Why Mindful Eating is Weight Inclusive
Whenever I see posts about mindful eating, 9 times out of 10, it seems, the message promotes dieting in disguise. Of course, there is everything along a spectrum from outright and overt co-opting all the way to subtle weight bias and dieting mind traps.
Among the most prominent messages:
• Eating less is a ‘natural’ ‘benefit’ or ‘side effect’ of mindful eating
• Never eat when you’re not hungry
• Always stop when you are full
• Having weight as a goal is radically different from focusing on behavior modifications (linked to weight, obviously)
• The current 'obesity' epidemic is proof that we are imbalanced as a society, and we must ‘cure' this with mindful eating
• If you do balance and moderation ‘right’, surely you’ll weight will ‘naturally’ settle in the ‘normal’ weight range
This is all a product of diet culture and weight bias.
Among the warped messages I’ve pointed out above, the last one, that balance and moderation necessarily lead to a ‘balanced’ weight (whatever that means) is particularly damaging and pervasive, as it can seem an absolute 'truth' in accordance with different spiritual traditions associated with the practice of mindfulness / mindful eating. While all spiritual traditions are at their core a path to liberation and awakening, and cultivating moderation and balance in integrity are a big part of that, this needs to be done from a place of embodiment, reflection, insight, discernment and wisdom, as opposed to shame, judgment and guilt. Of course we tend to gravitate to what is most familiar to us, and there are so many visible and invisible subtexts present in the way we are taught the practice from teachers and health professionals, who are also vulnerable to bias and prejudice. Add to this that social justice and discernment of structures and discourses of oppression are almost never taught as an integral part of mindful eating trainings for professionals, and that weight bias is so pervasive that some of the most renowned teachers in the world of mindful eating perpetuate it inadvertently, and you have the perfect recipe for more suffering.
All this without even considering the very latent risk of learning and teaching mindful eating in a spiritual bypassing mode.
Co-opting mindful eating in a way that sustains weight bias and feeds the dieting mind is a betrayal of the ethics of mindfulness.
Using mindful eating as yet another way to get bodies to conform to the body size we have been socialized to view as acceptable and ‘healthy’ does harm and perpetuates body oppression and trauma.
Mindfulness, compassion and mindful eating are practices to heal our relationships – with ourselves, with others, with food, with earth. At their root, they allow us to cultivate equanimity, empathetic joy, radical acceptance, loving kindness and compassion. In terms of our relationship with food and our bodies, they allow us to nourish ourselves in attunement to our bodies’ needs and make choices that are grounded in discerning wisdom and fierce kindness and compassion.
When we promote mindful eating in a way that is not informed by social justice, social determinants of health, trauma and intersectionality, we do harm.
When we say we agree not to focus on weight, but continue to believe that a ‘right’ practice of mindfulness/compassion/mindful eating will lead to a change in body size – and are expecting said changes in the people we teach or care for - we do harm.
When we collude with a culture that seeks to make bodies conform, we do harm.
When we fail to see that, when we teach about restraint in the realm of food and eating, our teachings take place within a culture and society in which the dieting mind is pervasive and rampant, we do harm. Our intention may be to promote balance, but if we take the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ stance, we are failing to hold ourselves accountable for the impact of our words and actions. Touting the virtues and benefits of moderation and balance most definitely does not contribute to liberation within the context of diet culture.
When we fail to listen to, and center, marginalized voices that tell us our teachings are oppressive, we do harm.
As mindful eating teachers, we have an ethical obligation to continually examine our own biases – including the following beliefs:
- That body size is relational to one’s physical and mental health – of course, inasmuch as it makes people living in larger bodies a target of body oppression and marginalization, with a huge impact on health;
- That we can tell about someone’s behaviors and/or lifestyle based on their weight - assumptions we make about someone just by looking at them are only an indication of our own weight bias;
- That ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ are words that can be re-appropriated – NO, NO, and… NO. We cannot take away the stigma from words that are etymologically wrong and oppressive and that have been created and centered by a system that pathologizes and marginalizes certain bodies;
- That a weight centric approach is compatible with a weight inclusive one – not enough eye-rolls for this one;
- That a weight centric approach is compatible with mindful eating - this is weight bias / diet mentality at work. Until we are able to leave weight out of the equation (having truly understood that it is not something that can be modified, managed or controlled at will; and ceasing to use it as a reliable proxy for health and wellbeing) we won’t be able to truly support someone in listening to their needs and getting comfortable in caring for those needs consistently, letting go of the outcome;
- That a weight inclusive approach is synonymous with being against any and all weight loss – please educate yourself about the weight inclusive approach. Hint: we are not opposed to the changes in weight or size that may happen as a result of compassionate self-care; we are opposed to the deliberate pursuit of weight loss, both from an ethical and social justice stance and from a scientific one, I mean, have you seen the actual data regarding long term outcomes?
- That it is irresponsible to ignore the “serious health consequences of weight” – you mean as mediated by oppression, stigma, discrimination and shame, right? Or are you maybe confused about correlation vs. causation?
- That weight is the ‘problem’ and mindful eating is the ‘fix’ - mindfulness is rooted in the intention to heal, awaken to our life as it is, and befriend ourselves as we are, it is not about fixing or controlling outcomes;
- That health is lodged within the individual – please learn about social determinants of health;
- That health is a matter of choice – please read about, well, biology to start with, and then about intersecting systems of privilege and oppression.
We need to advocate for the right of all bodies to be held in radical acceptance, respect and trust.
We need to reframe our teachings to make room for humans of all sizes and levels of ‘health’ to be nourished in mindfulness and compassion, without expecting bodies to change externally as a marker of ‘success’, ‘progress’ or healing.
We need to honor the ethics of our practice to create a more just, kind and compassionate society in which we are not colluding with weight bias and diet culture.
We need to stop promoting / selling weight bias, sizeism, ableism, healthism, and nutritionism disguised as mindfulness / mindful eating / compassion. We need to stop colluding with body oppression and diet mentality.
About the author
Lilia Graue is a physician, psychotherapist, coach 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.