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.
app Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.
behavior The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.
binge To do or consume something to excess — usually an unhealthy excess.
binge-eating disorder A disease in which someone eats massive amounts of food, often in secrecy.
calorie The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food.
cholesterol A fatty material in animals that forms a part of cell walls. In vertebrate animals, it travels through the blood in little vessels known as lipoproteins. Excessive levels in the blood can signal risks to blood vessels and heart.
control A part of an experiment where there is no change from normal conditions. The control is essential to scientific experiments. It shows that any new effect is likely due only to the part of the test that a researcher has altered. For example, if scientists were testing different types of fertilizer in a garden, they would want one section of it to remain unfertilized, as the control. Its area would show how plants in this garden grow under normal conditions. And that give scientists something against which they can compare their experimental data.
correlation A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in rates of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a decrease in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a drop in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other.
depression (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.
diabetes A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).
eating disorder An illness of the mind involving dangerously unhealthy patterns of eating and weight loss or gain.
fat A natural oily or greasy substance occurring in animal bodies, especially when deposited as a layer under the skin or around certain organs. Fat’s primary role is as an energy reserve. Fat is also a vital nutrient, though it can be harmful to one’s health if consumed in excess amounts.
glucose A simple sugar that is an important energy source in living organisms. As an energy source moving through the bloodstream, it is known as “blood sugar.” It is half of the molecule that makes up table sugar (also known as sucrose).
heart attack Permanent damage to the heart muscle that occurs when one or more regions of it become starved of oxygen, usually due to a temporary blockage in blood flow.
high school A designation for grades nine through twelve in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
lipoprotein A structure that the body makes to shuttle cholesterol around the body via the bloodstream. Lipoproteins tend to be known by how densely the cholesterol is packed within them. High-density lipoproteins (or HDLs) are usually considered good for health. Low-density lipoproteins are considered generally harmful. Their size is not the issue so much as where they release the cholesterol that they carry.
meditate To think deeply or focus one's mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting. Sometimes it’s done for religious or spiritual purposes. It also can become a method of relaxation.
obesity (adj. obese) Extreme overweight. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
plaque Fatty deposits that accumulate in vessels as a result of a disease know as atherosclerosis. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances carried by the blood. Eventually these deposits will harden and narrow the internal openings of the arteries. This reduces the flow of oxygen and blood to organs throughout body.
psychologist A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior.
recruit (noun) New member of a group or human trial. (verb) To enroll a new member into a research trial. Some may receive money or other compensation for their participation, particularly if they enter the trial healthy.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.
satiety A feeling of fullness. It’s the opposite of being hungry. The body tends to register satiety through the release of certain brain hormones. Someone who is full, after a meal, is said to be sated.
stroke (in biology and medicine) A condition where blood stops flowing to part of the brain or leaks in the brain.
taste One of the basic ways the body senses its environment, especially our food, using receptors (taste buds) on the tongue (and some other organs).
taste buds A collection of 50 to 100 or so taste receptors. They’re found on the tongues of land animals. When certain chemicals in food or other materials trigger a response in these receptors, the brain detects one or more flavors — sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami.
triglyceride The main ingredient in many animal fats and oils. A high level of triglycerides in the blood puts a person at risk for heart disease or stroke.
Journal: J. Daubenmier et al. Effects of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention in adults with obesity: A randomized clinical trial. Obesity. Vol. 24, April 2016, p. 794. doi: 10.1002/oby.21396.
Journal: C.H. Jordan et al. Mindful eating: trait and state mindfulness predict healthier eating behavior. Personality and Individual Differences. Vol. 68, October 2014, p. 107. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.04.013.
Journal: J.L. Kristeller & R.Q. Wolever. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for binge eating disorder: The conceptual foundation. Eating Disorders. Vol. 19, December 20, 2010, p. 49. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.533605.
Journal: B. Wansink. From mindlessly eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiology & Behavior. Vol. 100, July 14, 2010, p. 454. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh/2010/05.003.