The Shortcomings of Symptom-Focused Diets

The majority of weight loss approaches are “symptom-focused.” They emphasize losing excessive pounds (the symptom), and consider the causes to be relatively superficial, based in eating behaviors and food choices. It’s true that our behaviors and choices lead to poor health and weight gain, but why do we behave that way in the first place?

We don’t desire to lose weight for its own sake. The desire to lose weight satisfies a deeper desire – to improve our health, be more attractive, etc.

In the same way, there’s something deeper underneath our compulsive eating behaviors.

Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is actually “emotional eating.” Aha! So the deeper reason for this kind of overeating is to manage or sedate uncomfortable emotions.

Our Dance With Food

Our dance with food can be better understood by looking at four aspects of our inner experience:

  • body
  • behavior
  • thoughts
  • emotions


The body is the first stop on the highway of mindfulness. The great Irish novelist James Joyce wrote that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” As odd as it seems, this is also true of millions who struggle with food. But what does it mean to “live a short distance” from your body? It means that we give relatively little awareness to the body, reserving almost all of our awareness for our thoughts (the mind). Not sure you believe this? You can test out my premise with a brief exercise: Set a timer for two minutes, then close your eyes. Try to remain inwardly aware of your physical bodily sensations without drifting into thoughts – that’s your only goal. (If you find that you drifted into thoughts, that is the inner experience of “living a short distance from your body.”)

Cultivating mindfulness of the body can powerfully transform your eating. Mindfulness gets you back in touch with your body’s natural hunger and satiety cues. You begin to eat when you’re truly hungry and stop when you’ve had enough. You also gain the priceless feedback of the body’s subtle signals about what you eat, how fast you eat, and how much you eat.

Mindfulness of the body, particularly breathing, also reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes calm and tranquility. As a result, tendencies to “stress eat” will ebb.


Having mindfully grounded yourself in the body, you can make your next stop, which is mindfulness of eating behaviors. You can begin by giving more attention to the sensory experience of food (tasting), and eating (sensations of chewing, swallowing). You can also bring awareness to the sensations of hunger and satiety as you eat, as well as to signals from the body that the type or amount of food you’re eating isn’t appropriate.

Bringing intentional awareness to these inner sensations and behaviors is the first step to stopping out-of-control behaviors. You can’t stop or control something if you aren’t aware of it in the first place!

Finally, eating mindfully gives you the precious opportunity to enjoy the rich sensory experience of food, which you may have rarely experienced. Because mindful eating helps you deeply appreciate food, you can get the same or more satisfaction from food while eating less of it!


Our next stop is the mind, which is where the intentions behind our behaviors (conscious or unconscious) take shape. Nearly all of our actions – and most fixated or unconscious behaviors – are preceded by thoughts (usually thoughts we’re not fully conscious of). Being mindful of a thought means seeing a thought as a thought, rather than automatically acting it out (which is what we usually do).

Being mindful of a thought such as “I need some Fritos!” gives you the opportunity to not act upon that thought. For the first time, you realize you have a choice – the choice to not mechanically and unconsciously act out with food.


Mindfulness gives you powerful tools for overcoming emotional eating. When you’re mindful of an emotion you are liberated from the need to manage or sedate it with food. Why? Because when you’re mindful of boredom or anger, at that moment you aren’t the boredom or anger. You’re the witness of boredom or anger. And what is aware of boredom isn’t bored. Not being bored, you aren’t suffering from boredom, and so you don’t need to seek food to sedate it. You can simply watch it. Hello, boredom!

As you mindfully watch your emotions, deeper and deeper, you’ll also discover that boredom, anger, anxiety, desire, and other emotions or states that cause you to overeat, are transient. They may only last seconds or minutes before disappearing, like bubbles blown onto the breeze. If they are that insubstantial, maybe you didn’t need to sedate them with food after all!

The Magic of Mindful Eating

Cultivating mindfulness of your body, eating behaviors, thoughts, and emotions can be practiced as the foundation of literally any diet or way of eating. As your mindfulness deepens, you will naturally and effortlessly be drawn towards a way of eating that is healthier, less fixated, and more enjoyable. You may discover that your body intuitively knew all along what and how much to eat. Maybe you don’t need another fad diet. Maybe you just needed mindfulness.

Doug Hanvey, M.S., is the author of The Mindfulness Diet program.