Compassionate (Mindful Based) Eating

peace forkFor some people eating is an act that is undertaken without thought. For some it is an act that causes immense suffering, an act that destroys rather than nourishes, an act that is imbued with fear and violence. For some, the impulse to eat, to nourish the body, is something to be dominated and controlled. Compassionate eating, on the other hand, is about working with, instead of against, our need to eat, in a mindful, non-violent, nurturing way.

Many clients fear that if they eat compassionately, their intake of food will be out of control, their bodies overweight, and their lives chaotic. On the contrary, mindful, compassionate eating brings a natural order to our lives; it entails eating according to our natural wisdom, in harmony with life.


Garden of veg

Although eating is frequently an unconscious act, engaged in on average three times daily, it is a behaviour that is deeply influenced by the social, cultural and historical context we live in. If you examine some of the differences in eating habits among your friends and acquaintances you will see how family of origin, country of origin, religion, education, age, and socio-economic status, among other factors, are visible in what is on your plate.

How we eat is also deeply connected with how we feel and how we think. Many of us avoid eating, or eat at times when we are not hungry, or engage in other destructive behaviours in an effort to feel acceptable, or to gain control over an internal or external way of living that feels overwhelming. Most of the eating patterns that cause problems, or that are diagnosed as eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or other forms of dysfunctional relationship with food or the physical self or one’s appearance) are not about food; they are about psychological pain and emotions such as loneliness, anger, or sadness. Eating in a way that causes pain may stem from personal insecurity and low self-esteem. Some people eat in a way that fails to nourish simply because they have not developed healthy eating patterns in their family of origin. Disturbed eating patterns frequently develop in the aftermath of shock or trauma. Therefore, many people who suffer from distressed eating may need help with problems that have nothing at all to do with eating. They may, for example, need help to overcome trauma or depression. However, because distressed eating patterns tend to develop a vice like grip for those who suffer from them, help may also be required to learn a more compassionate way of eating.

Compassionate Eating also pertains to justice, for ourselves, for other lives and for the planet on which all lives depend equally for survival. The programmes at promote 100% plant diets as a way of respecting all life and connecting with the consequences of our eating choices for ourselves and others.

Because distressed eating is so replete with uncomfortable emotions like anger and sadness, many who suffer from these unhelpful coping patterns wish for unconscious, disconnected eating, a state of eating without conscious thought or emotion, and without connection to the wider implications of our food choices for us and for others. However, compassionate eating involves the opposite: conscious eating, as a way of preventing the suffering that can occur with disengaged, disconnected eating. Conscious eating entails being consciously aware of our thoughts, emotions, and senses as they pertain to food and eating. We have a choice about how we shop, prepare, and eat food. We have choices about what we eat, how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat. These choices affect us individually and collectively. Conscious eating empowers us to use our choice. It involves connection with the origins and consequences of those choices, and engagement with our thoughts, senses and feelings as we eat. When we eat consciously, we give ourselves the opportunity to nurture at many interconnected levels, not just physically but socially, and emotionally too.

Ecopsychology & The Impact of Our Food Choices

The food choices we make affect us physically; because our physical health is interconnected with our mental health, the food choices we make affect us psychologically too.


From an ecopsychological perspective, our food choices also affect the wider, human and non-human environment that we are embedded in. Food growing, harvesting, processing, transport, and trade impacts on many others, human and non-human, and on the planet we share. Research on human health, world hunger and climate change all coalesce in recommending a plant-based diet largely composed of unprocessed wholefoods. A diet that is congruent with our best human virtues is composed of ethically sourced, sustainable foods that cause the least harm and do the most good personally, socially, and environmentally. A plant-based diet is scientifically validated as being appropriate and healthy for all stages of life, and it is also an inexpensive way to eat. Referrals to a plant-based nutritionist are available through The Compassion Foundation if necessary.

Growing plants

Learning the skill of compassionate eating can be an extremely self-empowering act, increasing one’s sense of self-efficacy and belonging in this world. The realisation that the choices we make when shopping, preparing, and eating food, or even growing our own food, have such an interconnected impact presents us with the opportunity to treasure life, to engage in the act of eating as a deeply meaningful experience, and to act in ways that are congruent with some of the best virtues in life: compassion, justice, creativity, and generosity.

The Principles of Mindful Eating

Awareness & Attention to the Present

Compassionate eating is rooted in the moment by moment awareness necessary to be cognisant of suffering, and in having the knowledge and skills necessary to take action that alleviates suffering, allowing eating to be an act of nourishment.

Survival & Self-Soothing

Many people use food in an attempt to soothe psychological pain. The close alignment of food as a necessity for our survival, as well as a source of pleasure and comfort, makes it an easy target when our psychological self feels threatened. It is helpful to view distressed eating as an attempt to stuff down or comfort or control psychological discomfort. It is equally important to respect any attempt to soothe psychological distress, albeit these types of self-soothing are ineffective and damaging. It is equally important to learn new skills of effective and compassionate self-soothing that can help to ease the grip of harmful eating patterns.


Preparing food, eating, and satisfying hunger are very pleasurable activities. Immense enjoyment can be gained from mindfully engaging our senses and awareness while we eat. Contrary to the fears of many people who suffer from distressed eating, fully experiencing the pleasure of this activity helps us to gain pleasure from eating the right amount of the right food. For example, savouring a ripe peach in Summer begins with the senses of smell and touch, and culminate in the act of eating and satiety. Savouring food is a habit that can be learned, that will add pleasure and peace to the experience of eating.

Non-Judgemental Attention to Thoughts & Feelings


Compassionate or mindful eating: involves non-judgemental attention to the present. This enables us to be aware of our sensations of hunger and how they relate to our emotions and thoughts. With this awareness it is possible to use food appropriately and compassionately, eating in a way that nurtures on many levels.

Compassionate eating is a way of being aware, non-judgementally, of the effects of mindless eating. It is a way of eating with intent and attention in a way that feels good.

It is only by having non-judgemental, compassionate awareness that we can become aware of the interconnection of the earth that provides food, all the beings, human and non-human who are impacted upon by our food choices, and the individual and socio-cultural system we are embedded in that influence how we eat.

Eating in Alignment with Goals for Wellbeing

Vegetable garden

Awareness of this interconnection enables the insight necessary to make personal choices that are in alignment with our goals for personal, physical and psychological health, and with the wellbeing of the systems we live in.


J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Jun;103(6):748-65

J Am Diet Assoc. Volume 109, Issue 7, Pages 1266-1282 (July 2009)

Higgins, SG (2001) The Corporal Effects and Expression of Trauma: The Challenge to Counselling Psychologists. Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirement for MSc in Counselling Psychology to the University of Dublin, Department of Counselling Psychology, Trinity College.

Kristeller JL, Baer, RA, Wuillian-Wolever, R (2006) Mindfulness-based approaches to eating disorders. In Baer, R. (Ed.) (2006) Mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions: Conceptualization, application, and empirical support. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.

Kristeller JL and Hallett CB (1999) An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder. Journal of Health Psychology. (1999). Vol 4 (3). 357-363.

Macy, J and Young Brown, M (2010) Coming back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, New Society Publishers, Canada.

Pimentel and Pimentel, (2003) “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 660S-663S, © 2003, from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, pg. 662.

Rust, MJ (2004) Ecopsychology: Seeking Health in an Ailing World. Resurgence Magazine.

Terri, T, Hammond, M, Thomson, R, Bagdade, P (2007) Exploring the Use of Mindful Eating Training in the Bariatric Population, Bariatric Times. Vol 4 Num 9.