Mindful Eating

A columnist looks at "mindfulness meditation" and its potential role in weight control

By Judy Foreman
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

July 22, 2005 (Concord, Mass.) -- So there we sat, 28 of us, on a recent summer evening, munching ever so slowly on, and paying exquisite attention to, the surprisingly complex tastes and textures of "gorp," that mixture of dried fruit and nuts so popular with hikers.

"Notice whether you're already salivating," prompted the workshop instructor, Jean Fain, a psychotherapist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, as we held our chosen dried cranberries, cashews, or almonds in our fingers. "Slowly, very slowly, begin to notice the taste, the texture. Allow yourself to feel pleasure as you chew."

I do, and am struck by the difference between this tranquil, Buddhist moment -- my entire focus on one little cranberry -- and the way, half an hour earlier, I had wolfed down my calzone in the car, barely tasting it. The first cranberry gave me a burst of sweetness, the second, a small blast of tanginess. The cashew, unsalted, was boring. Who knew?

The point of this workshop, Fain said, was to apply some of the techniques of mindfulness meditation, like quieting the mind by focusing on the breath, to the process of eating and, ultimately, weight control.

The approach is so unusual, and potentially such a useful weapon in the war on obesity, that the National Institutes of Health is spending $1.8 million over four years on studies at three universities around the country.

David Heber, MD, PhD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, supports the idea, particularly for people for whom certain foods are triggers for overeating. Meditation, he said, also should be "linked to a nutritional plan and an exercise plan."

Getting 'Centered' Before Eating

Philosophically similar to the breezy book, French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, who advocates focusing on quality, not quantity, in food, the mindful eating program does not involve willpower, dieting, counting calories, or eschewing certain foods while chewing endlessly on others.

It does involve a very brief meditation to get "centered" before eating and eating with full attention. Both "getting pleasure from food and noticing when you've had enough," says the originator of the program, psychologist Jean Kristeller, PhD, of Indiana State University, who has studied meditation for decades.

Among other things, mindful eating means not gorging absent-mindedly while doing something else like watching TV or chattering away, and learning to tell when you feel full enough or that you've reached "taste-specific satiety."

"After four or five bites, taste buds lose their sensitivity to the chemicals in food that make it taste good."

This is the phenomenon by which, after four or five bites, taste buds lose their sensitivity to the chemicals in food that make it taste good. It is taste-specific satiety that explains why the first bites of chocolate taste better than later ones and why, when you cannot manage another bite of steak, you have plenty of enthusiasm for ice cream. Once you recognize that you're losing the pleasure of a certain taste, it's easier to stop eating it.

"Our culture is so externalized that we don't even realize what our body signals are," says clinical psychologist Ruth Quillian-Wolever, PhD, from the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine. "When you teach people to be quiet enough to see what's going on inside, they can get an incredible amount of satisfaction from a small piece of chocolate."

Studies on Mindful Eating

To be sure, the published evidence in favor of mindful eating is slim.

Kristeller did a pilot study a few years ago of 18 obese women who binged (loosely defined as feeling out of control about eating and ingesting a huge amount of food in one session). Her team found that, with meditation and coaching on skills like distinguishing real hunger from eating triggered by anger or boredom, bingeing dropped from an average of four times a week to one and a half. Participants also reported being less preoccupied with food.

Armed with a first grant of $250,000 from the government, Kristeller and Quillian-Wolever studied another 85 male and female obese bingers. They were randomly assigned to the mindful eating program, a "no intervention" group, or a control group, which got the same amount of attention from teachers as the mindful group and used material from Duke's diet and fitness center, but got no meditation training.

The data are still unpublished, but encouraging. Though neither the mindful eating nor the control group, on average, lost weight, both groups reduced bingeing substantially, compared with the nonintervention group. On standardized psychological tests, the mindful eaters also reported feeling more in control around food. Just as important, the mindfulness program -- even in people who lost no weight -- was linked to lower fasting blood sugar levels and less insulin resistance, problems that often lead to diabetes.