Seventh-grade students at McLean School in Potomac, Md., unwrap a piece of chocolate.
“Pick it up and hold it in your hand,” says Frankie Engelking. “What do you feel?” she asks. “Think about where this chocolate may have come from. Close your eyes and gently smell it.”
“This is so hard,” one student says.
“When can we eat it?” asks another.
But they can’t eat it just yet.
“Put it in your mouth. Let it sit on your tongue,” Engelking says. “Feel the texture. What do you notice?”
Engelking directs a program on student and community health at the school, which has all grades from kindergarten through high school. Right now she is guiding the students through a “mindful” eating exercise. It’s part of a school-wide program that focuses on mindfulness. That term refers to an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
Students usually find mindful eating to be strange and confusing the first time they try it, Engelking admits. “It takes practice, but they start to get curious,” she says. “They like finding something new about a food they’ve been eating for years.”
They’re able to do so because they slow down and really experience the food. They engage all of their senses. They eat slowly. And they focus completely on what is happening between their body and the food. “When your senses are engaged you become more aware of what and how you are eating,” Engelking explains. “The experience,” she observes, becomes “much more satisfying.”
This approach contrasts with how most people eat most of the time: mindlessly. Eating mindlessly can lead to an unintentional increase in how much food people down. And that can lead to weight gain.
Instead, research now shows, learning to eat mindfully can empower people to make conscious choices about what — and how much — to eat. That can lead to weight loss and better health. Mindful eating can even be used to combat eating disorders.
Ever chomped through a large bucket of popcorn during a movie, only to find you’re hungry when the show’s over? You consumed fat and calories equal to four sausages, six eggs with cheese and four strips of bacon! But you don’t remember doing it, so you think you could eat more.
That’s what Brian Wansink at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., calls mindless eating. His research lab focuses on people’s eating behavior. Their goal is to figure out how to help people make better food choices.
People “eat more with their eyes than with their stomach,” Wansink says. Unless people see how much they have eaten, their brains may not register that they are full.
Wansink’s team has done many studies that show just how mindlessly we eat. They gave movie-goers free popcorn and measured how much they ate. People with bigger buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn. What about when the popcorn was 14 days old and seriously stale? People still ate it. And those given bigger buckets of stale popcorn again ate more — 32 percent more — than those who received smaller buckets.
People eating chicken wings eat 34 percent more when the bones are bussed away from tables, Wansink found in another experiment. Bones left on the table are a growing pile of evidence about how much food has been consumed. When they are not there, people underestimate how much they have consumed, he says.
Mindless eating isn’t just a problem in movie theaters or all-you-can-eat restaurants. People tend to eat mindlessly most of the time, Wansink warns. We eat in front of the TV or while reading. We eat while talking with friends, stressing about upcoming assignments or worrying about personal relationships. When someone’s brain is otherwise occupied, it simply doesn’t register how much has just been eaten.
Mindfully eating less
Mindful eating exercises, like the one Engelking did with her students, help bring the focus back to food. That can reduce the number of calories consumed, finds Christian Jordan. He is a psychologist in Canada at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
In one study, Jordan and his team found that people who reported being more mindful also were less likely to overeat. And those who were less mindful said they were more likely to eat too much. Such a relationship is known as a correlation. When two things are correlated, we have no way of knowing whether one condition caused the other. So Jordan’s team did another study to test whether mindfulness truly affects eating habits.
They recruited 60 college students. Each came into the lab, laid on an exercise mat and listened to a 15-minute relaxation recording. Some participants heard a recording that directed them to focus on their breathing, sensations and various parts of the body. These are mindfulness exercises. The others were simply directed to relax. They made no changes to their behaviors. In science, this is known as a control group.
After this relaxation session, the students were given three bowls filled with pre-weighed amounts of M&M candy, pretzels and almonds. They were invited to eat all they wanted. But before they left they had to rate what they had eaten. After they’d gone, the researchers weighed the bowls to determine how much each person had eaten from each bowl. They used this information to calculate how many calories each participant had downed.
Those who had spent 15 minutes doing a mindfulness exercise ate 25 percent fewer calories than those in the relaxation-only group. The results suggest that mindfulness may actually cause a change in eating behavior, Jordan now concluses. Mindfulness, he suspects, “may make you pay more attention to bodily sensations that tell you when you’re full so you consume less.”
Mindful eating, better health
Such mindfulness also can lead to weight loss and better health, finds Frederick Hecht. He studies the effects of meditation and yoga on health at the University of California, San Francisco.
Hecht’s team enrolled 194 obese adults for their study. All participants took part in a weight-loss program that involved diet and exercise. Half did mindfulness exercises as part of the program. Mindful eating was part of it. So was meditation to focus on breathing and internal body sensations. All other recruits did only conventional exercises.
The program lasted for 5.5 months. For the entire next year, the researchers followed the health of each participant. People in the mindfulness group lost more weight than those in the non-mindful group. They also had less glucose in their blood after fasting (not eating) for at least 12 hours. “Lower fasting glucose levels may be important because they predict a lower risk of developing diabetes,” Hecht explains. Indeed diabetes is “one of the most important health issues that can accompany obesity.”
What’s more, the researchers found that blood levels of triglycerides (Try-GLIS-ur-ides) and cholesterol (Koh-LESS-tur-all) improved. Triglycerides are fats in the blood. High levels of them point to someone at risk of heart attack or stroke. Levels of those dropped in the mindful participants. Cholesterol is a fatty material found in blood vessels. It’s carried by two types of particles: low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, and high-density lipoproteins, or HDL. LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol. High levels of this type can build up inside blood vessels. There it can contribute to the development of vessel-narrowing plaque and foster a heart attack or stroke. HDL, in contrast, is the so-called “good” cholesterol. It helps clear out the LDL buildup to keep blood flowing. Hecht and his team found that levels of good cholesterol went up in mindful patients.
“Mindful-eating training may have helped people make better food choices,” Hecht says. It also may have helped people reduce the mindless eating, he adds, that can lead to overeating and obesity.
Mindfulness can improve health in other ways as well. One mindfulness-based program even helps treat eating disorders.
Binge eaters down vast quantities of food in one sitting. They turn to food for comfort — as a way to handle emotional distress. People with this disorder are out of tune with the signals their bodies send. So they don’t recognize when they are full until they have gorged on so much that they are uncomfortable.
People who binge on food are overly sensitive to outside cues, says Jean Kristeller. She is a psychologist at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Instead of listening to their body’s need for energy, they respond overly strongly to the sights, smells and discussion of food. At the same time, people with this food disorder are disconnected from body cues that indicate satiety (Sah-TY-eh-tee). Satiety has two parts, Kristeller explains. One is the feeling of fullness that comes after a meal. The other involves the taste buds; they usually become less sensitive to flavor after just a few bites of food.
Kristeller created a program to help combat binge eating. Called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, or MB-EAT, it helps people reconnect with their bodies. The goal is to make diners more aware so that they can control how much food they consume.
For a recent 12-week test, Kristeller worked with psychologist Ruth Wolever, now at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The two recruited 150 men and women with binge-eating disorder. They randomly assigned each person to one of three groups. The first group participated in the MB-EAT program. The second participated in a different binge-eating disorder program, which did not include mindfulness. The third group was put on a wait list for treatment. This group served as a control for the other two.
Participants in the MB-EAT program learned to meditate. They focused on internal body sensations, including hunger and satiety. They did mindful-eating exercises similar to the one Engelking does with her students. They also learned to do “mini-meditations” before eating. These helped the participants pay closer attention to the foods they chose and the sensations involved with eating. Mini-meditations also helped them notice when they were no longer hungry.
The researchers tracked each participant’s progress throughout the program. They checked in with them again, four months after the program was over.
People in both treatment groups had far fewer binge-eating episodes by the end of the four-month follow-up. Those in the MB-EAT program who did binge reported mostly small binges. That was a change from the medium and large binges that most people reported at the start of the study. Those in the non-mindfulness program reported mainly medium binges at the last check-in. People on the wait list did not show any change.
Most dramatically, within six months of starting the study, 95 percent of people in the MB-EAT group no longer qualified as a binge eater.
MB-EAT participants reported being more likely to hold off on eating until they were actually hungry. They also paid more attention to when they became full, Kristeller says. And they got better at not overeating fatty or sweet foods. “They noticed taste decreasing after only a few bites,” she says. And this left them satisfied with smaller portions.
Participants in the MB-EAT program also reported greater self-esteem and less depression by the end of the study. Poor self-esteem and depression foster eating binges. So improving these areas can lead to a lasting change in behavior. Such findings suggest that mindfulness training can be used to treat binge-eating disorder, Kristeller concludes.
Anyone can incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives,” says Jordan at Wilfrid Laurier. “Mindfulness can be practiced through a variety of apps, some of which of which are free,” he notes. “Paying attention to what you actually experience while eating” may help people regain the ability to eat only as much as they need, he says — and become healthier in the process.