When You’ve Got Too Much on Your Plate: Mindful Eating

How do you eat? It’s a strange question: we usually ask ourselves what we’re eating, when we’re eating, or where we’re eating, but we don’t often wonder how we’re eating. How we eat, though, might be key in our feelings of food enjoyment and satiety. It could influence food cravings, emotional eating, and weight loss.

A study based in Austria looked at the effects of eating mindfully and prolonged chewing on food intake and cravings. The participants were individuals who were motivated to lose weight. The intervention group went through 4 sessions of training over an 8-week period, and the outcomes were compared with a control group.

The intervention focused on mindful eating. Participants learned to concentrate on sensations experienced when eating, including feelings of hunger and satiety. This focus on body sensations promotes intuitive eating, which is eating due to physiological hunger rather than situational or emotional cues. Participants also learned to focus on the gustatory experience, that is, the taste and enjoyment of food.  They learned other mindfulness techniques as well, including being aware and non-judgmental towards their reaction to food cues. Participants were taught to view these cravings and emotions in a broader perspective as being temporary and transient, in a method known as decentering (taking a step back from one’s feelings).

In addition to mindfulness-based interventions, participants in the intervention group were also taught a prolonged chewing method. Prolonged chewing promotes slower eating at mealtimes. It also breaks the food down into smaller pieces with more surface area, increasing the taste of the food and the enjoyment of food flavors.

The outcomes measured in this intervention were body mass index and food craving, as well as intuitive, emotional, and external eating. Emotional eating refers to eating due to emotional cues (for example, stress or sadness), while external eating is eating due to external cues (such as the presence or smell of food). Questionnaires were used to assess the outcomes throughout the intervention as well as 4 weeks post-intervention.

This mindful eating and prolonged chewing intervention showed a decreased in body mass index for the intervention group that persisted after the intervention. Participants who had received the intervention also had reduced food cravings, ate more often due to physiological hunger (intuitive eating), and less often due to emotions or external food cues (emotional and external eating). This intervention shows there might be a synergistic effect to mindful eating and slow eating with more chewing: one method may have enforced the other. With a total of 46 participants and an 8-week intervention with 4-week follow-up, this study would have to be replicated on a larger scale to fully understand the long-term impact these interventions can have on a wider population. However, these results are encouraging and show the benefits of conscious, slow eating.   

So, how do we eat? This is an important question, for ourselves and for our patients. Our lifestyle today is one with a lot of pressure and time constraints. We view mealtimes as convenient opportunities to multitask: we eat while catching up on some work or the latest Netflix series, or on the go while we move through our busy days. Furthermore, most weight-loss interventions emphasize calorie restriction and diet control, promoting a culture of deprivation. Not only do individuals struggle to maintain these interventions, but they could ultimately result in a pattern of emotional and binge eating. 

Eating should be seen as an experience in itself, one that should be consciously savored. It provides a respite in our day and stimulates our senses in a manner different from other activities. It can be an opportunity to socialize, whether it’s around the dinner table with family or at work with colleagues. When we skip conscious eating in favor of other activities, we put ourselves at risk of unhealthy eating patterns and deprive ourselves of these moments of enjoyment, socialization, and rest.

Schnepper R, Richard A, Wilhelm FH, Blechert J. A combined mindfulness-prolonged chewing intervention reduces body weight, food craving, and emotional eating. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2019 Jan;87(1):106-111. doi: 10.1037/ccp0000361. PMID: 30570305.

This article was written by Devangi Patel, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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