The Science Behind Mindful Eating

The Science Behind Mindful Eating

What is Mindfulness?

The idea of mindfulness is not new, but it’s definitely growing in popularity. Mindfulness can be defined as a “quality of consciousness that is characterized by continually attending to one’s moment-to-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions with an open, non-judgmental approach.” Mindfulness involves awareness of one’s situation without judgement. Interventions in an array of health issues, ranging from anxiety to substance abuse, have long employed mindfulness practices. More recently, research has been done on the effects of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) on eating behaviors, particularly those targeted toward improving unwanted eating behaviors such as binge eating (consumption of very large amounts of food and loss of control over eating), emotional eating (overconsumption of food in response to emotional arousal) and external eating (eating in response to external food-related cues). MBIs have also been studied in relation to weight loss and weight maintenance. In these cases, MBIs involve training individuals to experience and attend to their eating behaviors in the present moment without judgement.

How Do Mindfulness-Based Interventions Relate to Mindful Eating?

Research studies using MBIs to train an individual to attend to his or her eating behaviors without judgement have differed from study to study. Some interventions employed included Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, The Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale, The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire and The Mindful Eating Questionnaire. Examples of these interventions include using an answer scale from “never/rarely” to “usually/always” to convey prompts such as “When a restaurant portion is too large, I stop eating when I’m full” or “I snack without noticing I am eating.”

Despite the slight differences in interventions, the goals of these studies remain consistent: to identify whether or not mindfulness and/or mindful eating skills may improve unhealthy eating behaviors.

While there is no single agreed-upon definition of mindful eating, the literature suggests that it generally employs one or more of the following:

  • Mindfully attending to the eating experience by noticing the smell, texture and taste of the food
  • Reducing the speed of eating
  • Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes, or neutral) without judgment
  • Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating

Research on Mindful Eating and Effects on Eating Behaviors

Though research on the effectiveness of MBIs on eating behaviors is still relatively new, the results have been promising. Several studies have examined the effects of employing MBIs on the incidence of binge eating, emotional eating, external eating and weight gain or weight maintenance.

Binge eating

Two literature reviews on mindfulness-based interventions found that these interventions decreased the incidence of binge eating episodes. These results were strongest when mindfulness-based interventions specifically addressed eating behaviors and were combined with cognitive behavioral therapies (which involve learning how to change unhelpful thinking patterns and/or behaviors). It’s worth noting that results did not improve when the intervention employed a general mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program without including content related to eating behaviors.

Emotional eating

A systematic review found that emotional eating improved across the majority of studies that targeted this eating behavior. Another review found similar results except when they contained participants who were not recruited for emotional eating concerns and/or reported low levels of emotional eating at baseline. Generally, the MBIs were most effective when they included both a mindful eating intervention and a cognitive behavioral acceptance intervention. Those with only the MBSR did not statistically significantly improve emotional eating outcomes.

External eating

Findings from a literature review on mindful eating, mindfulness and intuitive eating indicate that mindfulness can help reduce external eating by reducing the responsiveness of individuals to external cues such as appealing food packaging or advertisements and time of day. This review also suggested that mindful eating techniques are most effective when paired with acceptance techniques.

Weight gain or weight maintenance

The available evidence on mindfulness and weight loss suggests that mindfulness training alone, without supplemental behavioral weight management strategies or guidance, may not produce significant or consistent weight loss. Additionally, most studies have not been assessed longer than a few months, so long-term effects of weight have yet to be studied.

Limitations, Summary and Future Discussions

The effect of mindfulness-based interventions on unhealthy eating behaviors is encouraging. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that there were limitations to these reviews. Many of the studies had different target populations and used different interventions. Additionally, the study participants tended to be very similar in gender, ethnicity and age: most were white, adult females. The results of these studies warrant further research and follow-up on the longer-term effects of MBIs. Despite these limitations, these findings add to the growing evidence that mindfulness and mindful eating can improve unhealthy eating behaviors.

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