An exploration of differences between intuitive eating and mindful eating

There is a common misunderstanding that mindful eating and intuitive eating are simply different terms for referring to the same practice or way of eating, or that mindful eating is actually simply a component of intuitive eating.

Perpetuating this misconception is a disservice to both approaches, in that it limits understanding and precludes a deeper scope of practice. It also fails to honor the mindfulness tradition within which the practice of mindful eating (or mindfulness based eating) taught in most Western secular health care contexts is rooted, i.e. Buddhist psychology.

It is also important to acknowledge that many other religious/spiritual traditions have their own ‘mindful eating’ practices, such as Judaism (you may be interested in this food curriculum sample and this blog entry) and Ayurveda (you may be interested in How Ayurveda Inspires Mindful Eating).

For the purposes of the following discussion, however, I will only be speaking to mindful eating as rooted in Buddhist psychology and mindfulness tradition, which is the one I am most familiar with.

Before delving into the differences between intuitive eating and mindful eating, though, it is important to state that this is not meant to be a comprehensive or final comparison, rather a preliminary exploration.

In the interest of transparency, I want to disclose my biases. I first started to resist dieting culture from a place that was informed and sustained by my Vipassana meditation and yoga practice. This led me to begin making food and movement choices based on my body’s cues. In this, for me, intuitive eating and mindful eating are inseparable. My formal training has been mostly in the mindful eating tradition, as in Mindfulness Based Eating, and I’ve continued to learn from teachers in the Zen and Tibetan traditions as well as from secular teachers. My knowledge and learning is by no means complete, and I continue to learn and deepen my understanding. I also believe it important to state that, to me, intuitive eating and Intuitive Eating (developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) are not necessarily the same, as Intuitive Eating is a model with very clear and specific principles and a methodology, and intuitive eating is simply how humans (and all animals for that matter) naturally eat prior to all the baggage, and something some individuals gravitate towards because either they've been fortunate in their family and history or because they've naturally found their way out of dieting behaviors and mentality, either on their own or within the context of different somatic traditions.

It is my belief that a more nuanced understanding of the differences is relevant to providers, but talking about this theoretically/academically to clients/patients might simply create more confusion, and distract us from their (and our) experience and embodiment in the moment. In this respect, I believe similarities are more important, as there are essential principles that hold across the different approaches – do no harm, curiosity, compassion, joy, honoring every body, liberation from suffering. And above all, embodiment of the attitudes, approach and practices by providers is crucial.

Before going into an exploration of what I think are the general differences between intuitive eating and mindful eating, one crucial thing.

There is a widespread belief that one of these two approaches (depending on who you ask) is weight centric / a form of dieting, while the other is not. To be clear: both intuitive eating and mindful eating are practices that promote weight inclusivity and respectful care for all bodies. Both practices have been co-opted by individuals stuck in a weight centric paradigm and those wishing to sell weight loss in “new” or “natural” ways. I have written elsewhere about Why Mindful Eating is Weight Inclusive and about Teaching Mindful Eating from a Weight Inclusive Paradigm. For further exploration regarding mindful eating and weight inclusivity, I recommend The Center for Mindful Eating’s Food for Thought’s issue on Weight Inclusivity and Jenna Hollenstein’s amazing book Eat to Love: A Mindful Guide to Transforming Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Life.

General differences between intuitive eating and mindful eating

In this section I will speak about intuitive eating in general, because there are so many people teaching it not necessarily within the Intuitive Eating approach. Also, I will talk about mindful eating as in “mindfulness based”, though I understand sometimes the term is used more broadly, as in a Western understanding of being mindful/aware.

In my experience, intuitive eating focuses on awareness and choice in the realm of eating and movement, and as Linn Thorstensson from Straightforward Nutrition (personal communication) has so eloquently put it: “to let our body guide us in making the food choices to support its needs”. It is thus akin to ‘competent’ or ‘normal’ eating, and while the Intuitive Eating approach and other competent or normal eating approaches, such as Ellyn Satter’s, share many things in common, each has its own particularities.

Although this holds true for ME, I think ME is broader and deeper in scope. In the tradition of mindfulness, it goes beyond awareness and attention to cultivate discernment and wisdom. Also, in mindfulness-based approaches, there is a strong emphasis on a formal meditation and mindful movement practice. These practices allow for the cultivation of mindfulness of body, feelings, thoughts and consciousness that provide the basis for the practice of mindful eating, allowing us to deepen awareness and increase access to choice and freedom. In terms of neuroscience, formal mindfulness practice allows the neuroplasticity necessary to transform habits pertaining to how we eat and how we relate to food and body. A formal mindfulness practice facilitates awareness of hunger and satiety cues, and has thus been considered or interpreted by some as a 'tool' for intuitive eating. This has given rise to confusion in the clinical world when distinguishing the two, in that mindfulness can then be construed as a strategy or technique in favor of intuitive eating. However, mindfulness is not a strategy or technique, but a practice. In more pragmatic terms, I do see the value of just freely putting it all into one big package, but I think we risk missing the opportunity of going deeper, and of a lot being lost in translation.

In practicing mindful eating, we are cultivating equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and empathetic joy, with strong ethical grounding and also accessing a spiritual dimension, which then leads to greater connection and inter-connection and feeds heart hunger in a way that is not contingent upon what is happening outside. This leads me to another crucial aspect - intuitive eating has a strong focus on pleasure, which lends itself to a hedonistic approach, thus actively rejecting anything that could resemble restriction. In this, I see an emphasis on freedom as understood in a Western context - freedom of choice in that everyone has an individual right to choose in the moment what gives access to pleasure -, while mindful eating emphasizes joy in terms of eudaimonic pleasure (lasting, genuine joy that is not dependent on conditioned phenomena), and with interconnectedness always in mind. Thus, our choices have an impact on everyone and everything around us, and are not necessarily guided by immediate reward. The mindfulness based tradition values and cultivates moderation and restraint actively. One caveat of this is that many teachers in the mindfulness tradition emphasize restraint and avoidance of excess, while not explicitly saying there is also a risk in “too little”, and in restraint being interpreted as restriction, which in the clinical setting and in liberation from dieting is crucial.

Because of its emphasis in interconnectedness, ME also has layers that reach into sustainability and the implications of our food choices for other beings and for the environment, again emphasizing ethics and giving access to a discerning view of food politics and nutritional literacy. I think we tend to shy away from this in clinical settings because there is a very real risk of - without sustained practice, a strong community and a skilled teacher - leading straight to guilt, shame and getting trapped into dieting mind and a dichotomy of 'good'/'bad' foods (this has of course happened with some mindful eating models), or of being a ‘virtuous’/’bad’ person in terms of one’s food choices. Also, the initial phases of recovery from an ED or disordered eating are almost never a good time to introduce this (I say almost because I've seen that when individuals with ED or disordered eating enter a Buddhist tradition and community, in which all layers are included from the beginning, the spiritual nourishment and holding environment allow a deeper healing to take place, explicitly introducing the notion of interconnectedness and sustainability from the start without this feeding into the dieting mind).

From my experience, both approaches emphasize process vs. outcome (although as we know many people co-opt them to promise or seek outcomes). However, in the tradition of intuitive eating I do hear people say "intuitive eater"/"competent eater" (as in being something someone has become) whereas I've never heard anyone in the mindful eating tradition say they are a "mindful eater", we just cultivate the practice one bite and one meal at a time, each one a new opportunity. The emphasis is on practicing with a beginner’s mind, and ongoing curious inquiry.

 

Specific differences between Intuitive Eating and mindful eating

This is not meant to be a thorough review of similarities/differences, merely points out what is most salient to me right now. I take as a starting point the I.E. principles (for further reading of the principles, please refer to the Intuitive Eating books).

Principle 1: Reject the diet mentality. One is encouraged to "get angry at the lies". In mindful eating, anger is not something to fuel, encourage or redirect. It is an emotion one notices and holds in compassion, and it is also seen to hold wisdom about a need, or about a wound, something we create spaciousness around and inquire into. We cultivate the ability to clearly see skillful action that will bring healing. And while anger can be the gate, action is always led by loving kindness and compassion. "Getting angry at the lies" can be seen as unwise in that it is 'tainted' by aversion. The diet mentality is seen in terms of mind hunger and mental objects (thoughts, beliefs) that one sees as not-self and not-truth. It's not about aversion or fighting, but about transcending. In this sense, the diet mentality is a distorted view of reality, i.e. ignorance, and thus cultivating discerning wisdom is the path (we aspire to see-through it, or ‘cut through with the sword of wisdom’). In terms of similarities, Intuitive Eating warns about the diet trap and pseudo-dieting. While mindful eating phrases it differently (the risk of turning it into rules or reinforcing dichotomy in thinking), to me it's the same intention.

* A word of caution: it is easy to misinterpret the teachings in the mindfulness tradition in a way that eschews anger and simply teaches acquiescence under the umbrella of “equanimity”. In reality, anger naturally arises when we see injustice clearly. And in the words of Steven Hickman: “Just as our students could find themselves "using" mindfulness to avoid pain or difficult emotions if we aren't wise in our teaching, so could our students choose acceptance over action when faced with circumstances that are oppressive, harmful or morally injurious. Just saying that we train people to see things clearly and come to terms with them as they are and that the right course of action or inaction will arise, abdicates our responsibility to emphasize that there are times when one needs to see a system or policy or culture that needs to change. Good teachers do this, I think, but we ALL need reminding of the action piece and maybe even consider what we can do to help be the catalysts of change, not in people's personal lives, but in the larger society in which we live alongside those people." I know the difference is subtle, but it’s not the same to fuel anger as to cultivate discernment and wisdom and when anger arises in the face of an injustice or from seeing causes of suffering, act to dismantle the systems of oppression.

Principle 2: Honor your hunger. In essence, pretty much the same, but Intuitive Eating goes into details about specific nutrients (carbohydrates) and neural pathways. Mindful eating, in its most basic form, doesn't. Depending on who's teaching, and on the specific model, though, it might include it explicitly.

Principle 3: Make peace with food. In essence, I would say the same holds for ME, with nuances, as in the ‘methodologies’ differ. IE gives a specific list of steps that to me are akin to the CBT approach, while mindful eating promotes curiosity and experimentation following a methodology based on a theory of suffering and liberation from suffering that comes from the Buddhist tradition. In the discussion of this principle of IE, the topic of food addiction is covered, defying that there is such a thing as food addiction. This is backed by science - we know that the pattern that resembles what we call addiction in the medical field only happens with intermittent exposure to certain foods, i.e. with restriction/dieting. Within some ME approaches, particularly those closest to the Buddhist traditions, the term addiction is used freely as pertains to attachment (attachment as in craving, not as in the theory of attachment in Western psychology). The definition of addiction from the Buddhist perspective is "the reliance on anything in order to keep our dark or unsettling thoughts at bay, or employing the means serving the compulsion to fill a space and dampen our pain. So within Buddhist traditions, it is said we are all addicts (in the same way as saying we all suffer from ADD). This, I believe, can give rise to much confusion within the Western world and in clinical contexts, where the debate regarding the validity of the construct of food addiction is ongoing.

Principle 4: Challenge the food police. "Scream a loud 'No' to thoughts in your head... Chasing the Food Police away". Radically different from the ME approach, in which we are taught to pay attention, become aware and recognize the Food Police (or inner critic, inner pusher, perfectionist, dieting mind, etc.), watch the thoughts come and go, and hold them in awareness and compassion. We are also taught to do curious inquiry into our experience. In cognitive terms, as stated in the comparison within principle 3, IE stays in the same level of cognition, akin to CBT as in debating, rejecting or questioning specific thoughts and specifically suggesting replacing distorted thoughts, while mindful eating goes to the metacognitive level. In ME, following Dharma, screaming no and chasing away would still be promoting aversion and ignorance, and thus not true liberation.

Principle 5: Feel your fullness. Pretty much the same, although IE introduces some specific nutritional info (foods that have more 'filling' power), while mindful eating invites you to experiment and recognize how different foods affect your fullness. I will say that I know in the clinical setting many providers teaching IE deliberately avoid introducing specific nutritional information, and simply invite their clients/patients to experiment and recognize the responses of their body to particular foods, while some ME approaches and providers do introduce nutritional facts and education. Also of note, specific health conditions require, within any approach, to provide specific nutritional guidelines or go into more detail regarding properties of certain foods (e.g. glycemic index). Both IE and ME are compatible with a medical nutrition therapy (MNT) approach.

Principle 6: Discover the satisfaction factor. Pretty much the same, although different approaches in ME might vary.

Principle 7: Cope with your emotions without using food. A lot of similarities, although different ME approaches vary in the ways they teach ways to use food skillfully, and some even teach ‘mindful emotional eating’. Also, in ME meditation and compassion are ways to feed heart/emotional hunger.

Principle 8: Respect your body. Quite similar. In the mindfulness tradition, the emphasis is on attachment and aversion, on realizing that everything is impermanent and on detaching from/transcending the ego and vanity. Also, in most mindful eating approaches, there are practices of gratitude and compassion towards the body. IE talks specifically about HAES, which mindful eating doesn't. The Intuitive Eating approach has become overtly allied with size acceptance, weight inclusivity and weight neutrality, and the strongest voices in the fat acceptance movement and HAES model promote IE. Mindful eating has regrettably not been so successful, I think, in making the social justice component explicit (with the exception of specific teachers and movements, e.g. Radical Dharma), and many ME teachers are still promoting weight bias, whether overtly or inadvertently. 'Obesity' is still seen by many ME teachers as a problem (of excess), and ME as a 'cure' or 'antidote'. In terms of healthism, in Intuitive Eating, because of its strong link with fat activism and intersectional feminism, there is a strong emphasis on 'health is not a moral imperative'. And while in essence I believe this premise to hold in mindful eating, there is in fact an emphasis on ethical and relational responsibility, on nourishing and caring for this precious human life (and body), which then allows us to be of benefit for others. This I actually find very akin to intersectional feminism, in that we are seeking collective, not individual, liberation. Still, complex issues that can give rise to much confusion and, coming from a Western perspective, can easily lead to the trap of ‘good’/’bad’ bodies.

One additional thing that I find relevant to this conversation is that in mindful eating there is a strong tendency towards spiritual bypassing with risks including nutritional bypassing and also orthorexia or 'clean' eating. Spiritual bypassing is not a 'bad' thing, simply something to be aware of. It does, however, require a teacher who is skilled and has a strong personal practice. As the Intuitive Eating approach has become so strongly associated with feminism and activism, anger and conflict are welcome and there is an active rejection of any form of dieting, detoxing, cleansing, etc. It would thus appear that there is less of that risk of this kind of bypassing in IE.

Principle 9: Exercise - Feel the difference. While the general principle holds, ME emphasizes mindful movement with a formal practice in mind-body traditions (such as yoga or tai chi), focusing on the sensations of movement and on cultivating acceptance, loving kindness, gratitude and compassion while we move (there is actually a section on this in the IE book).

Principle 10: Honor your health with gentle nutrition. This is where I find the most similarities, but approaches within the mindful eating tradition vary widely in their incorporation of nutritional knowledge and research, and in openly discussing (or not) food politics. Also, some mindful eating traditions (namely those strongly associated with Buddhism, like Thich Nhat Hanh's Interbeing community) promote vegetarian/vegan choices on ethical grounds, and some teachers (e.g. Matthieu Ricard) are activists in this respect. While they do so from a stance that emphasizes loving kindness and compassion, there is of course a risk in interpreting this as ‘good’/’bad’ choices and feeding guilt and shame, imposing further restriction when the relationship with food is not yet healed. In places/communities where there is food insecurity, restricting food choices in any way makes it harder to get food and sustenance on the plate, and so takes us further away from access and healing. And because of how social injustice works, those with the least amount of choices get the most amount of blame and shame.

Regarding the topic of vegetarianism/veganism on ethical grounds, one of my teachers, Jan Chozen Bays, who comes from a (Zen) Buddhist tradition as well as being a physician (pediatrician) states that being human means we need to take in life forms to sustain ourselves, and each person needs to choose freely where they want to draw the line (this of course given equitable access).

In the secular ME tradition, most do not promote vegetarianism or veganism.

There are of course many more nuances and differences depending on which mindful eating model/approach one subscribes to, as well as between teachers.

I wish to again state that this is not meant as a thorough comparison, but as a preliminary exploration so that those of us working within the non-diet approach may deepen our understanding. My ultimate aspiration is that more people may benefit from both approaches in healing and finding ease and joy in their relationship with food, eating and their bodies, and that this will bring us further along the path towards collective liberation.

 

“May we all become free from anxiety and fear about eating.

May we all be at ease.

May we all be content as we nourish this precious human body and mind.

May our hearts be happy and satisfied as we walk the path of awakening.”

Jan Chozen Bays

About the author

Lilia Graue is a physician, psychotherapist, consultant and teacher. She works with brave humans to counter performative health, among other oppressive discourses, to do the compassionate healing work necessary to collectively create a culture of body justice and liberation, so that we may all become Fiercely Embodied.

Other perspectives

Through my colleague Vincci Tsui’s blog: Mindful Eating or Intuitive Eating: Which Should I Choose?, I became aware of other perspectives regarding this topic. I am sharing some of them below.

Mindful Eating vs. Intuitive Eating, by Linn Thorstensson

Mindful Eating & Intuitive Eating: What’s the Difference?, by Vincci Tsui

What is the difference between intuitive eating, mindful eating, HAES, and Am I Hungry?, by Michelle May

Is Intuitive Eating the Same as Mindful Eating?, by Cara Harbstreet

Lilia Graue