The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Mindful Eating, or Mindlessly Eating Better?

Why mindful eating needs to go beyond "listen to your body."

At the annual conference of the American Psychological Association this week, Brian Wansink -- famous for his research on mindless eating -- took a position that would raise the ire of the mindfulness community (that is, if they weren't too busy taking a deep breath and letting go of attachment). Mindful eating is impossible, he argues, or at least impractically difficult. Rather than teaching people how to eat mindfully, we should be teaching people to "mindlessly eat better."

"Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, and then ask ourselves if we're full," he told the audience of psychologists. "The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you."

Wansink's advice is good, and follows from the premise that we overeat or eat the wrong things because our environment triggers our appetite (or fails to trigger satiety). Among the recommendations: don't keep tempting food at home, or at least make it harder to reach than the healthy stuff; use plates, bowls, and glasses that hold an appropriate serving size (instead of three or four servings); don't eat in front of the tv, where food commercials are likely to create cravings.

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At the same time, having to make this kind of distinction between "mindful eating" and "mindlessly eating better" seems to reflect a very narrow definition of mindful eating. It's one I hear frequently, and it conflicts with the best science on eating and obesity. Among those who teach and preach mindful eating, there can be a very naïve faith in the idea that "the body always knows best." If you just pay attention to the signals of your body (like hunger and fullness), you will never overeat, and you will naturally want foods that are healthy, not harmful.

And yet abundant research in both humans and animals demonstrates how easy it is to fool the body and the brain. For example, cheese can trick the body into producing a chemical that block's the brain's satiety response and increases cravings -- for up to 48 hours! The body's "wisdom" is also shaped by exposure; if you were raised on junk food, your biology is different than if you were raised on a healthier diet. And I don't just mean your body composition or cholesterol levels -- I mean what foods your brain finds most rewarding, and how reactive it will be to sugar, salt, and fat.

This is why any discussion of mindful eating needs to go beyond "listen to your body." True mindful eating is not just listening to the body, but committing to certain values (like health, animal welfare, or environmental sustainability). When your body's desires conflict with your values, you can make a mindful choice to ignore the body's signals.

This definition of mindful eating leaves plenty of room for Wansink's strategies, like learning to recognize environmental triggers and protecting yourself in advance. A mindful approach doesn't require us to always react spontaneously to the present moment. You can mindfully, and self-compassionately, predict how, when, and where you are likely to be tempted, and precommit to a choice that prevents you from giving in. Most importantly, when temptation strikes, you can recognize that just because you are having a sensation or desire, doesn't mean it is "true" or that you need to act on it.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin/Avery).

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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