The Seductive Promise of Mindful Eating

Google Trends - MindfulnessMindfulness is an unmistakably hot topic, commanding public attention that has grown impressively over the last decade. Mindful eating, which applies principles of mindfulness, offers considerable promise as well as some challenges for researchers.

A new randomized, controlled study of mindful eating published in Obesity offers tantalizing new insights. But it falls short of answering the questions it was designed to address.

Jennifer Daubenmier and colleagues studied 18-month weight outcomes in a trial of a 22-week mindfulness intervention. The treatment and control groups received identical diet and exercise interventions. The only difference was mindfulness training for the treatment group. They concluded that:

The effect of adding mindfulness components to diet-exercise programs on weight loss in individuals with obesity was not statistically significant. We found some evidence that the mindfulness intervention may lead to long-term maintenance of fasting glucose levels and improved atherogenic lipid profiles. Further research is needed to determine whether potential benefits can be confirmed or strengthened.

In a companion commentary, Joyce Corsica and colleagues note that “mindfulness has the potential to improve weight loss and behavior change through a variety of mechanisms, including increased awareness of internal experiences (hunger, mood), adaptive emotional coping, and cognitive flexibility.” Though the present study only found a trend toward better weight outcomes, they point out that the study’s “improvements in metabolic risk factors are an important finding.”

This will hardly be the final word in mindfulness and mindful eating. Mindfulness is already well understood to be useful for stress management and in a number of clinical situations where stress is an important factor.

While we don’t have evidence that mindful eating is a boon for weight management, there can be little doubt that mindfulness is a useful clinical tool for people living with obesity and stress.

Click here for the study and here for the companion commentary. Click here and here for two more new studies of mindfulness and eating behaviors. Click here for more background on mindfulness.

Floating, photograph © Jessica / flickr

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March 10, 2016

4 Responses to “The Seductive Promise of Mindful Eating”

  1. March 10, 2016 at 6:11 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    I am a believer in the potency of mindfulness for enhanced performance, and it makes logical sense that it might help with weight management. But it seems unrealistic, based on these findings, to assume the establishment of a dramatic benefit.

    Mindfully yours,

    • March 10, 2016 at 7:48 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Joe. My suspicion is that mindfulness will be found to be very helpful in specific patient types, perhaps where stress eating is a key driver. Obesity is made up of many different subtypes — not unlike cancer — so expecting dramatic efficacy in a mixed population is unrealistic.

  2. March 11, 2016 at 10:39 am, Joan Ifland said:

    Research shows that chronic overeating leaves the brain acting like the brain of a drug addict (hyperactive craving and hypo-active cognitive functions.) Mindfulness calms hyperactive reactions. In that respect, it has a place in programs to restore the brain which helps restore the ability to avoid addictive foods.

    • March 11, 2016 at 11:01 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Joan!