This is the 5th post in our 8-part blog series about eating disorders on campus.
Nothing is more stressful for a student who is in recovery from their eating disorder than trying to negotiate eating on campus. College living is full of obstacles to eating consistently and mindfully: buffets in the dining halls; eating between classes and on the go; staying up until 4 AM; social events involving food; and limited access to the grocery store or a working kitchen. While many students in treatment are given guidelines as to how to eat in a healthy manner, it is often difficult to implement those strategies in a campus setting but it is possible. A great resource for this task is the book, Mindful Eating 101: A Guide to Healthy Eating in College and Beyond by Dr. Susan Albers which we will reference throughout this post.
Mindfulness is an old concept that has, more recently become somewhat of a cultural catch phrase. Standing at a coffee shop bulletin board, you may notice advertisements for mindful meditation classes or yoga classes that promise skill development in the art of mindfulness or even magazine covers that stress the importance of mindful living. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness refers to the ability to bring one’s awareness completely to the present moment. In contrast, mindlessness, refers to behaving or doing things without much attention.
Consider that you are eating dinner in your dorm in front of the TV during your favorite night of television. As you laugh along with the show and get intrigued by products during the commercials, you occasionally pick up your phone and make plans for the evening and attempt to skim a chapter in your text book for tomorrow’s quiz. All the while, you also continue to go through the motions of eating your dinner…mindlessly. In this situation, your attention is likely focused on the characters and themes in the TV show and not on your food or your body’s response to the food. When this happens, it is common for people to eat more than they normally would because they aren’t really enjoying their food, and they aren’t in touch with the mechanisms in the body that tell us when we want to stop eating. In contrast, when you choose a meal from the dining hall and sit at a table to enjoy it with a friend but without other distractions, you may find that you eat more slowly, you savor the tastes of the food, and you have an increased awareness of your hunger/satiety cues, which allow you to stop when you feel full. This style of eating would be considered mindful eating.
Individuals who’ve struggled with an eating disorder or have chronically dieted often lose touch with their body’s natural ability to regulate food and eating processes. Sometimes they may need help establishing normal eating patterns again and re-connecting to their bodies. In eating disorder treatment, mindfulness is a concept that is used frequently in helping people to develop awareness of their thoughts, emotions, patterns, triggers, and hunger/fullness cues.
Eating mindfully is an important skill because it allows you to eat exactly what your body wants in just the right amounts. Restricting your food intake or dieting is not mindful because it denies your body of the food that it needs for fuel and nourishment. Bingeing is also not mindful eating because it exceeds the amount of food that your body wants or needs and may cause you to feel uncomfortably full or even pained. Mindfulness involves trusting your body to maintain a balance. Learning to eat mindfully can take time, so be gentle with yourself as you practice the steps that will allow you to eat intuitively in response to your own body’s needs.
Dr. Albers outlines the seven habits of mindful eaters in her book. These habits are the key components of learning to eat mindfully.
- Awareness: Use your senses to gather information about the world. By using sight, sound, hearing, touch and taste, you can become attuned to what is going on around you at any moment. Turning this inward, you can better recognize your hunger, fullness and thirst cues to help guide your eating choices.
- Observation: Simply notice your thoughts and feelings as an impartial observer. The key is to do this without judgment. For example, if you have the thought “I am fat,” simply notice that it is there, label it as a negative thought, and move on.
- Shifting out of autopilot: Some of our routines become so mundane that it is difficult to pay close attention to the details. These routines sometimes enable mindless eating or skipping meals completely, and so you may want to change the routine or bring awareness to it in order to be more mindful. Try waking up a few minutes earlier to fit in breakfast or consider meeting a classmate someplace for lunch that you’ve never been before.
- Finding the gray area: Black and White thinking refers to thinking in extremes. Food is good or bad. Someone is fat or skinny. Clearly, life is not that simple. To be mindful, one must be flexible and avoid operating in extremes. An example of this is someone who is on a diet that forbids bread; even if a person wants bread they will deprive themselves of it because of the diet. Sometimes, this deprivation can lead to the person bingeing on bread. In contrast, a mindful eater would recognize the particular craving and allow herself to have an appropriate serving of bread at the time when she wants it.
- Be in the moment: As a college student, you may find yourself frequently eating in class, while cramming for a test, or even while walking or driving across campus. Multi-tasking like this is not considered mindful because you cannot use your senses to enjoy the food or to stay aware of your hunger and fullness cues. Ideally, a mindful eater would sit with their meal on a plate at a table and devote their full attention to eating. However, this is not always a realistic goal for a college student. Try making small changes that help you stay present during meals, such as always sitting down to eat and turning off your phone to remind yourself to stop texting and posting on Facebook until you finish your lunch.
- Non judgmental: Notice judgmental thoughts and proceed with compassion instead of criticism. Often at the campus dining halls, various stations offer different types and categories of food. If you notice yourself judging a particular food station ( “I can’t order from that section, everything is full of fat.”) notice the criticism attached to the food and label it (“there I go thinking of foods in good and bad categories again.”) Practice compassion and focus on truthful statements (“this food may have fat in it, but I need some fat to help me protect my organs”). Try to incorporate different foods from each of the various food stations at the dining hall throughout the course of the week.
- Acceptance: Accept things for how they are as opposed to how you think they should be. Dr. Albers gives a great example in her book of accepting your shoe size, even if you wish it were different, because there really is nothing that you can do about it. As much as you may wish to have smaller or larger feet, eventually you must let go and accept that your feet are the size that they are.
If you’ve struggled with disordered eating, it may be easier to practice mindfulness at first with something that is not related to food. Try this simple exercise to practice the aforementioned skills. Close your eyes and simply count how many sounds you can hear in the room. When you think you have counted the sounds in the room, push yourself to try to hear beyond the room. Can you hear sounds from outside? In the hallway? What about the sounds closest to you…can you hear your own breathing? The sounds that you hear are happening in the here and now; congratulations…you have been successful at being mindful of the present moment! Now you might want to try doing a similar exercise with your food, using your senses to guide your eating.
Stay tuned for “Part 2″ about Mindful Eating on Campus with some more helpful hints. You can also see all of the previous posts in this blog series at, Battling Body Image Concerns and Disordered Eating on Campus.
Written by Jennifer Moran, PsyD, College Liaison at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt