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Mechanical and Mindful Eating with Eating Disorders

A young brunette woman is eating a double cheeseburger

This post was written by Jessica Steinbach, MPH, RD.

Mechanical eating and mindful eating are terms often used in eating disorder recovery when describing “structures” of eating. This blog post explains these terms and can help you develop a better understanding of how mechanical and mindful eating can play a role in your eating disorder recovery. 

A big bowl of spaghetti

What is mechanical eating?

Mechanical eating is often described as following a specific meal plan, typically developed with team collaboration, on a relatively specific eating schedule. 

Often, the early stages of eating disorder recovery (particularly in treatment centers) begin with following a mechanical style of eating. 

Mechanical eating can be helpful for folks who are struggling with making decisions about when to nourish their bodies and how much food may be appropriate. 

Some folks may never feel safe, comfortable, or fulfilled with mechanical eating, and others may feel best with a mechanical style of eating for extended periods of time. 

Like all aspects of nutrition, deciding to follow a mechanical eating plan is individualized and should still center body autonomy. 

A young woman savoring a milkshake

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is a form of connected eating that encourages folks to be present while eating.

This form of eating involves attention to flavor, smells, texture, hunger, fullness and more. Mindful eating may be helpful in developing a more enjoyable and satisfying relationship with food. 

To learn more about mindful eating, here is a blog post that explores it further. Mindful eating can play a role in eating disorder recovery as a way to stay present and connected during meals, and as a way to work toward intuitive eating. 

A black woman smiling while eating

How to Eat Mindfully While Following a Meal Plan

Eating disorder recovery often welcomes a combination of mechanical and mindful eating. These two forms of eating do not need to be mutually exclusive. This may involve fully following any sort of meal plan determined by you and your team while remaining connected to your body during meal and snack times. Here are some tips for how to eat mindfully while following a meal plan:

Create a calming space

What is your eating environment like? Consider making any adjustments necessary to make your eating space as comfortable as possible. This may mean hanging up pictures, lighting a candle, putting on music, eating outside, etc. This may also require removal of anything that feels distracting or triggering. 

Check in with your body regularly

If it feels safe, do a body scan before you start eating. Assess your hunger level, regulate any tension or discomfort, and prepare your mind and body to be fully present during this eating experience. Continue to check in with your body throughout the meal. Are you enjoying the flavors, smells, textures of your food and/or drinks? Are you beginning to feel full? Make notes of anything that feels helpful to remember for the next time you eat.

Take breaks

If you notice that you start to dissociate during meals, take a break. Use any coping skills that you have developed with your team to remain grounded during eating experiences. If you are struggling with a flooding of emotions with each eating experience, reach out to your team. You may not be ready for mindfulness during eating and that is OK. Still looking for eating disorder treatment? Find help here


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