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Do You Need Discipline or Desire for Mindful Eating?

People often make the wrong assumptions about my eating. They look at me choosing nutrient-dense foods instead of going immediately for the fatty or sweet options, and they think I’m disciplined. But the reality is, when I’m making those kinds of food choices, it’s not because of discipline.

It’s because of desire.

I think what trips people us is that it’s not desire for the food as a means of instant gratification, of getting the immediate pleasure of those tasty treats (and I don’t deny that they’re usually tasty).

Instead, my desire is two-fold. Part of it is to eat foods I enjoy, but it’s also to feel good after eating. To have the energy to get on with the rest of my life.

Does this mean discipline doesn’t come into the picture?

It would be nice if I could say no, but that’s not quite true. But it’s probably a different kind of discipline than you immediately think of.

Discipline in mindful eating

The primary definition of discipline is to have control to follow the rules, usually with some form of punishment if you don’t obey. This is the type of discipline diets go by, but as you probably know, having rules often invites rebellion of some kind.

But another definition of discipline from Merriam-Webster is “orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior.”

This fits much better with mindful eating. When you’re looking to eat mindfully, you want to change your pattern of behavior and find a new way that works for you.

It also takes some practice and perhaps a bit of training to start noticing your old habits and identify how you want to change them. But again, it’s not about rules or punishment, simply observation and shifting patterns.

Similarly, even once you’ve started eating mindfully, you might feel like it takes discipline for certain aspects of it.

For example, I know a lot of people struggle with food preparation. But it’s easier to eat mindfully when you’ve got a supply of foods that you like and that give you the nutrition you want. And you do need to plan for that, including making space in your day for the time this takes.

You might be tempted to treat that as a “rule” and rebel against it. But it can help to remember what your underlying motivation is.

Desire fuels discipline

This is where desire comes back in the picture. If you want to feel good physically after you eat, and be able to do all the things you want, that can help with some of the areas you might not be as excited about.

So if you don’t get excited by the idea of cooking or chopping vegetables, think about what does get you excited. Maybe it’s being able to focus all day. Maybe it’s getting through the afternoon without nodding off. Maybe it’s being able to go out to a favorite activity in the evening instead of feeling like you can’t do anything except collapse on the couch.

Whatever it is, keep your focus on that while doing the food prep and see if it can pull you forward.

And remember that this isn’t about preparing foods you feel like you “should” be eating. They’re foods you like to eat for both nourishment and pleasure. This helps, because then you also desire those foods for themselves, as well as for how they make you feel.

Creating a positive feedback loop

What’s even better is when this turns into a positive feedback loop. When you take the time to prepare those foods, and then you feel great after eating them, it gives you a boost. You not only feel good physically, but you get internal validation: You’ve got this.

That makes it a little easier the next time you go shopping or do food planning, because you’re no longer only relying on the hope of feeling better. You’ve got experience to back you up. If you can let that bump you over the initial resistance, and you get the same good results, you’ll probably feel less reluctant next time. Remember, too, that as with anything else, that feeling of resistance can get worn down over time.

And this approach goes for all things, not just food.

For example, this time of year, I definitely have some resistance to going for walks in the cold. It takes some discipline to put on layers and head out the door. But what boosts me over that hump is the desire to feel the crisp air in my lungs, gaze into the electric blue sky, and see the clouds lit by the winter sun.

But this only works under two conditions.

One is that you’re focused on what youdesire. It can’t be what anyone else wants for you. And it really has to matter.

And two, you need to let yourself truly appreciate those moments when you get the results you want. Congratulate yourself, give yourself a reward (even something as small as a star or sticker), and focus on the memory. You want to be able to recall the event and how felt in detail, so you can revisit it for motivation moving forward.

Also, if you can, share that moment with someone else – it will make it even more real and satisfying.

Both/and, not either/or

As with so many things, the question of desire or discipline sets up a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. You need both of them, working together, especially in the beginning of learning something new.

If you’ve had your own experiences of positive feedback loops, I’d love to hear about them. And either way, I hope you can focus on what you desire for your life, and that keeping that in mind will help you get there.

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