Mindful Eating and Treating Obesity

mindful eating

In recent years, the word “mindfulness” has gained popularity in both media and scientific literature.  Many of us have heard it in contexts such as: Mindful living, mindful eating, mindful sleeping, or mindful exercise. First, let’s take a closer look at the concept of “mindfulness.”

The word “mindfulness” is derived from the Sanskrit word “smr-ti.” Some of the translations are: “to remember,” “presence of mind,” and “bare attention.” Often the concept of mindfulness and the practice of meditation are linked. The word “meditation” derives from Latin “meditari,” which means “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts has described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Practicing Mindfulness

In medical research, investigators across many areas of health sciences are studying the effects of mindfulness practice on health. Some of the formal mindfulness programs developed for clinical treatments include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for pain management and stress-related disorders, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for prevention of major depression relapse, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to treat borderline personality disorder.(1) Early results from studies in the areas of behavioral health (such as anxiety and mood disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders) and chronic and lifestyle diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity, and overweight) have been positive. Studies show that mindfulness has a profound and unique effect on brain function.(2) Positive findings include lower cortisol levels in response to stress, decreased perceived pain, and improved success in treating conditions such as psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, ADHD, and sleep disturbance.(2) Mindfulness practice helps individuals develop skills for self-regulation by improving awareness of emotional and sensory cues, which are also important in altering one’s relationship with food.

Mindful Eating - Why Is It Important?

So, how does this concept of mindful eating apply and why is it important? According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American spends two-and-a-half hours a day eating. And while we are eating, more than half the time, we're doing something else like working, driving, reading, watching television, or fiddling with an electronic device. (3) The act of eating becomes passive, and we're not fully aware of it. This mindless eating may contribute to chronic health issues.

Mindful eating means being fully attentive to our food – as we buy, prepare, serve, and eat it.(3) Listed below are the core components of a mindfulness-based eating program:(4)

  • Cultivating Mindfulness: Developing skills such as directing attention, disengaging reactivity, and being non-judgmental, and bringing them into the eating experience.
  • Cultivating Mindful Eating: Putting the above skills into action.
Concept Exercise
Becoming familiar with feeling of hunger Breathing exercises, body scan, hunger meditation and journaling
Developing awareness of taste satisfaction: savoring and enjoying food Eating favorite foods such as chocolate, cheese and crackers, and paying attention to sensations, journaling
Making mindful choices based on both ‘liking’ and health Choice: chips, cookies, or grapes.  Reading labels. Pre-planning and managing social influences
Developing awareness of satiety (fullness) Fullness awareness rating/scale during pot-luck dinner, favorite meal
Awareness of negative self-judgement related to eating Identifying black and white thinking.  Going to all-you-can-eat buffet and ‘surfing the urge’; experiencing “I blew it” mindset

Developing and incorporating mindful eating into our daily lives may require a little adjusting to and may take more than a few attempts. It is important that we practice kindness, patience, and a non-judgmental attitude, and use each eating occasion as a learning moment. Here are some practical tips:

  • Come to the table with an appetite, but not when ravenously hungry.
  • Eat without distractions.
  • Take five deep breaths before eating.
  • Place your food on an attractive (or your favorite) plate or bowl.
  • Start with a small portion.
  • Appreciate your food. Pause for a minute or two before beginning a meal. Express gratitude.
  • Bring all senses to the table. Pay attention to color, texture, aroma, ingredients, and seasoning.
  • Take small bites.
  • Chew thoroughly.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Pay attention to fullness cues and stop eating once you begin to feel satisfied.
  • When you go out, have some healthy snacks handy, in case you get hungry.

References:

  1. Mindfulness-Based interventions for Obesity-related eating behaviors.  O’Reilly et al. Obes Rev. 2014 June; 15(6): 453–461.
  2. Mindfulness in Medicine.  Ludwig D., Kabat-Zinn J. JAMA, September 17, 2008—Vol 300, No. 11
  3. 8 steps to Mindful Eating.  Harvard Women’s Health Watch. January 2016.
  4. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT). Eating Disorders, 19:49–61, 2011

This article was written by Dr. Sunil Daniel, MD, FTOS. Dr. Daniel is an internal medicine physician in Madison, NJ.