How Can Mindful Eating Promote Behavior Change in Patients with Obesity?
— By Dawn M. Sweet, Ph.D
Mindful eating can help reduce automatic eating and emotional eating.
Inattentive eating, sometimes referred to as automatic eating, is a learned behavior.1 Automatic eating occurs when we eat around mealtime, even in the absence of hunger.1 We are also at risk of automatic eating when we see food or have it readily available at arm’s length,2 e.g., the tempting candy bowl on a colleague’s desk or your coffee table.
Automatic eating also manifests as emotional eating, wherein one uses food as a way to cope with depression, stress, or sadness.3 When food is used as a coping mechanism to manage elevated states of negative arousal, it is likely to become habitual and automatic.1 This begs the question, what can be done to mitigate one’s automatic impulse to eat driven by habituation to mealtimes and easy access to food, particularly since obesity has been identified as the second leading cause of preventable death is associated with increased risks for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease?4
While successful weight loss can be achieved through traditional approaches such as diet and exercise, integrative approaches, or complementary approaches, have also been shown to support successful weight loss. Recent research suggests that integrating mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindful eating, may help promote behavior change in the context of eating behaviors and mitigate automatic and emotional eating.1
Integrating Mindfulness and Mindful Eating into a Weight Loss Program
Mindfulness is defined as purposeful and non-judgmental attention to the present moment.5 Mindful eating, a form of mindfulness, is an approach to food that is characterized by paying purposeful attention to our food,6 and it can disrupt automatic responses to food and inattention to emotional triggers that precipitate a habituated response to satisfying food cravings. Mindful eating has been reported to increase one’s sensitivity to hunger and satiety cues as well as one’s food environment, eating pace, and characteristics of the food being consumed. Mindful eating purposely directs our attention to the activity of eating and helps bring conscious awareness to the task of eating, which can mitigate habituated responses to food.
A recent review7 of studies that included mindfulness-based interventions centered on mindful eating found strong support for integrating mindful eating into weight loss programs. Although the research in this area is still new, compared to the body of research on traditional diet and exercise approaches to weight loss, consideration of integrating mindful eating practices into a weight loss program is warranted.
Mindful Eating Exercise: The Raisin
One of the most referenced mindful eating exercises involves eating a raisin.6 This exercise involves eating one raisin and approaching it as though you’ve previously never eaten a raisin. The process includes examining what the raisin looks like, its weight, surface features, scent, the feel of it, and then placing it between your lips and letting it roll into your mouth while being aware of the sensation(s). Finally, you bite the raisin, bringing your awareness to the sensation, chewing it until it is liquefied in your mouth, and noticing the effects of this experience.
Mindful Eating as Part of Clinical Weight Loss Practice
Mindfulness-based interventions such as mindful eating are unlikely to completely replace traditional approaches to weight loss such as diet and exercise. However, mindful eating deserves serious consideration as part of any weight loss program. Including a mindful eating program as part of a traditional weight loss program may help patients with obesity reduce automatic eating and be more aware of hunger and satiety cues. Clinicians should consider working with the patients with obesity to include mindful eating as part of a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD) and a strategy to mitigate unhealthy eating habits.
- Mindfulness, eating behaviours, and obesity: a review and reflection on current findings
- Ice cream illusions: Bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes
- Emotional eating and obesity in adults: The role of depression, sleep, and genes
- Dietary and policy priorities for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity: a comprehensive review
- Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future
- Mindful eating: The art of presence while you eat
- Mindfulness approaches and weight loss, weight maintenance, and weight regain