Mindfulness in Eating Disorder Recovery

mindfulness and eating disorders

When people hear the word mindfulness often what comes to mind is a person sitting cross-legged, with a far out look on their face repeating mantras with incense burning.  Some people may practice mindfulness in this way, but I think for most of us it can be a lot simpler than that.

In my last blog post A Case for Canning Your Diet I shared results of a recent study that showed that a non-dieting approach to eating and mindful eating can help reduce the symptoms of an eating disorder.  I discussed the non-dieting approach in A Case for Canning Your Diet and in this post I am going to discuss the second component of the study intervention–mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?  Mindfulness in it’s simplest form it is focusing attention on one thing.  Words that my be used as synonym for mindfulness include purposeful awareness, focus, concentration, sustained attention, presence, staying in the moment, observation and neutral observer. *

Why practice mindfulness? It increases the probability of new behaviors by creating and stabilizing new brain circuits.  Mindfulness can change your brain.  It helps us get freed from reactivity, habitual thoughts and negative habits.

How does mindfulness help with eating problems and/or eating disorders?

  • It reduces anxiety and stress (Often a trigger for overeating or disordered eating behaviors).
  • Mindfulness can improve mood (Again often a trigger.).
  • Allows for pause.  Helps to reduce impulsivity, often this can help us make a different and/or more positive choice.

Tips to practice mindful eating:

  • Eat distraction free as possible.  Often we are multitasking when we eat-on our devices, watching TV, driving, working or studying.
  • Before eating notice the colors, shapes, smells, etc. of the food on your plate.
  • Slow down when eating.  Chew your food several times.  Put your fork down on the plate between bites.
  • Notice how the food tastes in your mouth.  Ask yourself what you like about your meal and what you don’t like about your meal.
  • Every so often stop eating and take a few breaths and notice what is around you.

There is no wrong or right way to practice mindful eating and it is normal to get distracted or lost in your thoughts.  Part of the practice of mindfulness is noticing when you get off track and refocusing yourself .

What I have noticed in my personal experience with mindfulness is that it brings a lot more clarity and joy to my everyday life.  And, hey, who couldn’t use a little more of that?


*From the seminar “Mindfulness Strategies for Changing the Brain-Tools for Rewiring Depression, Anxiety & Toxic Lifestyle Habits”.  Presenter and author Donald Altman, MA, LPC.

A Case for Canning Your Diet


A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion by Dr. Lynn A. Rossy and colleagues of the University of Missouri shows that a non-diet approach and mindfulness interventions to eating helped improve body appreciation, intuitive eating and reduced problematic eating behavior.  Problematic eating behavior was defined in the study as binge eating, purging or self-induced vomiting and/or food restriction.

In fact those who received the treatment were at least three times more likely to be free of disordered eating symptoms than the comparison group (wait listed).

I was so please to read this study, more evidence that a non-dieting approach to eating helps reduce the symptoms of eating disorders.  In contrast, traditional dieting can increase risk for developing an eating disorder or exacerbate an existing one.

Curious about a non-diet approach to eating?

A non-diet approach means:

  • Eating is flexible.
  • Challenging the belief that foods are either “good” or “bad” for you.
  • Food, weight and shape are PART of who you are, but not all of who you are.
  • Eating foods that you enjoy.
  • Relying on internal cues (hunger/fullness) on how much to eat vs. external cues (counting calories, diet, etc.)
  • Letting go of rigid rules around food.

While I discuss one component of the intervention, non-diet approach to eating, mindfulness was another very important part of the treatment.  Stay tuned for more information on mindfulness in my upcoming blog posts.

Read more about Dr. Rossy’s study.


Top Six Resources for Eating Disorders

eating disorder resources

I firmly believe in that knowledge can be a powerful tool in recovery.  Often people with eating disorders have feelings of shame, isolation and helpless. Learning about eating disorders can help cope with these feelings and dispel any myths around eating disorders.  Additionally, knowledge can help family members and friends of a loved with an eating disorder feel more equipped to support their recovery. Here are some of my favorite eating disorder resources: 1.  UT Austin Counseling Center has lots of information about eating disorders on their website in an easy to read question and answer format.   UT offers to its students individual counseling and medical treatment, groups and classes to those who struggle with eating disorders and other types of eating problems. 2. Austin Eating Disorder Specialists  is a group of multidisciplinary eating disorder treatment providers whose goal is to provided highest quality of treatment of eating disorders and disseminate information about eating disorders to the Austin community.  It is a great resource to find treatment providers including therapists, dietitians, doctors, groups and treatment centers in the Austin Area. 3. Austin Foundation for Eating Disorders  is a 100% volunteer based organization that provides resources, low cost/free support groups and tons of information about eating disorders. 4.  Gurze Books is a publisher of eating disorder books.  You will find all kinds of books and workbooks for those who struggle with and for those with loved ones with eating disorders and other eating problems. 5.  National Eating Disorder Association  (NEDA) not only has tons of information about eating disorders on their website, but also has resources for getting help, conferences that you can attend and ways to advocate for those with eating disorders.  It is a must read. 6.  Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) has lots of information on what is binge eating disorder is, how to cope and recover from it, information for families and loved ones, ways to advocate and how to register for their annual conference.

Today Kicks Off Eating Disorder Awareness Week

February 23rd through March 1st, 2014 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.  The National Association of Eating Disorders (NEDA) sponsors a week long event to raise awareness of eating disorders.

This year’s theme is “I Had No Idea”.  Key points, taken directly from NEDA’s website, of this year’s awareness week include:

Eating disorders are serious illnesses, not lifestyle choices.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses that arise from a combination of long-standing behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, biological and social factors. As our natural body size and shape is largely determined by genetics, fighting our natural size and shape can lead to unhealthy dieting practices, poor body image and decreased self-esteem. Body dissatisfaction and thin ideal internalization are both significant risk factors for the development of eating disorder behaviors like restricting and binge eating. While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are about much more than food. Recent research has shown that genetic factors create vulnerabilities that place individuals at risk for acting on cultural pressures and using food to feel in control or manage overwhelming emotions.

In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).


Education, early intervention, and access to care are critical.

Early diagnosis and intervention significantly enhance recovery. If not identified or treated in their early stages, eating disorders can become chronic, debilitating, and even life-threatening conditions. A review of nearly fifty years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder . As a culture, it is time for all communities to talk about eating disorders, address their contributing factors, advocate for access to treatment and take action for early intervention. You can make a difference: do just one thing to initiate awareness, education and discussion about eating disorders in your community. If we all do something, we’ll have a tremendous impact!

Help is available, and recovery is possible.

While eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses, help is available and recovery is possible. It is important for those affected, and their loved ones, to remember that they are not alone in their struggle. Others have recovered and are now living healthy fulfilling lives. Let the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) be a part of your network of support. NEDA has information and resources available via our website and helpline:, NEDA Helpline: 800-931-2237.



Part 2: How an Eating Disorder (May Have) Saved Your Life

“Your eating disorder kept you a float when drowning,” Dr. Anita Johnston, author of Eating in the Light of the Moon.

In my last post I discussed that eating disorders can often be understood as a coping skill.  That is, the eating disorder may help one deal with the ups and downs of life.  Of course the problem with having an eating disorder as a coping skills is that it reeks havoc on ones health, personal life, occupation, etc.  I am not proposing that if you have an eating disorder that recovery should not be a goal.  However, I believe that seeing an eating disorder as a coping skill can help provide a framework to more effectively move through recovery.  How does your eating problems help you cope with life?

In Dr. Anita Johnston’s video “The Log” offers viewers a metaphor for the eating disorder that offers this perspective.

How an Eating Disorder (May Have) Saved Your Life



I am being dramatic in saying that your eating problems saved your life, but my point is that your eating disorder or eating problem may have helped you in some way despite all of the pain it has caused you and your loved ones.   Please don’t misunderstand me I am not suggesting that you stay in your eating disorder if you are currently struggling with one.

Eating disorders do have many negative consequences, some that are life threatening.  And most likely your eating disorder in some way has helped you cope with life, hurt, family issues, trauma or other types of pain or discomfort.

In the world of psychotherapy we talk about coping skills, tools to use when life gets uncomfortable.  Coping skills that are encouraged are ones that help us through life’s challenges and that have few or no negative consequences.  Examples include hobbies, talking to friends, meditation, exercise, journal writing, etc.  Conversely coping skills that are discouraged, because they usually are associated with negative side effects, include things like excessive spending or drinking, avoidance, withdrawing, substance abuse, over or under eating, purging, over exercising etc.  What I am suggesting is that your eating problems or eating disorder may be helping you cope with life in someways.

Most of us are familiar with the negative consequences of say binge eating or purging, but don’t realize that these behaviors may also provide a short-term relief from anxiety or stress.

Seeing eating problems or eating disorders as a coping skill offers perspective and can help reduce feelings of shame and guilt often associated with eating disorders.  I am not proposing that those who suffer from an eating disorder should continue with their eating disorder, I am simply saying it can help to see the disorder for what it is and can be a powerful step in healing from eating problems.

It can be empowering to say “Yes,I have an eating disorder and it helped me in a lot of ways, but now I want to learn new ways to cope with life”.

In my next post I will share a wonderful video clip of Dr. Anita Johnston who uses a metaphor to further illustrate this idea.

Eight Ways to Reduce Food and Weight Obsession

food-healthy-unhealthy-fruit-cake-410x290In my post “Food on Your Mind Much (Always)?” I defined the term food  preoccupation or obsession as excessively worrying about food, calories, grams of carbohydrate or fat, etc.  Thinking about food on a daily basis is normal, but worrying  or obsessing about food much of the time is not.  For more details about food preoccupation please read my post “Food on Your Mind Much (Always)?”.

People with eating disorders or who chronically diet tend to have food preoccupation.  Part of the recovery process from an eating disorder and other eating problems whether it is anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating  or compulsive overeating is working to reduce food preoccupation.

Here are some tips to reduce food preoccupation:

1.  The first step is to notice when and how often you worry about food, calories, weight, etc.    Notice thoughts rather than CRITICIZE thoughts about food.  If we beat ourselves up about stuff it just keeps us stuck, but we are able to problem solve and move forward if we accept ourselves .

2. Ask yourself some of the following questions:

What purpose does excessively thinking about food/weight serve me?

Am I really in more control (of my life or my weight) by thinking about food/weight so much?

What things am I avoiding by spending so much time worrying about food?  Often times people will focus on food rather than think about painful situations or feelings, to soothe anxiety or stress, to relieve boredom or procrastination, etc.

What am I missing out on (For example friends, family, hobbies, occupation, school, etc.) by spending so much time thinking about food?

What am I afraid is going to happen if I stop obsessing about food?

Learning more about your particular circumstances around food preoccupation may help you challenge some of your worry about food and weight.

3.  When you notice yourself obsessing or worrying about food, dieting or your body:

Simply say “stop” or “halt” to those thoughts and think about something else.

Write out a pros/cons list of worrying about food.

Offer yourself reassurance that decreasing your thoughts about food is OK after all it really hasn’t helped with eating problems, most likely it is making your food problems worse.

4.  Make sure you are eating enough food regularly throughout the day.  Regularly skipping meals and snack or chronic under eating can contribute to increased food preoccupation.

5.  Schedule time to worry about food.  For example, promise yourself that between 9am-9:30am daily you can worry about food and stick to it.

6.  Reduce time reading about dieting, food and exercise.   You may subscribe to magazines or newsletters or spend a large amounts of time on the internet reading about food, weight, etc. which may only exacerbate the food worry.

7.  Reduce the amount of time talking about food, weight/shape and dieting.

8.  Consulting a counselor often helps reduce food preoccupation.  A counselor can help work to reduce the underlying causes of your food/weight worry.





New Year’s Resolution: Giving Up Dieting for Good

New+Years+ResolutionYep, thais right I am suggesting giving up dieting as a New Year’s Resolution.

Here is why:
1. Dieting doesn’t work. Research shows that often dieting can lead to weight loss for a short period of time, but doesn’t help maintain a lower body weight for long periods of time.  In other words, lost weight often is regained.

2. Diets increase the risk of developing eating disorders.

3. Diets can increase feelings of shame and failure, because they leave us feeling like WE have failed.  But, really the diet is failing, not the person following the diet. (See #1).

4. Studies show that exercise and quality of food consumed rather than weight can improve health.

5.  Food restriction (AKA dieting) often leads to overeating.

6.  Food restriction can lead to increased food preoccupation, feelings of depression and/or anxiety and poor concentration.

7.   Dieting can be socially isolating.  In other words, often dieters will opt out of social engagements because the foods being served aren’t on their diet.


Curious about getting off the diet roller coaster and improving your relationship with food permanently?

Books that discuss the potential harm of dieting and offer a more realistic and helpful approach to eating, health and body image include:

Intuitive Eating: Creating a Healthy Relationship with Food, Mind & Body.  By Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle.  By Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter.

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.  By Linda Bacon.

Contact me for a free phone consultation to learn how I can help you change your relationship with food, improve your body image and help free yourself from dieting for good.  

Food on Your Mind Much (Always)?


For those of you who chronically diet, have bulimia or anorexia nervosa or binge eat you probably have a fairly good idea by what I mean by “food preoccupation”. Food preoccupation is when you spend A LOT of time thinking about food—what you are going to eat, if you are going to eat, worrying about choosing the “wrong or right” foods or how the food is going to affect your body weight.  Sure it is normal to think about food on a daily basis: what you want to eat, when, etc. But, when you spend much of your day worrying about food then if feels more like “food preoccupation”.

Why do people with eating problems tend to have food preoccupation?
I think there is a variety of reasons why eating problems increase preoccupation with food.  Food restriction (dieting, eating disorders usually involve food restriction) has been proven to contribute to food preoccupation (See Ancel Keys’ study for details). Since food is a basic need for survival our biology wants us to think about food, so there is a greater chance of procuring and eating food thus survival.Psychological reasons may contribute to food preoccupation. For example for some it may be “easier” or less painful to worry about food than other painful feelings. Worrying about food may give people a sense of control, because in other areas of there life they may feel powerless. Others may think that if they have a “perfect body” their life will be much improved and feel more confident about themselves. And believe food is away to achieve this. These are just a few examples of what purpose food preoccupation may serve for people. Food preoccupation is not something to panic about or try to rid yourself of it ASAP, but just notice when you may be worrying about food a little too much.
In my next post I will discuss strategies to reduce food preoccupation.


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