You’ve probably heard a lot about Mindfulness and Mindful Eating in recent years. It seems like there are endless tips, tricks, apps and websites dedicated to them, but what actually is it all and why should you bother trying it? We took the time to dig a little deeper so you can understand exactly that and some of the science behind it.
What is Mindfulness?
First things first, in order to understand what Mindful Eating is, we need to understand mindfulness. To put it simply, mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of what is happening inside and outside of yourself, or, being fully present in the moment. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgement.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating involves focusing your full attention and awareness on the experience of eating. When you eat mindfully you pay attention to the colours, flavours, textures, temperature, and even the sound of eating, how your body feels (hungry, full, nourished, satisfied), and how the mind acts when we’re eating.
When we say ‘how the mind acts’ we’re talking about whether you are focussed on eating and drinking or if your mind is distracted by the TV, your phone, taking a phone call, or perhaps doing work. Being mindful of these distractions enables you to recognise them and bring your attention back to eating.
What’s all the Hype About?
Mindfulness and Mindful Eating have their origins in Buddhist practice, however, in modern medical practice it’s used to complement medical treatment to help patients deal with stress, pain and disability (Kabat), but beyond this there are some great benefits in everyday life.
Improved mindfulness has been associated with improved wellbeing (Brown) with respect to anxiety and depression (Hoffmann) and eating behaviours such as eating disorders (Wanden-Berghe, Kristeller) and food cravings (Alberts).
Ban the Binge
Systematic reviews have shown that mindful eating can result in a clear improvement for the reduction and treatment of binge eating with minimal side effects (Katterman)
For example, a study completed in 2001 (Telch et al) found that 89% of women involved in the trial had completely stopped binge eating using dialectical therapy.
Dialectical Therapy: Learning to focus on the present moment and to acknowledge one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours and bodily sensations without the need to change them. Essentially – it’s leaning mindfulness!
Mindfulness assists by helping you recognise your body’s signals of hunger and fullness to prevent overeating. The skills developed in mindful practices may also improve the awareness of emotional and sensory cues (Kristeller).
A study aimed to look at the relationship between mindful eating and weight management using an intuitive eating scale found that high intuitive eating scores were associated with an increase in the enjoyment and pleasure of food, lower BMI, fewer dieting behaviours and food anxieties (Smith).
Mindfulness-based interventions have also been shown to improve HbA1c (glycated haemoglobin) in people with diabetes (Rosenzweig). Which may be an interesting area of research as psychological distress has been associated with the impaired glycaemic control of people with type 2 diabetes mellitus (Peyrot, Rosenzweig).
Stop the Snacking
A recently released study - Seguias and Tapper (2018) - looked at the effects of a mindful eating strategy on the potential to consume a high calorie snack after eating a meal. The study split participants into two groups with one group consuming a meal in silence and the other who ate a meal with an audio clip encouraging them to focus on the sensory properties of the food while eating (encouraging mindful eating practices). The results showed that the participants paying attention to the sensory properties while eating consumed significantly fewer snacks compared to the control group.
So paying attention to what you’re eating can mean that you’re significantly less likely to snack! How’s that for a life hack?!
As you get better at mindful eating practices you’ll also get better at recognising your physical hunger and fullness cues. You'll be able to distinguish between emotional and actual, physical hunger (Dalen et al).
Anyone been in high-stress or highly emotional situation where you just want to run off & get a slice of cake, 2 packs of Oreos & a kebab because you’re suddenly hungry? Yep, us too. But if you’ve been working on your mindful eating, you’ll be able to recognise that’s emotional hunger, not actual hunger. The result? You don’t eat unnecessarily, and/ or you’re able to make a conscious choice to not overdo it by just getting the one piece of cake.
Why is Mindful Eating everywhere?
Mindful Eating has become a more wide spread practice in recent years not only because of the recognised benefits, but also because as a population we have seen a positive shift in our focus towards our approach to food and wellbeing as a whole.
This shift in focus has been in part driven by the rise of obesity and obesity related diseases in Australia and increased awareness of the effect that food has both emotionally and physically.
Obesity is a multifaceted and complex disease; however psychological and cognitive processes have been shown to play a role on dietary intake. There are several theories that suggest that eating behaviours and weight gain may be explained through poor recognition of physical hunger & satiety cues (Micanti)(Dalen), an inability to distinguish between emotional arousal & physical hunger (Bruch), and/ or a heightened sensitivity to external food cues (Schachter).
Conventional weight loss interventions are known to have unsuccessful long term results, with approximately 80% of individuals who lose weight returning to their initial weight within the first 5 years (Byrne). Mindful eating has been set aside as a novel approach to weight management as most interventions focus on restricted caloric intake rather than the association between internal and external food cues and approaching food in an enjoyable and satisfying way. However, when used in combination, it’s possible that there may be a most positive weight loss result long term.
Limitations to Research on Mindful Eating
While there are some great studies out there, it is important to note that often studies of mindful eating and its effect on weight loss are limited as most studies use a multi-pronged treatment approach. This makes it difficult to determine the extent to which mindfulness contributes to weight loss compared to other approaches that are also being used.
Further studies using concrete measurements on large populations are required to understand the full impact that mindful eating can have on weight management.
Getting Started with Mindful Eating
- Observe your current eating habits. Are you eating slow? Fast? In front of the screen? What triggered you to eat?
- Start small – focus on one meal at a time, whether its breakfast lunch or dinner.
- Find support, start with a friend, family member, coworker or partner.
- Lose the guilt and judgement - Be kind to yourself! It’s about taking small steps and building on them you can’t change what you eat and how you approach food all at once!
Mindfulness and Mindful Eating practices have been around for thousands of years, and are likely to stick around for a while, particularly with their recent growth in popularity. It might not take thousands of years for you to get started with Mindful Eating, but it’s important to note that it does take time – little by little you can take a more positive approach to food which in turn may have a positive impact on your relationship with food and overall wellbeing.
Mindful eating can mean many different things to many different people and for some it might be a case of making a few small changes like turning off the TV and your phone while you eat dinner.
Let us know in the comments what you think of mindful eating & any tips and tricks for those trying it out!
Alberts, J.H., Mulkens, S., Smeets, M., and Thewissen, R. Coping with food cravings: Investigating the potential of a mindfulness-based intervention. Appetite. 2010; 55: 160–163
Brown K, Ryan R. The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol 2003;4:822-48
Bruch H. Psychological Aspects of Overeating and Obesity. Psychosomatics. 1964;5:269–274.
Byrne S, Cooper Z, Fairburn C. Weight maintenance and relapse in obesity: a qualitative study. International Journal of Obesity. 2003;27(8):955–962.
Dalen J, Smith BW, Shelley BM, Sloan AL, Leahigh L, Begay D. Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complement Ther Med. 2010;18(6):260–264.
Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A.A., and Oh, D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2010; 78: 169–183
Katterman, S. Kelinman, B., Hood, M., Nackers, L & Corsica, J., Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviours 2014. 15: 197-204.
Kabat-Zinn J (2003) Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10:144–56.
Kristeller, J.L. and Hallett, C.B. An exploratory study of a meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder. J Health Psychol. 1999; 4: 357–363
Kristeller JL, Wolever RQ. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: the conceptual foundation. Eat Disord. 2011;19(1):49–61.
Micanti et al., The relationship between emotional regulation and eating behaviour: a multidimensional analysis of obesity psychopathology. J. Eat Weight Disord. 2017; 22 (1): 105-115.
Peyrot, M., McMurry, J.F., and Kruger, D.F. A biopsychosocial model of glycemic control in diabetes: Stress, coping and regimen adherence. J Health Soc Behav. 1999; 40: 141–158
Robinson E, Aveyard P, Daley A, Jolly K, Lewis A, Lycett D et al. (2013) Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. Am J Clin Nutr 97:728–42.
Rosenzweig, S., Reibel, D.K., Greeson, J.M. et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is associated with improved glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus: A pilot study. Altern Ther Health Med. 2007; 13: 36–38
Seguias and Tapper. The effect of mindful eating on subsequent intake of a high calorie snack. Appetite 2018;121:93-100
Schachter S, Rodin J. Obese humans and rats. Lawrence Erlbaum; 1974.
Smith T & Hawks S., Intuitive Eating, Diet Composition, and the Meaning of Food in Healthy Weight Promotion. American Journal of Health Education 2013; 37 (3): 130-136
Telch, C.F., Agras, W.S., & Linehan, M.M (2001). Dialectical behaviour therapy for binge eating disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 1061-1065.
Wanden-Berghe, R.G., Sanz-Valero, J., and Wanden-Berghe, C. The application of mindfulness to eating disorders treatment: A systematic review. Eat Disord. 2011; 19: 34–48