Be Better at Resisting Food with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Mindfulness is paying attention to your surroundings, being in the present moment. Mindful eating is eating with purpose, eating on purpose, eating with awareness, eating without distraction, when eating only eating, not watching television or playing computer games or having any other distractions, not eating at our desks.” – Carolyn Dunn
Eating is produced by two categories of signals. Homeostatic signals emerge from the body’s need for nutrients and usually work to balance intake with expenditure. Hedonic eating, on the other hand, is not tied to nutrient needs but rather to the pleasurable and rewarding qualities of food, also known as food cues. These cues can be powerful signals to eat even when there is no physical need for food.
Mindful eating involves paying attention to eating while it is occurring, including attention to the sight, smell, flavors, and textures of food, to the process of chewing and may help reduce intake. Indeed, high levels of mindfulness are associated with lower levels of obesity and mindfulness training has been shown to reduce binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. It is suspected that mindful eating counters hedonic eating.
Mindfulness has two main components the first is present moment awareness while the second is decentering. This is a less well appreciated component of mindfulness. Decentering changes the nature of experience by having the individual step outside of experiences and observe them from a distanced perspective and be aware of their impermanent nature. The individual learns to observe thoughts and feelings as impermanent objective events in the mind rather than personally identifying with the thoughts or feelings. In other words, they’re not personal but simply things arising and falling away. This way of viewing the world should make the individual less responsive to outside stimuli.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Reduces Reactivity to Food Cues: Underlying Mechanisms and Applications in Daily Life.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435775/ ), Keesman and colleagues review the published research literature on present moment awareness and decentering and reactivity to the stimuli from foods. They examine the ability of present moment awareness and decentering to decrease the individual’s resistance to food cues.
They found that the literature reported that when participants were induced to produce a decentering perspective rather than a present moment perspective, there was a large drop in their attraction to food and cravings for foods, and an increase in healthy food choices. Indeed, participants with a decentering perspective produced less saliva when confronted with an energy dense attractive food. There was even a reduction in chocolate consumption over a week when adopting a decentering perspective. Finally, it was reported that meditators who were high in decentering had much fewer food cravings.
Hence, decentering reduces reactivity to food cues while simple present moment awareness does not. It is likely that seeing these cues and one’s response to them as impermanent may well make the individual more resistant to them. It is also possible that seeing one’s response to foods cues as mere thoughts that come and go, makes it easier to resist them. Regardless, it is clear that mindfulness, particularly decentering reduces the ability of food cues to affect the individual’s behavior.
So, be better at resisting food with mindfulness.
“mindfulness can disrupt that automatic reaction by reducing the appeal of unhealthy foods. . . the trick is to think of your food craving, when it pops up, as nothing more than a mere thought. “It’s really like a soap bubble. As soon as you touch it, it’s going to disperse.” – Esther Papies
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Keesman, M., Aarts, H., Häfner, M., & Papies, E. K. (2017). Mindfulness Reduces Reactivity to Food Cues: Underlying Mechanisms and Applications in Daily Life. Current Addiction Reports, 4(2), 151–157. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-017-0134-2
Purpose of Review
Mindfulness-based interventions are becoming increasingly popular as a means to facilitate healthy eating. We suggest that the decentering component of mindfulness, which is the metacognitive insight that all experiences are impermanent, plays an especially important role in such interventions. To facilitate the application of decentering, we address its psychological mechanism to reduce reactivity to food cues, proposing that it makes thoughts and simulations in response to food cues less compelling. We discuss supporting evidence, applications, and challenges for future research.
Experimental and correlational studies consistently find that the adoption of a decentering perspective reduces subjective cravings, physiological reactivity such as salivation, and unhealthy eating.
We suggest that the decentering perspective can be adopted in any situation to reduce reactivity to food cues. Considering people’s high exposure to food temptations in daily life, this makes it a powerful tool to empower people to eat healthily.