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University Counseling Center

Mindful Eating on Campus

One of the more stressful challenges for a college student is trying to practice healthy eating habits on campus. College life is full of obstacles to eating consistently: 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. One strategy is to learn the art of mindful eating, based on the concept of 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 the student eating dinner in front of the TV while texting friends, reviewing an article and browsing through Facebook. When this happens, it is common to eat more than normal because the student is not enjoying the food and is not in touch with the mechanisms in the body that tell us when to stop eating. In contrast, if a student sits down to enjoy a meal with a friend and eat more slowly, they will likely have an increased awareness of hunger cues. This style of eating is considered mindful eating.

Eating mindfully is an important skill because it allows us to eat exactly what the body needs in just the right amounts. Mindfulness involves trusting the body to maintain a healthy balance.

Individuals who struggle with disordered eating or those who have chronically dieted often lose touch with their body’s natural ability to regulate food and eating processes. In some cases, students may need help establishing normal eating patterns and reconnecting to their bodies. When working with students, use the following key components suggested by Dr. Susan Albers, author of “Mindful Eating 101: A Guide to Healthy Eating and Beyond”:

  • Awareness: Use the senses to gather information about the world. By using sight, sound, hearing, touch and taste, we become attuned to what is going on around us at any moment. Turning this inward, we can better recognize hunger, fullness and thirst cues to help guide eating choices.
  • Observation: Simply notice your thoughts and feelings as an impartial observer. The key is to do this without judgment. For example, if we 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 we may want to change the routine or bring awareness to it in order to be more mindful.
  • 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 recognizes the particular craving and allows themselves an appropriate amount of bread at the time they want it.
  • Be in the moment: College students typically multitask, including at meal times. 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 to stay present during meals, such as always sitting down, turning off the phone, stopping texting and stopping posting on Facebook until lunch is done.
  • 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 we notice ourselves 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.”)
  • Acceptance: Accept things for how they are as opposed to how we think they should be. Dr. Albers gives a great example in her book of accepting our shoe size, even if we wish it were different, because there really is nothing that can be done about it.

Deborah Engler, MSW
CollegeResponse Program Manager
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