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Mindful Eating Detour: Subconscious Shoulds

Note: I noticed a while ago that I had drifted away from many aspects of mindful eating. It took me a while to figure out why I got detoured. It was a combination of things, so this is part of a short series looking at all those elements. Also, for more information about the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, visit or my website.

How do you decide what to eat?

This may seem like a simple question, but it isn’t always. A lot of things can influence what you eat. As we discuss in the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, it helps to think about what you want, need, and have.

Most of the time, I know what I want. And it’s not that tricky to figure out what’s available. But how do I know what I need? My body can tell me, but it isn’t always easy to hear.

For instance, I thought I was paying attention to my body. But subconsciously, I was really following different instructions: what I thought I should be eating.

I discovered that some old suggestions from doctors and nurses had made themselves at home among my thoughts. They’d even gotten quite cozy, with curtains and comfy chairs. They had been there so long, they were part of the background noise in my mind. I couldn’t even tell them apart from my own thoughts – unless I was paying close attention.

Once I heard them more clearly, I realized I needed to re-evaluate their advice:

  • Eat 20 grams of protein with every meal

  • Always eat a fat when I have a carbohydrate

  • Have some kind of produce (fruit or vegetable) every time I eat

This type of “should” is particularly insidious because it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Protein is important for energy and strength, right? Fats make carbohydrates more digestible and also promote satiety. (Plus they’re tasty.) And aren’t fruits and vegetables always good for you?

The problem is, by making these into rules I needed to follow, I ignored what my body told me. This meant I often ate things I didn’t need – sometimes things I didn’t even want – to make sure I got in my protein or produce or fat.

I also put a lot of stress on myself by feeling like I couldn’t have fruit by itself, for instance. Or that having oatmeal for breakfast couldn’t possibly be enough, or it wasn’t enough of the right things.

Then a few weeks ago I decided I wanted to get back to eating more mindfully. I took stock of where I was at.

When I discovered these “shoulds,” I decided it was time to send them to a retirement community. They still call sometimes, but I’m doing much better at nodding, saying, “That’s interesting,” and then moving on to see what my body is telling me it needs.

And I have to say, it’s remarkably freeing and relieving to move away from those self-imposed rules. It’s so much easier, and more fun, to do what makes sense for me, and not do what other people think I should.

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