Can Mindfulness Reduce Mindless Eating?

Photo-Illustration: Photo: Stefan Kranefeld/Corbis

It’s really easy to eat mindlessly. Even when you’re trying to not pig out, when you’re tired or stressed or out with friends or just tempted by something delicious, in all likelihood your good dietary intentions will fly out the window. The weirdest part of this — for me, at least — is how easy it is to do so when you know, in the back of your mind at least, that you’re already full. There’s just zero physiological reason to eat more, and yet all those other influences hijack your self-control.

In a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, a team led by Evelien van de Veer, a doctoral candidate at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, decided to look at this problem through the lens of mindfulness — that is, the concept, often associated with meditation, of staying in the present moment and observing everything about it, both what’s happening outside your body and your bodily sensations themselves — from a calm place of non-judgement. In five different studies, they came up with some intriguing findings that suggest embracing mindfulness could be a promising way to eat smarter.

In one of the studies, for example, students were asked how hungry they felt at the moment, and were then instructed to drink a milkshake. They were randomly assigned to either a 215-calorie or 534-calorie version. The researchers then used survey items to assess how mindful the students were — assessed with questions like “I notice changes in my body, such as whether my breathing slows down or speeds up” — as well as various other personality characteristics. After that, the students were given access to two bowls of chocolate snacks and told they could eat as many as they wanted.

Overall, among students who drank the low-calorie milkshake, the higher the students were in mindfulness, the more chocolate they ate. And among students who drank the high-calorie milkshake, the higher they were in mindfulness, the less chocolate they ate. The researchers interpret this — and the results of their other experiments — as suggesting that mindfulness leads us to have a better understanding of how full we were, and to modulate our calorie consumption appropriately.

Another study the researchers conducted, in which they fed participants either small or large portions of food, suggested a way to use mindfulness meditation to help people better assess how full they were: A group randomly assigned to feel more mindful of their bodily sensations (as opposed to a control condition and a third group given an intervention designed to make them more mindful of their environment) appeared more sensitive to how much they were fed by the researchers, in terms of their reported feeling of satiety. In the mindful-body group, there was a good-sized statistically significant difference between how full the small-portion and large-portion groups felt, but in the mindful-attention and control groups, there was no significant difference.

Now, two caveats should be mentioned here: First, the researchers note that “increased consumption after a low caloric preload was more prominent … than decreased consumption after a high caloric preload,” meaning mindfulness seemed to have a bigger impact on people realizing they were hungry than on realizing they were full. Second, the researchers found that mindfulness didn’t make people any better at remembering what they had already eaten recently, which is one possible route toward eating less and smarter. Still, this research definitely helps nudge forward our understanding of mindless eating, as well as how to stop it.

Can Mindfulness Reduce Mindless Eating?