New review finds encouraging evidence for the power of conscious dining
How much do you think about eating?
For most of us, eating is a mindless activity — something we do to satisfy hunger.
But if weight loss or weight control is a priority, you may want to rethink your approach.
A new review of the published evidence found that mindful eating — taking a more “conscious” approach to meals — can enhance efforts at weight loss.
After we examine that review, we'll summarize a recent trial that tested the weight-control effects of a mindful eating program, and a study that probed the effects of eating slowly.
What exactly is “mindful” eating?
In short, it means paying attention to our thoughts, desires, and stomachs.
Just as importantly, mindfulness means awareness without judgement.
You’ll find 12 practical tips for mindful eating at the end of this article.
Mindful eating aided weight control in North Carolina trial
This controlled clinical trial examined the effectiveness of a program called Eat Smart, Move More, Weigh Less (ESMMWL) in achieving two goals:
- Increase mindful eating.
- Enhance weight loss efforts.
The trial — led by Carolyn Dunn, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University, co-developer of the ESMMWL program — found that mindful eating can enhance weight loss efforts.
The ESMMWL program consists of a 15-week series of online classes — plus one-on-one remote counseling — designed to help participants become more mindful when eating.
The study involved 80 adults who used the ESMMWL online program for 15 weeks. Those who completed the program lost more weight than people assigned to the control group.
As the authors wrote, “[The study’s] results suggest that there is a beneficial association between mindful eating and weight loss." (Dunn C et al. 2017)
And they stressed the novel nature of their study: “The current study contributes to the mindfulness literature as there are very few studies that employed rigorous methodology to examine the effectiveness of an intervention on mindful eating.”
Because the study was conducted by the researchers who founded and operate the Eat Smart, Move More, Weight Less program, there may be some bias involved.
We have no connection to the program, and don't necessarily endorse it — you can learn more about the published research on it at the ESMMWL website.
Evidence review affirms the effectiveness of mindful eating
Nutrition scientist Carolyn Dunn, PhD — who led the trial described above — also led the first-ever review of the clinical evidence on weight loss and mindful eating.
Encouragingly, their results show that every relevant clinical trial linked mindful eating to better success at weight control, while most (80%) of the studies found that mindful eaters continued to lose weight (Dunn C et al. 2018).
Why did mindful eating prove to be an effective approach to weight control?
As Dr. Dunn’s team wrote, “Increased mindful eating has been shown to help participants gain awareness of their bodies, be more in tune to hunger and satiety, recognize external cues to eat, gain self-compassion, decrease food cravings, decrease problematic eating, and decrease reward-driven eating.”
The results of her team’s evidence review appear to be supported by two other recent evidence reviews (Ruffault A et al. 2016; Lyzwinski LN et al. 2018).
We should note that not every trial testing the effects of mindful eating found that it produced weight loss.
For example, a recent clinical trial from the University of California — which involved 194 adult volunteers and lasted almost six months — found that adding mindful eating to a diet-exercise program did not produce additional weight loss.
However, people randomized to the mindful eating group did enjoy metabolic benefits that could aid weight control over long-term.
As the California team wrote, “Mindfulness enhancements to a diet-exercise program did not show substantial weight loss benefit but may promote long-term improvement in some aspects of metabolic health in obesity that requires further study.” (Daubenmier J et al. 2016)
Key mindful eating tactics
Carolyn Dunn, Ph.D. — lead author of the 2018 literature review — offers 12 mindful eating strategies:
- When you eat, just eat: Give every meal your full attention so you can fully enjoy your food and remain aware of every bite. When you eat while distracted, you may miss cues that you’re no longer hungry.
- Be aware of your stress levels: We often eat when stressed out — try a short walk or a few deep breaths instead of turning to food when you’re anxious, but not actually hungry.
- Appreciate each meal: Enjoy meals with gratitude and acknowledge the effort it took to grow and prepare.
- Slow down: Eating slowly may help you better listen to your body’s cues that it’s satisfied and no longer hungry. Set your fork down between bites and be sure to stretch meals to at least 20 minutes. (For more on this topic, see "What about eating slower?", below.)
- Eat with awareness of experience: Consciously savor the taste, texture and smell of your meals.
- Keep an eye on portions: Be mindful of food quantity, not just quality. Be thoughtful about initial portion size and going back for additional servings. (We covered research on this tactic in Portion Control for Weight Control: Size Perceptions Called Key.
- Listen to your stomach: Are you really still hungry? Or does the food simply look and smell appealing? Heed your body’s messages about when it’s full.
- Eat before you’re ravenous: If you wait too long to eat, you’ll be more tempted to make poor decisions and overeat out of excessive hunger.
- Be sure to get those healthy proteins: Choose lean proteins that satisfy without providing bad fats. Choose healthy fish and plant-based protein such as beans over red meat.
- Mind your actual calorie needs: Be mindful of your body’s actual calorie needs, which vary based on body size, age, and metabolic rate. You may need fewer calories than your dining companions.
- Is it worth it? Think about whether a food is “worth” the calories. If you’re going to splurge, be thoughtful about what will really satisfy a craving with a few, well-chosen bites.
- Take one bite of a temptation: If you want something truly indulgent, take just one bite to start, and walk away — you might find you're happy with a single nibble.
What about eating slower?
Mindful eating isn’t the only approach to weight control that doesn’t require either conscious calorie-counting or favoring certain macronutrients (e.g, protein and/or or fats versus carbs).
There’s good evidence that eating more slowly — along with eliminating after-dinner snacks and snacks within two hours of sleep — can assist with weight loss or control (see Slow Eating May Prevent Weight Gain).
Earlier this year, a British-Japanese team published their analysis of health data collected from 59,717 diabetic Japanese citizens who underwent regular check-ups between 2008 and 2013 (Hurst Y, Fukuda H 2018).
The international researchers had access to the BMI (body mass index), waist measurement, and blood test results from every participant’s checkup — as well as their answers to lifestyle questions, including sleep, eating, tobacco, and alcohol habits.
Importantly, the participants had been asked how quickly they typically ate, which allowed the researchers to categorize them as fast, slow, or normal-pace eaters: 37% reported eating quickly, 56% ate at a “normal” speed, and only 7% reported eating slowly.
The participants also revealed how often they ate dinner within two hours of bedtime, how often they snacked after dinner, and how often they skipped breakfast.
After accounting for factors that could affect BMI and waist circumference, the British-Japanese team’s analysis revealed that, compared to the “speed eaters,” those who ate at a normal speed were 29% less likely to be obese, while the slow eaters were 42% less likely to be obese.
Critically, when participants made changes in the speed at which they ate, this change in habit was associated with weight loss, lower levels of obesity and a smaller waist.
However, the slow eaters shared some characteristics that may have nudged the results in their favor:
- The slow eaters included a significantly higher proportion of women and lower proportion of obese individuals.
- The slow-eating group also had a lower average BMI, smaller average waist circumference, drank less alcohol, and smoked less tobacco.
In contrast, the fast-eating group included a significantly lower proportion of women but a significantly higher average BMI, higher proportion of obese people, and larger average waist circumference.
Still, the study's findings suggest that speed of eating affects body weight, rather than healthier body weight indicating a naturally slower eating rate.
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