Beating unconscious eating and learning to eat more mindfully

How we “do” eating has changed so much. When I was a child, we often sat down together to breakfast, lunch and dinner at the dining table. There were three official mealtimes. There was structure. I knew there would be food presented at certain times of the day and, more importantly, my tummy knew! The “not terribly varied” dishes always contained vegetables of some description. We rarely ate out or had take-away. 


Maybe you had some similar experiences to this and maybe not, but you might find that your eating patterns have changed over the years too?

For some, breakfast has completely disappeared from the menu. Lunch is squeezed in (if possible) between work emails, and by evening, when dinner time arrives - some are so exhausted - a take-away feels like the only option!

Eating sometimes becomes something we do - whilst we are doing something else! Fuelling ourselves, which is an absolute priority, becomes an afterthought. Eating something tasty but unhealthy can feel like a reward after a tough day! Eating becomes mindless. 

We can really benefit from eating more mindfully! Why?

  • it means we have space and time to consider genuinely nutritional foods that really fuel us
  • it gives us time to chew and digest properly
  • it gives us time to savour and be grateful for the foods that we enjoy
  • sitting down to your meal provides a pause in an otherwise busy day

Basic tips for mindful eating

  • Take time to chew carefully. Note the flavours and spices, textures and aromas.
  • Devote some time to fully focusing on your meal. Try not to be distracted by anything else. 
  • Notice if you are pulled towards unhealthy options, what is this about? Notice any feelings or memories that arise.
  • Eat when you are hungry - not because you want to “eat your feelings” – stop when you have had a reasonable portion.

Food related ‘beliefs’ can affect our eating behaviours

I once knew an overeater who was unhappy with his continuous weight gain. When exploring contributing factors, we accidently stumbled across some attitudes to food stemming from his family of origin. As a child he recalled being criticised by his Dad whenever he could not finish his meal. His Dad branded him “ungrateful” filling him full of guilt and shame. To avoid his Dad’s disapproval and the associated feelings, he would continue to eat even after feeling full.  

As an adult he often felt uncomfortable leaving any food. He would finish his portion, and anyone else’s. Becoming aware of this association meant that despite feeling guilty he knew it was OK to leave food on his plate - it did not make him an ungrateful person! He was able to allow himself to stop eating when he felt full.


To obtain an overview of your eating habits, download a “Food Diary” from a self-help site - such as the aptly named Over the course of a typical week, record the foods you eat and the emotions you feel, maybe even record the time it takes you to eat your meals.

The following week repeat this exercise again, but this time apply the mindful eating tips. Observe the timings of your mealtimes and any differences in how you are thinking and feeling. It is likely that you are more present during the experience.

Perhaps you will uncover some ‘food related beliefs’ that no longer serve a purpose in your life. Developing your ability to eat more mindfully means that over time you could gently change your relationship with food and perhaps gain more understanding about your relationship with yourself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sutton, SM1
Written by Claire Deane, BSc (Hons) Dip. CBT, MBACP (Accred)
Sutton, SM1

BACP registered Counsellor providing support to long or short term clients weekly online. Clients can self-refer or access support via healthcare providers or EAP. I work with mild to moderate mental health issues including substance use and co-morbid disorders.

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