What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation is based on the idea that there are two main ‘modes:’ doing and being. Mindfulness allows you to shift from the former to the latter. The suggestion is that it increases awareness and the ability to respond to experiences that cause emotional distress or negative behaviour; overeating may fit into this. It also helps you to recognise negative thoughts and emotions before they cause a downward spiral of mood. Mindfulness helps you to ‘live in the moment.’
Currently, mindfulness has been shown to be an effective intervention for depression and anxiety. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends it for people who are currently well but have experienced three or more previous episodes of depression. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting it an be used in Binge Eating Disorder, and a limited but ever growing body of evidence that it might be helpful for overweight or obese individuals. Increasingly it is being recognised in the world of dietetics and is supported by the Association for Nutrition.
What is mindful eating?
There is a model called the ‘dysregulation model of obesity’ that forms the cornerstone of the mindful eating approach. The model suggests that obese individuals have lost the ability to recognise and respond to internal cues of hunger, taste and fullness. Mindful eating simply involves applying the mindfulness principles, of switching from ‘doing’ to ‘being mode,’ to eating; thus, it offers a chance to change eating behaviour in the long-term. Simply put, it’s being present and aware of what you are eating.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I’m sure I used to eat through feelings of fullness all the time, simply by not eating mindfully. And I don’t think I’m alone. How many times have you finished all the food on your plate when before the meal you really weren’t that hungry? By promoting awareness of sensations and emotions, mindfulness may allow us to respond to feelings of fullness earlier and (possibly!) distinguish cravings from hunger. It may help people to discover a healthy relationship with food, replacing guilt and self-blame with pleasurable eating and self-compassion.
How is it different from other diets?
I’m sure if you are reading this you are interested in food and wellbeing. I am also pretty confident you will have tried dieting. But so often diets fail; in the short-term you restrict your calories, lose weight and feel better. But in the long-term your weight creeps back up, leaving you feeling defeated. This may be partly because your eating behaviour hasn’t changed. Mindful eating allows you to restore the body’s natural ability to regulate eating behaviour.
What does the science have to say?
Most of the evidence for mindfulness is based on eating disorders, predominantly binge eating disorder. However, I am going to look at a study based on obese people with no diagnosis of an eating disorder. 10 obese people had 2-hour mindful eating sessions specifically designed for obesity over 6 weeks. The programme emphasized brief daily meditation and pairing meditation with eating, enabling the people to examine hunger and fullness cues, which foods they crave and emotional states associated with eating. This study was only short, but all participants lost weight, with an average loss of 4 kilos (roughly 8 lbs) over 12 weeks, which is brilliant! An inflammation marker known as CRP also decreased. Increases in restraint and mindfulness were also seen. Although we cannot generalize this study to overweight or normal weight people (and we should never assume normal weight people do not have a negative relationship with food), this study offers a refreshing, different approach to treating eating behaviour, moving away from the calorie-restricting diets that so often fail us.
So how has it helped me?
I first became interested in mindfulness meditation just over a year ago when I visited Myanmar. The relaxed and happy attitude of the Buddhist people was truly amazing. By eating mindfully I lost 6 kilos last year; by appreciating my food more, I found I got greater satisfaction out of it, so didn’t need to eat as much. It also stopped me mindlessly ‘grazing,’ a habit which affects so many of us, particularly if we spend a long time chained to a desk.
My interest was sparked, but I didn’t know where to begin. ‘Mindfulness: The Eight-Week Meditation Programme for a Frantic World’ offered the solution. It is available as an audiobook from Audible or the iTunes store and really gripped me for two reasons. Firstly, it is written by academics who are knowledgeable in the field but good at interpreting it in an accessible and engaging way. Secondly, setting off into the unknown world of meditation for life may seem daunting; a short-term course seems more manageable. The hope is, of course, that after the 8 weeks you will want to keep it going for life.
I love to hear your views – please share your experiences of weight loss diets, meditation and mindfulness with me!
Dalen J, et al. Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complement Ther Med (2010).