“Struggles with eating, and subsequently weight, are rarely just about food.”
Stress, habit, the unconscious need to suppress difficult emotions, or boredom can cause us to eat more than we want to. A hunger for higher meaning and purpose can leave us feeling empty even when we seem to have everything. Meditation has the potential to help with all of these things.
While many people think of it as contemplation or deep thinking, meditation actually refers to training in mindfulness — being aware of and accepting all moment-to-moment experiences, including inner (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and outer (sounds, sights, events).
The practice of meditation is about relaxing in order to focus: a daily session in which we intentionally focus our minds on something, such as our breath or a word. When the mind inevitably strays to a thought or emotion, we bring our attention back to the chosen focus. By letting thoughts and feelings pass without judging them, most regular meditators describe feeling more relaxed, less anxious andtherefore less disturbed by negative thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
How Meditation Can Help Eating Struggles
Practicing meditation regularly can help us deal positively with any problem that’s triggered or aggravated by stress. Stress causes us to breathe shallowly and hold tension in our bodies. By repeatedly practicing letting go of thoughts and feelings as soon as we notice them, we train our mind and bodies to recognize when they are stressed and react differently.
People with eating struggles also do better by learning to truly nourish themselves. Meditation is a way to nourish ourselves with our attention. It is a way to befriend ourselves.
After only 12 weeks of daily practice, meditators experience less activity in the parts of the brain associated with the perception of threat, anxiety, fear, distrust or hostility — and increased activity in the part of the brain associated with relaxation, compassion, and acceptance. The areas of the brain that are more active with memory, attention, focus and decision-making thicken even in people who haven’t been meditating very long. No matter what meditation method is used, practitioners develop concentration and the ability to abide with feelings, events, or sensations as they are, without needing to change them.
Meditation can be very useful for people who struggle with eating. The relaxed, upright posture produces a calmer, more balanced emotional state. Watching the mind, being aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations, and bringing the mind back to a focus gradually trains us to be a “witness” rather than “victim” of our own states. Every time we bring the mind back to the focus, it is like exercising a muscle in the gym—the ability to let go of disturbances and focus the mind grows stronger. Gradually, we recognize that thoughts and feelings are temporary experiences, arising and falling away like waves in the ocean.
Starting the Practice
You can make daily meditation a habit with the steps outlined in the sidebar to the right. It is easy to get discouraged and quit, especially if we set high expectations for ourselves. The benefits we get from regular practice can keep us going, if we are realistic about how long we ask ourselves to sit, and if we don’t expect to attain exalted states.
Note that meditation is not for everyone. As we begin meditation, our thoughts and feelings may seem to worsen – become more intense – although actually what we are experiencing is just a greater awareness of them. Emotional stability is important, so people who are severely depressed or vulnerable to psychosis are not advised to meditate.
Smith, Jean. Breath Sweeps Mind: A First Guide to Meditation Practice, Berkeley, CA: A Tricycle Book, 1998.
This FitBriefing was written by Gretchen Rose Newmark, MA, RD, LD, a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in eating disorders in Portland, OR. She teaches meditation individually and to groups, and has taught hatha yoga. She is also a Spiritual Director, focusing on people’s religious or spiritual lives.
This brief overview reflects the author’s Buddhist meditation training; other traditions, including Christian and Jewish, have meditation methods as well.