How a simple mindfulness exercise can change your relationship with food
Posted Mar 31, 2018
This guest post was contributed by Nina Jhaveri, a graduate student in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program.
When it comes to dieting, I’ve tried nearly everything. Vegan and vegetarian; South Beach and Mediterranean; keto and paleo. With each new regimen, I’d venture forth with resolve and determination. “No more pizza!” I’d tell myself.
But soon enough, the resolve would dissolve. I’d run out of time to pack a salad for lunch. I’d pass by the bakery at my local grocery store. I’d grab dinner with a friend at a pizza joint. Every effort to restrict how I ate I felt forced, dissatisfying, and punitive.
My diets never worked – until I learned how to take ten minutes to eat a single raisin.
I discovered the “raisin meditation” as part of a practice known as mindfulness. Tired of yo-yo dieting, I began to learn how to “eat mindfully.” When I paid attention – truly focused attention – to what I ate, that raisin tasted like the most delicious raisin I’d ever had. I began practicing mindfulness whenever I ate. For the first time in my life, I felt more satisfied with eating smaller amounts of food.
Our reasons for eating have evolved beyond their humble beginnings as a survival need. We used to hunt, gather and fight for our food. Now, most of us can eat what we want, when we want, and how much we want. And that’s often what we do – especially when eating makes us feel better and helps us cope with our overstressed lives. And with our abundant supply of high-fat, high-sugar, easily accessible foods, it’s no wonder two-thirds of Americans are overweight. The weight epidemic has spawned a culture of diets, each suggesting something different, but hardly any producing long-term weight loss.
So what’s behind our problematic, complex relationship with eating? Normal (or what researchers call “homeostatic”) eating is eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full. But it’s clear that we frequently eat even when not hungry. Why? A lot of eating is mindless – we eat because we see food, or smell it, or see other people eating it. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a table laden with your favorite pies, cakes and cookies – and Aunt Jane is pressuring you to try a bite of her special strudel. How much restraint are you going to show? It’s hard to be in front of tasty food and not eat more than we need.
Such external incentives to eat are only part of the story behind problematic eating. What about internal motivations, such as stress? People might eat because they’re angry, stressed, or simply bored. Eating is a coping response which, when over-relied on, becomes habitual and automatic. What’s more, too much stress can lead specifically to unhealthy food choice. Cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone,” circulates in high amounts under prolonged stress – something many of us experience. Cortisol can increase our preference for and consumption of high-sugar, high-fat foods. Which means that when you’re stressed, you might be physiologically more likely to choose unhealthy foods.
No wonder diets didn’t work for me. They didn’t address the internal or external motivations behind my eating. Diets were based solely on self-restraint, on constantly fighting against my own emotional and physiological desires. The basic principle behind dieting was flawed - or incomplete at best.
But it seems there may be a way to correct that flaw.
So, what is “mindfulness”? Originating in Buddhism, it is, simply put, having moment-to-moment awareness. Mindfulness is cultivated by paying attention to and accepting our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations with a nonjudgmental attitude. Instead of suppressing (or acting out on) our anger, sadness or stress, we notice how we feel and accept our experience rather than react impulsively – the kind of impulsiveness that often leads to eating.
Similarly, to eat mindfully, we start with paying attention to how we feel, to observe why we want to eat. Are we physically hungry? Or emotionally hungry? Do we want to eat simply because there’s food in front of us? This crucial pause before picking up a fork could increase our self-control over eating. Perhaps, therefore, mindfulness addresses unhealthy eating at a deeper level than does dieting – by helping us attend to the source of our desire to eat.
You may feel that this solution to unhealthy eating sounds…well, quirky and new age. Does mindfulness actually bring about tangible change? Several studies have explored this notion. A team of researchers at the University of Southern California reviewed several mindfulness-based eating interventions, and found that eighteen out of twenty-one studies reported improvements in targeted eating behaviors, such as binge eating frequency/severity, emotional eating, and external eating (i.e. eating in response to the sight, smell and taste of food). One study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco reported an interesting finding: improved mindfulness levels were related to reductions in belly fat, which (compared to fat stored around hips and thighs) is bad for the heart and increases risk for diabetes. What about the most popular concern – weight loss? Nine out of ten studies reported weight loss or stabilized weight, but other research suggests that the evidence on weight loss is mixed. And only a few studies followed participants over the long term.
With these limitations in mind, how might you, as a healthy skeptic, explore mindfulness in your eating? Start from the basics. Revisit your relationship with food. Rather than restraining your urge to eat, notice your desire, and the events or thoughts that led you to think about eating. You might still want to eat, or you might realize you’re not really hungry. If you do want to eat, take a moment to observe your food - the colors, the texture, the shapes. Take a bite, slowly, and observe how it tastes as you eat it. It is pleasurable? How does it feel on your tongue? Does it make you feel satisfied, or do you notice you don’t really enjoy the flavor? Take more bites, mindfully. You may be more likely to notice when you’re enjoying your food the most, when you’re not, and when you’re starting to feel full. You may be more likely to stop eating when you’re actually full, thus avoiding those last few mouthfuls that made you feel stuffed and sluggish and slow after each meal.
Does mindfulness address the flaw that exists in yo-yo dieting? Possibly. Mindfulness is a powerful self-awareness tool, and it’s hard to see how we can lose weight without some self-awareness. At the least, we may be able to derive greater satisfaction out of the same, or smaller, amounts of food.
Try it. All you need to start is a single raisin.
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