Reduce Reward-Driven Eating with Mindfulness

Mindfulness eating reward2 Mason

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Mindless eating is looking at environmental cues and triggers around eating. Mindful eating is about awareness of internal and external cues that trigger eating.” – Megrette Fletcher


Obesity is epidemic in the industrialized world. In the United States the incidence of obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above has more than doubled over the last 35 years to currently around 35% of the population. Although the incidence rates have appeared to stabilize, the fact that over a third of the population is considered obese is very troubling.


It is particularly troubling because of the effects of obesity on health. Being obese has been found to shorten life expectancy by eight years and in extreme cases by 14 years. This results from the fact that obesity is associated with cardiovascular problems such as coronary heart disease and hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and other diseases. Unfortunately, the epidemic of obesity has been resistant to prevention and treatment. Despite copious research and a myriad of dietary and exercise programs, there still is no safe and effective treatment. Hence, there is a need to explore alternative methods to prevent or treat obesity.


Mindfulness is known to be associated with lower risk for obesity. This is promising but much more research is needed to understand the mechanism by which mindfulness affects obesity in order to optimize its effectiveness. In today’s Research News article “Reduced Reward-driven Eating Accounts for the Impact of a Mindfulness-Based Diet and Exercise Intervention on Weight Loss: Data from the SHINE Randomized Controlled Trial”

Mason and colleagues randomly assigned male and female obese participants to either of two interventions; mindfulness or control. Both contained 12 weekly 2.5-hour diet and exercise weight loss programs conducted in a group format. The mindfulness group included additional training in mindful eating, stress reduction, and emotion regulation while the control group included additional training in nutrition and physical activity. They measured reward-based eating, perceived stress, and weight loss at the end of the intervention and 6 and 12 months later.


They found that both groups lost weight over the intervention and maintained that weight loss a year later. There was a trend toward greater weight loss in the mindfulness group. Significantly, the mindfulness group demonstrated significantly greater reductions in reward-driven eating which were associated with great weight loss. There were no significant changes in perceived stress. These results suggest that mindfulness training may supplement diet and exercise in weight loss programs by improving the individual’s ability to refrain from reward-driven eating.


Reward-driven eating is characterized by a lack of control over eating, a preoccupation with food, and a lack of satiety. Craving is a key driver of this kind of behavior producing a drive to overeat highly palatable food for reward. This is a major obstacle to weight loss. Mindfulness training may improve the individual’s awareness of and attention to their internal state, thereby reducing responses to outside stimuli. Hence, mindfulness training may be effective for weight loss by reducing this obstacle of reward-driven eating, producing more normal eating in response to physiological cues of hunger and satiety.


It is interesting that mindfulness training did not reduce perceived stress as mindfulness has been repeatedly shown to reduce perceived stress. This may indicate that the stress of engaging in a diet and exercise program for weight reduction is immune to mindfulness intervention.


A strength of this study is that the control condition was so carefully crafted to be very similar to the mindfulness condition in all ways except for the mindfulness training itself. This is an unusually good control condition which accounts for the majority of potential confounding variables that could contaminate the results. As a result, it can be concluded with reasonable certainty that mindfulness training when added to a diet and exercise weight reduction program improves the outcome by reducing reward-driven eating.


So, reduce reward-driven eating with mindfulness.


“mindful eating does not have to be an exercise in super-human concentration, but rather a simple commitment to appreciating, respecting and, above all, enjoying the food you eat every day. It can be practiced with salad or ice cream, donuts or tofu, and you can introduce it at home, at work, or even as you snack on the go (though you may find yourself doing this less often).” – Jenni Grover


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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