Reduce Eating When Not Hungry with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Being mindful helps you gain awareness so you can identify specific cues that influence your eating behavior. Practicing mindfulness can change your actions so that you have a sense of greater control over eating. It allows you to make deliberate decisions about eating instead of acting without thinking. “ – Carolyn Dunn
Obesity has become an epidemic in the industrialized world. In the U.S. 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, while two thirds of the population are considered overweight or obese (BMI > 25). Although the incidence rates have appeared to stabilize, the fact that over a third of the population is considered obese is very troubling. This is because of the health consequences of obesity. Obesity is associated with cardiovascular problems such as coronary heart disease and hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and others. Indeed, obesity has been found to shorten life expectancy by eight years and extreme obesity by 14 years. Obviously, there is a need for effective treatments to prevent or treat obesity.
Eating is produced by two categories of signals. Homeostatic signals emerge from the body’s need for nutrients, is associated with feelings of hunger, and usually work to balance intake with expenditure. Non-homeostatic eating, on the other hand, is not tied to nutrient needs or hunger but rather to the environment and or to the pleasurable and rewarding qualities of food. 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 by affecting the individual’s response to non-homeostatic cues for eating. Indeed, high levels of mindfulness are associated with lower levels of obesity. Hence, mindful eating may counter non-homeostatic eating.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness and Laboratory Eating Behavior in Adolescent Girls at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5878719/ ), Annameier and colleagues recruited overweight or obese adolescent girls between 12 to 17 years of age who were at risk for the development of Type II diabetes. They were measured for body size and composition, mindfulness, episodes of loss of control (binge) eating in the past month, their state of hunger, and depressive symptoms. They were also tested in the lab where they were provided a buffet lunch meal and instructed to eat till they were no longer hungry. As a test of eating in the absence of hunger, an hour after the beginning of the lunch the girls were provided with an array of snacks (e.g. popcorn, chips, candy, and ice cream) and asked to taste them and rate them for liking. They were then left for 15 minutes and told that they could eat as much as they’d like. Their intake of the snacks was measured.
They found that the girls who reported engaging in loss of control eating during the previous month had higher body mass indexes (BMIs) and ate significantly more in the absence of hunger and tended to have lower mindfulness than the girls who did not report any cases of loss of control eating. They also found that the girls who reported engaging in loss of control eating ate more in the lunch when they were hungry. With the test of eating the snacks (eating in the absence of hunger) but not when eating hungry, they found that the higher the levels of mindfulness the lower the amount eaten.
Hence, mindfulness is related to lower intake when hunger is absent but does not affect intake when hunger is present. This suggests that mindfulness does not affect homeostatic eating but rather only affects non-homeostatic food intake. This is important as responding to hunger with intake is adaptive, satisfying the body’s need for nutrients. On the other hand, eating in the absence of hunger is ingesting unneeded food energy and may contribute to overweight and obesity. The fact that mindfulness only appears to affect eating in the absence of hunger suggests that it tends to counteract this more harmful form of eating.
So, reduce eating when not hungry with mindfulness.
“The moment you become aware that you are eating mindlessly, it’s hard not to “see” it anymore. When you sit on the coach robotically eating chips or at a bar popping peanuts into your mouth, you recognize the behavior right away. This little inner voice speaks up and says, “Hey, I am mindlessly eating right now!”” – Susan Albers
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Annameier, S. K., Kelly, N. R., Courville, A. B., Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Yanovski, J. A., & Shomaker, L. B. (2018). Mindfulness and Laboratory Eating Behavior in Adolescent Girls at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes. Appetite, 125, 48–56. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.01.030
Mindfulness-based intervention has become increasingly popular to address disinhibited eating in obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D). Theoretically, present-moment attention promotes the ability to recognize and respond to internal hunger cues and to differentiate physiological hunger from other stimuli. Yet, there is limited research describing the relationship of mindfulness with disinhibited eating patterns in adolescents. In this study, we evaluated the relationship of dispositional mindfulness to laboratory eating in 107 adolescent (12–17 years) girls at risk for T2D. Adolescents reported dispositional mindfulness, were evaluated for recent loss-of-control-eating (LOC-eating) by interview, and participated in two successive, standardized laboratory test meals to assess eating when hungry as well as eating in the absence of hunger (EAH). Adolescents rated state appetite throughout the test meal paradigms. In analyses adjusting for body composition and other possible confounds, mindfulness was inversely related to caloric intake during the EAH paradigm. Mindfulness did not relate to energy intake when hungry. Instead, there was a significant interaction of reported LOC-eating by state hunger, such that girls with recent, reported LOC-eating and high state hunger consumed more calories when hungry, regardless of mindfulness. Findings suggest that in girls at risk for T2D, mindfulness may play a role in disinhibited eating. A propensity for LOC-eating may be most salient for overeating in a high hunger state.