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Mindful Eating: Can Mindfulness Improve Our Relationship with Food? Part 1

Updated: Mar 18



What is Mindful Eating?


Mindfulness refers to the practice of bringing awareness to the present and paying attention to your responses to your immediate environment. It is a non-judgemental, self-kindness approach based in Buddhism (1).


The concept of ‘mindful eating’ is relatively new and joins the eating experience with mindful thoughts and practical actions. It highlights awareness of your own bodily cues such as hunger and satiety (fullness), sensory experiences such as smell and taste and any emotional responses such as excitement or disgust. This requires a level of introspective thinking and the ability to be honest and compassionate with yourself. It may be useful to keep a mindful eating diary of your experiences over a few weeks or months (2, 3).


It is thought that mindful eating practices can help to reduce eating behaviours that are detrimental to mental and physical health. Many interventions which promote healthy eating focus on adherence to specific diets which can often be highly restrictive and reduce the participant’s self-esteem and body image by imparting judgemental attitudes on their lifestyle choices and possibly even negating natural hunger cues.


In contrast, mindfulness-based dietary interventions are classed as behavioural interventions as they aim to alter patterns of thinking, often utilised for reduction of obesity, though the strategy does not focus on weight reduction itself (1, 3). In this way, it has also been useful in the management of eating disorders such as anorexia and health conditions such as diabetes when implemented into routine therapeutic practice (4).


A common example of a mindful eating task is “the raisin test”. This is where the individual aims to assess all aspects of a raisin before, during and after the experience of tasting and consuming it.


Joseph B. Nelson’s article, Mindful eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat, describes an interesting take on this test, suggesting that you could imagine you are an alien on earth and have never tried food on this planet before. If you are a creative thinker this method could be very beneficial, allowing you to consider aspects about the raisin that you have never questioned before (1). This test can of course translate to any food product and is often substituted with a square of dark chocolate (5).


There are several mindful eating practices that may benefit individuals and this article will explore a few ideas.


Portion control


The raisin test may be beneficial for people who tend to overeat because they eat so quickly or because they are used to eating a particular portion size.


Often when eating with family, portion size is set by the person cooking and it can be helpful to challenge this size if you consistently feel full or hungry after a meal.


When the body has a longer time to respond to food consumed, the satiety responses in our body are elevated and production of ghrelin (known as the “hunger hormone”) is inhibited after having eaten a filling meal. Slower eating therefore enables us to recognise that we are full when we have had enough food to eat. Many people comment that they regularly overeat, and this may solely be due to lack of mindfulness around the portion size suitable for them (6, 7).


Emotional attachments with food


As we know food is imperative for all human beings as it fuels, nourishes, restores, and even revitalizes our cells when we are consuming a variety of fresh and healthy products on a regular basis.


It is also very natural, from an evolutionary perspective, that we feel comforted by consumption of sweet and fatty products, as our first experience of “food” will in most cases have been breast milk or formula milk (8). The action of breastfeeding initiates oxytocin release in infants and mothers, reinforcing a comforting bond. This helps to explain the association of comfort with consumption of fatty/ sugary foods (9).


Whilst it is sometimes necessary to consume these comforting foods, when our body is preparing to fast or is undernourished, we might need to consider if we would benefit more from lighter foods when we have been regularly overindulging.


The eating behaviour associated with consumption of comfort foods as a coping mechanism or response to our emotions is referred to as “emotional eating”. Mindful eating is one type of intervention which may reduce this eating behaviour, because it encourages individuals to assess why they want to eat certain foods and how they feel mentally and physically after eating different types of foods (3).


Employing a variety of strategies is beneficial in managing all aspects of health and this applies to our emotional health as well. If we are constantly struggling to balance our emotions it may be necessary to look for a variety of techniques to bring back equilibrium- this may include meditation, reading a book, watching a film, talking to a friend/ counsellor, or just having a nap! Whatever works for you is beneficial, so that overindulging in food is not the only method used to restore emotional balance.


Emotional eating is sometimes referred to as “non-homeostatic” eating because it puts our health out of balance and is reward-based rather than being guided by innate biological detection of energy resources (10).


Here, it is important to address intentionality when eating, which refers to what we value, what is the purpose of eating, how does it benefit us, and does it serve our intentions for life? Mindfulness urges us to eat with intention and to not ignore our inherent needs and desires, again this links to self-care and compassion (1).


A very interesting study by Egan and Mantzios (2018), investigated perceived associations between self-kindness and eating behaviour, which they suggested may improve strategies for mindfulness-based eating programmes. Their study was conducted in the West Midlands, UK and found that people more often associated self-kindness with self-indulgence. This suggests that perceptions could be improved to link self-kindness with healthy eating behaviours and improved wellbeing. This also suggests an issue arising from lack of perceived connection between mental and physical health (11).


Make time for meals


For many people, eating filling meals regularly may not be on their top list of priorities, but unfortunately when our hunger is ignored, we may tend to follow unhealthy eating practices later in the day to compensate, which may include snacking on sugary, high carbohydrate or high fat foods (12).


Snacking and regular consumption of sugary drinks is a main contributor to childhood obesity, which makes mindful practices important for all ages (13).


Many people state that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and some studies support the idea that we should fuel up in the morning for sustained energy and improved mental function (14). It can also put us into a routine of prioritizing nutrition and hunger as part of self-care (15). However, it may not be necessary to follow set meals ideas, mindfulness is simply about meeting the body’s physical and mental needs when they arise and therefore consuming regular meals ensures that we take a break from of our busy lives to fuel up.


Plant-based eating


Many public health initiatives are moving towards higher promotion of plant-based diets to reduce obesity and non-communicable diseases. This does not mean eliminating potentially nutritious meat products, dairy, or fish from the diet, it merely emphasizes the importance of plant foods, namely fruit and vegetables, which are imperative for our daily supply of micronutrients.


Often the view about our own nutritional needs may be “food for fuel” and many people think about reducing calories when they need to improve their physical wellbeing. In fact, more important than this is to increase the supply of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in our diets, as many people are deficient. Micronutrients actively prevent disease and ageing processes in the body (16).


There’s evidence to suggest that plant-based foods are also highly impactful on our mental wellbeing and may enable us to feel happier and calmer with higher clarity of thought, which links perfectly with mindful living (17).


Mindful Eating Continued in Part Two….


Thanks to guest blog writer Bethany Durrant to writing part one of this blog article.


References

1. Nelson, J. B., 2017. Mindful Eating: the Art of Presence While You Eat, 171.

2. Méndez, R., Goto, K., Song, C., Giampaoli, J., Karnik, G. and Wylie, A., 2020. Cultural influence on mindful eating: traditions and values as experienced by Mexican-American and non-Hispanic white parents of elementary-school children. Global Health Promotion, 27 (4), 6-14.

3. Rajkieren, M., Helen, E., Rebecca, K., Misba, H. and Michail, M., 2019. Dieting, mindfulness and mindful eating:exploring whether or not diets reinforce mindfulness and mindful eating practices. Health Psychology Report, 8 (1), 59-67.

4. Dunne, J., 2018. Mindfulness in anorexia nervosa: An integrated review of the literature. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 24 (2), 109-117.

5. Cherpak, C. E., 2019. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal, 18 (4), 48-53.

6. Anderson, A., Caine-Bish, N., Gordon, K. and Falcone, T., 2015. Effects of an Acute Mindful Eating Exercise on Food Selection Type and Quantity in College Students. Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior, 47, S88-S88.

7. Suarez, A. N., Liu, C. M., Cortella, A. M., Noble, E. E. and Kanoski, S. E., 2020. Ghrelin and orexin interact to increase meal size through a descending hippocampus to hindbrain signaling pathway. Biological Psychiatry, 87 (11), 1001-1011.

8. Jenness, R., 1979. The composition of human milk. Seminars in perinatology, 3 (3), 225-239.

9. Sue Carter, C., 2018. Oxytocin and Human Evolution. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, 35, 291-319.

10. Mason, A. E., Jhaveri, K., Cohn, M. and Brewer, J. A., 2018. Testing a mobile mindful eating intervention targeting craving-related eating: feasibility and proof of concept, 160.

11. Helen, E. and Michail, M., 2018. A Qualitative Exploration of Self-Kindness and “Treating Oneself” in Contexts of Eating, Weight Regulation and Other Health Behaviors: Implications for Mindfulness-Based Eating Programs. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.

12. Tajik, E., Latiffah, A. L., Awang, H., Siti Nur’Asyura, A., Chin, Y. S., Azrin Shah, A. B., Patricia Koh, C. H. and Mohd Izudin Hariz, C. G., 2016. Unhealthy diet practice and symptoms of stress and depression among adolescents in Pasir Gudang, Malaysia. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 10 (2), 114-123.

13. Trude, A. C. B., Surkan, P. J., Cheskin, L. J. and Gittelsohn, J., 2018. A multilevel, multicomponent childhood obesity prevention group-randomized controlled trial improves healthier food purchasing and reduces sweet-snack consumption among low-income African-American youth. Nutrition journal, 17 (1), 96.

14. Brandley, E. T. and Holton, K. F., 2020. Breakfast Positively Impacts Cognitive Function in College Students With and Without ADHD. American Journal of Health Promotion, 34 (6), 668-671.

15. González-Gil, E. M., Martínez-Olivan, B., Widhalm, K., Lambrinou, C. P., Henauw de, S., Gottrand, F., Kafatos, A., Beghin, L., Molnar, D., Kersting, M., Leclercq, C., Sjöström, M., Fosner, M., González-Gross, M., Breidenassel, C., Castillo, M. J., Dallongeville, J., Rodríguez, G. and Moreno, L. A., 2019. Healthy eating determinants and dietary patterns in European adolescents: the HELENA study. Child & Adolescent Obesity (2574254X), 2 (1), 18-39.

16. Rodríguez-García, C., Sánchez-Quesada, C., Toledo, E., Delgado-Rodríguez, M. and Gaforio, J. J., 2019. Naturally Lignan-Rich Foods: A Dietary Tool for Health Promotion? Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 24 (5).

17. Echeverría, G., Tiboni, O., Berkowitz, L., Pinto, V., Samith, B., von Schultzendorff, A., Pedrals, N., Bitran, M., Ruini, C., Ryff, C. D., Del Rio, D. and Rigotti, A., 2020. Mediterranean Lifestyle to Promote Physical, Mental, and Environmental Health: The Case of Chile. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17 (22).

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