Mindfulness is a “hot” topic at the moment. In the last decade hundreds of books have been written about mindfulness: mindful parenting, mindfulness for managers, and yes, also mindful eating. But does mindfulness actually improve your eating pattern, and if so, in what way?
Eating behaviour is often characterized as mindless. People pay little attention to the portion sizes of what they are eating and when distracted by television or by friends they may unconsciously increase their consumption. Generally, with the exception of small children, people pay only little attention to internal physiological signals of hunger or fullness. The question we asked ourselves in this research was: If mindlessness is related to consumers paying little attention to hunger and fullness cues, could mindfulness lead consumers to rely more on these internal physiological cues? We examined this for regular consumers – not focusing on people with eating disorders or people who are trying to lose weight, as is often the case in the popular literature on mindful eating. We were also interested in finding out whether it matters where mindful attention is focused. Mindfulness implies a state of enhanced attention, and mindfulness trainings vary widely in where they teach people to focus their attention; on their bodies, on the surroundings, or both.
To assess whether people rely on feelings of hunger and fullness in eating, we asked participants to consume either a low caloric or a very high caloric milkshake. People were unaware of how many calories their milkshake contained; in fact, they didn’t even know there were different types of milkshakes. So they could only sense how filling the milkshake was from their bodies’ feelings of fullness. After some time, participants were offered cookies and were free to take as many as they liked. If participants rely on feelings of fullness we expect them to eat less after the high caloric milkshake than after the low caloric milkshake. This is exactly what happens, but only for participants who are naturally mindful (that is, who score high on a mindfulness scale). Participants high in mindfulness adjust their cookie consumption to whether they have previously consumed a low or high caloric milkshake, indicating that they are more aware of how filling the milkshake was, whereas people who are low in mindfulness do not adjust their cookie consumption.
That is good news if you are naturally high in mindfulness and thus in tune with your body’s feelings, but what if you are not? Can a mindfulness exercise help then? This is what we tested in other experiments. We examined whether short mindfulness exercises of about 10 minutes can help people to rely on hunger and fullness signals. Participants were divided in three groups. One group listened to and performed a mindfulness exercise that focuses attention on breathing, posture, and internal body sensations like heart beat – all focused on the body but nothing directly related to hunger of fullness. A second group received a mindfulness exercise focusing attention on an external object in the surroundings, such as a picture of a nice landscape. And the third group simply listened to a recorded story. Only the participants who focused attention on the body adjusted their food intake to how much they had previously eaten and were more aware of the fullness cues that develop after consumption. This effect was not found for participants who focused mindful attention on an external object, thus showing that it matters where attention is focused.
Long term effects
Finally, we also looked at the long term effects of paying mindful attention to body sensations by tracking the monthly weight measures of participants using internet connected weighing scales over nearly three years. Persons who indicated to pay mindful attention to internal body cues in everyday life varied less in weight over this period of time. More long term research is needed here, but our findings show that mindful attention to the body appears to be associated with a more constant weight.
All in all, our findings suggest that mindful attention on your body can help you to rely on hunger and fullness cues in food consumption. This does not make you lose weight or eat less in all situations, but rather it allows you to eat more when hungry and less when full, thus helping to maintain a steady weight.
About Erica van Herpen
Erica van Herpen is associate professor in consumer behavior. Her general research topic is consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase in retail settings. Topics center on (1) general store context (store layout, atmospherics, social influence), (2) on-shelf product presentation (shelf organization, product packaging, health claims), and (3) the use of novel research tools such as the virtual supermarket. In addition, Erica examines consumer food waste.