Mindfulness is often used to promote well being and help reduce stress and anxiety and considerable benefits have been shown from a large body of research in positive psychology. In essence mindfulness practice teaches us to pay full attention in the present moment, non judgementally to our physical and emotional experiences. 1
Several studies have looked at the potential benefits of applying these techniques to eating. Researchers point out that of the multiple daily decisions we make about food, most are unconscious often resulting in overeating and other unhealthy eating patterns. Mindful eating aims to raise our awareness of the internal and external environments before, during and after eating and the reasons behind some of our decisions we make with the aim of improving diet. As shown in Figure 1 mindful eating may explore the “why, what, when and where” of our food consumption as well as the “how”( including speed of eating) and “how much” (portion size).
Figure 1 The Mindful Eating Cycle
Mindful eating aims to promote awareness not only of the nutritional content of our food but other qualities such as the appearance, smell, taste and texture. It may focus attention on the environmental triggers to overeating, the thoughts and feelings that arise when we eat, how we deal with guilt or anxiety around food and the role of unhelpful distractions like TV or social media in causing overeating.
Several studies show that speed of eating is associated with higher energy intakes and greater risk of obesity. 2-3 In addition eating as a genuine response to hunger and satiety signals (intuitive eating) is strongly associated with a lower body mass index 4. Mindfully slowing eating and allowing a delay for satiety to register, may therefore be an effective strategy to help prevent or manage obesity.
Mindless consumption of large portion sizes of food and drink are also strongly linked with higher energy consumption and risk of obesity. 5 Some studies show those who score highest on measures of mindful eating, in particular those who pay attention to their emotions and feelings around eating, eat smaller portions of energy dense foods. 6 Even brief teaching of mindful eating techniques have been shown to reduce overeating on unhealthy snacks (such as chocolate chip cookies in one study) when we are particularly hungry. 7
In a recent review of 61 studies, researchers consistently found the larger the amount of food we serve ourselves the more is eaten . 8 Mindfully reducing triggers to overeating such as large portions and tableware sizes, repackaging or purchasing single portion package sizes and placing unhealthy foods or leftovers out of sight may be effective behaviour tools to moderate the types or quantities of food consumed.
Mindful eating strategies can help promote evidence based behaviour change commonly advised for improving health as recommended in public health interventions.
For example some of the effective eating behaviour strategies to help weight loss which may be promoted by mindful eating techniques are shown in shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Some evidence based eating behaviour strategies advised to help weight loss which can be promoted by mindful eating techniques
Adapted in part from NDR- UK 9402 Changing For Good 11
In addition to a role in weight management, mindful eating has been shown to help people improve diet in a wide range of conditions including eating disorders, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. 9-10 Regular practice may also increase awareness of the positive and nurturing opportunities of food preparation and consumption.
To be successful mindful eating needs to learnt and developed by regular and confident practice. For instance studies show that people who make permanent changes to eating patterns are more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
At present there are few large, randomised studies on mindful eating and further research would be useful. However, mindfulness techniques which can be taught may be a useful and effective addition to the toolbox for improving informed, conscious choices around eating which could include any food behaviour change strategy or related communication programme.
1. Ludwig DS and Kabat-Zinn J (2008) Mindfulness in medicine. JAMA. 300 : 1350-2
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18799450 (Accessed November 2015).
2. Leong SL ,Madden C, Gray A et al ( 2011) Faster self reported speed of eating is related to higher body mass index in a nationwide survey of middle –aged women. J Am Diet Assoc 111: 1192-7
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21802566 (Accessed November 2015).
3. Otsuka R, Tamakoshi, K Yatsuya H et al (2006) Eating fast leads to obesity: findings based on self-administered questionnaires among middle-aged Japanese men and women.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16710080 (Accessed November 2015).
4. Madden CE, Leong SL, Gray A et al ( 2012) Eating in response to hunger and satiety signals is reacted to BMI in a nationwide sample of 1601 mid – age New Zealand women. Public Health Nutr 15 : 2272-9 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22443858 (Accessed November 2015)
5. Wansink B (2011) B Mindless Eating : why we eat more than we think. Hay House UK. http://mindlesseating.org/ (Accessed November 2015).
6. Beshara M, Hutchinson AD and Wilson C ( 2013) Does mindfulness matter? Everyday mindfulness, mindful eating and self-reported serving size of energy dense foods among a sample of South Australian adults. Appetite 67: 25-9
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23548262 (Accessed November 2015).
7. Marchiori D and Papies EF ( 2014) A brief mindfulness intervention reduces unhealthy eating when hungry, but not the portion size effect. Appetite 75: 40-5
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24361312 (Accessed November 2015).
8. Hollands GJ, Shermilt, I Marteau TM et al (2015) Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Library September 2015.
(Accessed November 2015).
9. Kristeller JL, Wolever RQ (2011) Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: the conceptual foundation. Eating Disorders 19:49-61.
10. Miller CK, Kristeller JL, Headings A et al.(2012) Comparative effectiveness of a mindful eating intervention to a diabetes self-management intervention among adults with type 2 diabetes: a pilot study. J Acad Nutr Diet. 112:1835-1842.
11. Changing for good NDR- UK Ref 9402
http://www.ndr-uk.org/vmchk/Weight-management/Changing-for-Good.html (Accessed November 2015).