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Why mindful eating can impact our health—and your business

What farmers, natural product companies and retailers have to gain from mindful eating is tremendous. The practice may hold promise in reversing the obesity epidemic—and could fuel demand for fresh, healthy foods.

My 8-year-old has less than 10 minutes to eat lunch. The first time she complained about this, I thought she was just trying to make excuses for bringing home her healthful, home-packed lunch nearly intact. But, as researchers pointed out at the first-ever International Symposia for Contemplative Studies last week in Denver, this is true for most children in public schools across the United States. And encouraging kids to eat so quickly and mindlessly, say experts, can lead to weight gain and serious health issues over the long term.

During the presentation, I was surprised to still feel shocked by the facts: Over half the American population is now overweight or obese, including a third of American kids. It’s clear from the abysmal results of current intervention tactics employed by modern medicine—from diet drugs and lifestyle programs, to gastric bypass surgery—that we have not been very successful in identifying and addressing the root of the problem, says Jan Bays, pediatrician and author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food (Shambhala, 2009).

Sifting through the evidence presented at the symposia, it seems quite clear that as a culture we tend to view weight issues from a limited, even detrimental, perspective. It isn’t that people lack the intelligence to make good choices; it’s that we have so pervasively bought into the belief that solutions exist out there—in modified foods, in diet schemes, in calorie counting. We all but completely ignore our own natural human intelligence around growing, buying, and eating foods.

Consider how little modern medicine has been able to help in the obesity crisis. Just recently, major research was released which showed that overweight kids and teens with Type 2 (also known as adult-onset) diabetes have greater difficulty getting blood sugar under control with conventional drug treatments; many require additional drugs within the first two years of treatment, drugs that are restricted due to serious side effects. The realities for these children are stark and hardly promising.

And there are plenty of reasons to point fingers at the convenience-food industry—at the heavy marketing dollars and tasty “food-like substances” (as Michael Pollan would say) designed to trick us into wanting more. But, from a public health perspective, attacking certain foods or ingredients doesn’t seem to have gotten us very far, either.

“I’m struck by how much our relationship to food, to nurturance, is dysregulated,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the pioneering Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts. “Meditation seems weird, but it’s totally ordinary. The solution to this gigantic [obesity] epidemic lies within us already. We need to cultivate generosity, to allow food to be food again—and allow us to be us—and not to be so neurotic about it.”

But how? “Looking for simple answers to complex problems is hardwired into us,” says Jean Kristeller, PhD, psychologist and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. “So we look for the most structured diet out there, but [those diets] disconnect people even more from hunger and satiety.” Instead, she says, we need to move away from an approach-avoidance model (eat this, don’t eat that) and “cultivate our inner gourmet.” This interrupts the struggle and can lead to slow but lasting weight loss.

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating can be used to tune into the internal cues we are typically trained to ignore, says Kristeller. Participants in her program focus on three mindfulness practices:

  1. Awareness of hunger: What does hunger feel like in the body?
  2. Awareness of satiety: How does it feel to be full? Can the participant identify what it would feel like to eat to a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10?
  3. And, finally, the practice of savoring: Slowing down to truly taste food, to be mindful of the various flavors and sensory experiences associated with each bite.

Kristeller even asks participants to do mindful eating exercises around calorie-dense comfort foods. “Often what people find, when they’re really asked to savor these foods, is that they don’t actually want them—or that they’re satisfied with less. They don’t want the second donut.” In Kristeller’s work, combining internal wisdom with external knowledge of calories and basic nutrition, has shown the most promise for lasting weight loss among participants.

“So how can I help my 8-year-old combat the tendency to wolf down her food?” I asked Kristeller, picturing my daughter stuffing large bites of parmesan-dusted whole-grain noodles into her mouth. (Confession: I also get really hungry at the end of the day and probably have similar mindless eating behaviors.) “Tune her in to taste satisfaction, into sensory-specific satiety,” she suggests. “Model this for her: ‘Mmmmm, those first few bites were really good, but I’m not tasting it as much any more.’” The key is to eat for quality, not quantity, says Kristeller.

Mindfulness practice can play into weight loss in other ways, too, by altering biochemistry.  “It’s not just about the food we eat; it’s about our state when we eat the food,” says Elissa Epel, codirector of the Center for Obesity, Assessment, Study and Treatment at the University of California, San Francisco. Epel’s research has correlated stress, negative moods, and abdominal fat. In the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, excess calories tend to get stored as visceral fat, which accumulates around internal organs, increasing risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In recent research, “decreased morning wakefulness cortisol levels [usually the highest of the day] are associated with reductions in visceral fat,” says Epel.

For farmers and natural products businesses, it's a win-win situation

What farmers, natural product companies, and retailers have to gain is tremendous: What if consumers were to ditch processed foods not just because they were deemed “unhealthy,” but because they were fundamentally unsatisfying? What if we ate more kale not only because it is good for us, but because it satisfies a hunger for a certain flavor?

In fact, sales of fresh produce are on the rise and there may be a kale seed shortage this year due to unprecedented demand. These are very hopeful signs, in my opinion, but the message needs to reach farther—and deeper—in order to reverse the epidemic trends for generations to come. “Food is medicine,” reminds Bays. “We can use it.”

Mindful Eating was just one of many topics covered at the inaugural International Symposia for Contemplative Studies, facilitated by the Mind and Life Institute, an organization that has been bringing scientists into dialogue with contemplative masters, such as the Dalai Lama, for 25 years. The organization aims to further the dialogue between academic researchers and contemplatives working to reduce suffering, enhance health, and increase happiness and social harmony.

More ways to encourage mindful eating in children

  • Read healthy cookbooks together. Let kids choose the menu.
  • Take kids to the store to choose a fresh fruit or vegetable that they’re curious about. Encourage them to explore.
  • Grow your own herbs and vegetables.
  • Make time to enjoy cooking. Start with simple meals. Let kids help.
  • Take a moment to be grateful for the meal.
  • Savor each bite.

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