It allows mealtime to be a pleasurable, engaging process that is adaptable and flexible, ultimately aspirational, in my mind, for every disordered eater.