What do you get when you merge the ancient Buddhist teaching of mindfulness with food, eating, and modern nutritional science? Answer: A way of eating that leads to savoring flavors, enjoying food…and easing odds of overeating and weight gain.
Some call it “multitasking”; the French call it “vagabond eating”; in the USA, it’s a growing trend. Whatever form it takes—eating a meal or snacking mindlessly while working in front of your computer, driving, watching TV, shopping, or talking on the phone—the Task Snacking overeating style that our research on Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE) uncovered—puts you at risk for overeating and in turn, increases odds of becoming overweight.1
Task Snacking: It’s a Double Weight-Whammy
How might Task Snacking, eating while distracted and multitasking, be a recipe for weight gain? Your brain cannot focus on two things at a time. Because of this, task snacking may lead you to overeat because 1) you may experience food cravings that are really a signal you’re missing some nutrients in your diet due to poor digestion; 2) and because you’re not allowing your mind and body to get the message that you’re satisfied. In this way, Task Snacking can be a double weight-whammy!
What’s a task snacker to do? Pay attention, intentionally, when you eat. In other words, practice mindfulness eating by bringing moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness to each aspect of your meal. Indeed, mindfulness eating is the Whole Person Integrative Eating antidote to the Task Snacking overeating style.2 Here’s why.
Managing Weight with Mindfulness
In our study on the seven overeating styles, the more research participants ate mindfully by practicing all seven antidotes to the seven overeating styles (the core of our Whole Person Integrative Eating program), the more they reduced their weight. This suggests that you eat less when you focus not only on what you are eating, but also on how, why, where, and with whom.1
Here are three other studies linking mindfulness meditation to improved digestion, managing eating disorders, and weight loss.
Improved digestion. Researcher Donald Morse, professor emeritus at Temple University in Philadelphia, discovered that those who practiced mindfulness meditation before eating produced 22 percent more of the digestive enzyme alpha-amylase. This matters a lot, because alpha-amylase helps you digest and metabolize carbohydrates in carbohydrate-dense foods (such as potatoes, bread, and cereal), as well as the eight B vitamins.3
Less binge eating. When Jean Kristeller, PhD, founder of Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT), applied her mindfulness-eating program to obese women with Binge Eating Disorder (BED)—out-of-control eating twice a week or more for six months or longer—the women who continued to meditate regularly, even weeks after the program ended, lowered their average number of bingeing episodes from five times each week to 1.6. As encouraging, emotions that often sparked a bingeing episode, such as depression and anxiety, decreased.4
Increased weight loss. Dean Ornish, MD, put meditation on the research map by including it as part of a comprehensive program to reverse heart disease through lifestyle changes, without drugs or surgery. The components: stress management (meditation and yoga); a no-fat-added plant-based diet; exercise; and group support.
To find out which components, if any, contributed the most to reversing heart disease, Ornish and his research team put patients and their spouses on the program for three months. The results of the study revealed three groundbreaking insights into mindfulness and weight loss.
- Those who increased their meditation and yoga practice to as much as six hours per week—without changing their dietary fat intake—lost an average of 20 pounds for men and more than 12 pounds for women.
- Even more weight was lost by those who increased their stress management practice to six hours per week and reduced their dietary fat intake to 15 percent calories from fat. These men lost an average of about 27 pounds; women, 20 pounds.
- The third key finding goes against the conventional energy-in (food), energy-out (movement) guidelines: an increase in exercise didn’t contribute any further to the amount of weight loss. Rather, it was how much time participants meditated and the degree to which they lowered their dietary fat intake that brought the best weight-loss results.5
The key message in these studies is this: Bringing a meditative consciousness to meals—eating when you eat and not engaging in other tasks—means you’ll have better digestion, will eat less, and will be more likely to lose weight.
Cultivating Mindfulness Eating
Here, mindfulness eating tips that empower you to replace Task Snacking with mindfulness eating—paying attention intentionally—throughout the meal.
- Identify your hunger level. Do you have an appetite? Or not? Are you a little hungry, or very hungry?
- What are you eating? Is the food before you fresh, whole, and nourishing? Or fast and processed?
- Look at the food before you. Focus on the colors. The aroma. Portion size. Based on your level of hunger, decide how much you want to eat.
- Get kinesthetic. Be aware of picking up the utensil or sandwich, taking a bite, chewing, swallowing, imagining the food nourishing you.
- Savor flavor. Bring your attention to your mouth; then, identify the flavor in your food. Is it mostly sweet, or is salt the major flavor? Did you experience a burst of flavor at the first bite?
- Chew slowly. Digestion starts in your mouth. Chew each bite slowly, with awareness. Is the food hot, warm, or cold? Is it coarse or creamy? Chew the food as thoroughly as possible before swallowing.
- Are you satisfied? Now that you have finished your meal, how are you feeling? Sated? Still hungry? Or are you feeling full or stuffed? Are you “psychologically satisfied,” meaning, how was your dining experience? Pleasant? Relaxing? Enjoyable? Or not?
- Clear the table. Bring your attention to the plate before you. Or package. Or take-out container. Do you need to wash some dishes before you’re finished? Or toss out some packaging products?
- “See” your surroundings. Now, begin the transition from eating. Where are you? At your desk? A dining table in your home? In your car? Are you with others or by yourself? What will you focus on next?
Mindfulness Meals: It’s a Lifetime Practice
Replacing the overeating style of Task Snacking with mindfulness eating is a lifetime practice; a way of eating (I call it a “dietary lifestyle”) you get better and better at each time you eat with awareness. When you take the time to contemplate food in such a way, even for a few moments, you’re practicing the Whole Person Integrative Eating antidote to the Task Snacking overeating style: Bring moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness to each aspect of the meal. In this way, you’re taking another step away from task snacking and toward the Whole Person Integrative Eating dietary lifestyle that ups your odds of overcoming overeating and making weight loss last.
Visit Deborah’s website, makeweightlosslast.com, for free evidence-based, credible information and education about optimal eating for weight loss and well-being. You can also visit her blog, integrativeeating.com.
Reprinted with permission from Deborah Kesten.
Deborah Kesten, M.P.H., is an award-winning author, specializing in preventing and reversing obesity and heart disease. Her expertise includes the influence of epigenetics and diet on health, Lifestyle Medicine, and research on the Whole Person Integrative Eating dietary lifestyle to treat overeating, overweight, and obesity. She and her husband, behavioral scientist Larry Scherwitz, Ph.D., collaborate on research and writing projects.
- Scherwitz L, Kesten D, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Kesten D, Scherwitz L. “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42-50.
- Morse DR, Furst ML, “Meditation: An In-depth Study,” Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine 29, no. 5 (1982):1-96.
- Kristeller J, et al, “An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder,” Journal of Health Psychology 4, no. 3 (1999):357-63.
Daubenmier JJ, et al, “The Contribution of Changes in Diet,
- Exercise, and Stress Management to Changes in Coronary Risk in Women and Men in the Multisite Cardiac Lifestyle Intervention Program,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 33 (January 2007).