The Merits of Mindfulness
How Mindfulness Practice Can Enhance Health and Well-Being
By Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD
There’s no mistake that mindfulness is trending. It’s a classic case of “what’s old is new again.” Although mindfulness is more than 2,500 years old and often associated with Buddhism, today mindfulness merges theory, knowledge, and practices from many parts of the world and many disciplines—notably psychology and neuroscience. What does this traditional, yet steeped-in-science, practice have to offer you and your clients or patients?
What Is Mindfulness, and Why Is It Helpful?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Most people who participate in similar programs or others such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy have reduction of negative feelings as a goal. Few, at least in these programs, have spiritual goals. People from all walks of life—religious, spiritual, or not—can benefit from a mindfulness practice.
Why? Because it’s easy to be controlled by our thoughts and not even notice. Developing our “mindfulness muscle” helps us become aware of what’s going on around us as well as within us—our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and body sensations. The nonjudgmental part is important because noticing potentially uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is challenging if we judge ourselves for having them. Our newfound awareness gives us more choice in the actions we take, allowing us to stop living on autopilot and unhook from habitual, unhelpful patterns. We can respond to internal and external stimuli, rather than react.
Most research on mindfulness uses mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; improve symptoms of chronic pain; and support immune system health.1-3 Research also demonstrates that mindfulness meditation produces positive changes in areas of the brain related to emotions and behavior change.4 However, mindfulness meditation—which is really a form of attention training—isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness. Almost anything can be a mindfulness practice, as long as it involves practicing nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Being aware of your posture as you sit, your movements as you go for a walk, or the sensations of brushing your teeth can become a mindfulness practice. So can mindful eating.
What Mindful Eating Is — And Isn’t
The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindful eating in the following four ways5:
- allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom;
- using all your senses in choosing to eat food that’s both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body;
- acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes, or neutral) without judgment; and
- becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.
The transformative nature of mindfulness has led to its appropriation—some would say co-option—by many businesses and industries, including the weight loss industry, eager to promote a sort of “mindfulness diet.” Accordingly, there’s much research on whether mindless eating causes weight gain, and whether mindful eating can lead to weight loss, even though much of it is inconclusive. In spite of that, while most books on mindful eating focus on an improved relationship with food, many offer weight loss as a possible outcome, and a few books essentially promise weight loss. However, just as mindless eating doesn’t always lead to weight gain, mindful eating isn’t a weight loss “magic bullet.”
As with mindfulness itself, mindful eating promotes awareness, which can help people break free of habitual—and possibly unhelpful—ways of eating. Eating mindfully also can enhance the pleasure of food, which may mean being satisfied with one cookie instead of five. If a client or patient has been mindlessly overeating, and being mindful helps him or her make more attuned decisions about how much food to eat, then that could lead to weight loss, but there’s no guarantee.6
Mindful eating’s true value doesn’t lie in its potential utility as a weight loss tool. It’s really about increasing interoceptive awareness—the awareness of bodily sensations.7 This includes hunger, fullness, and satiety—all of which can help patients cultivate more healthful eating behaviors. It also includes awareness of other physical sensations, such as tension, fatigue, thirst, and emotional states. Increasing interoceptive awareness may help reduce emotional eating, binge eating, and eating in response to visual cues in the absence of hunger.8 Not surprisingly, mindfulness and interoceptive awareness are integral parts of intuitive eating.
As with other habits that have intrinsic benefits—eg, eating nutritious foods, engaging in regular physical activity—promising patients that meditating or practicing mindful eating will lead to weight loss makes it likely that they will abandon their mindfulness practice if weight loss doesn’t happen. So being careful to understand and correctly communicate the benefits of mindfulness can help dietitians guide clients and patients to better physical, mental, and emotional health.
— Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is the nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times, owner of Nutrition By Carrie, and author of Healthy for Your Life: A Holistic Guide to Optimal Wellness.
1. Hofmann SG, Gómez AF. Mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2017;40(4):739-749.
2. Hilton L, Hempel S, Eweing BA, et al. Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Behav Med. 2017;51(2):199-213.
3. Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13-24.
4. Gotink RA, Meijboom R, Vernooij MW, Smits M, Hunink MG. 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice. Brain Cogn. 2016;108:32-41.
5. The principles of mindful eating. The Center for Mindful Eating website. https://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org/Principles-Mindful-Eating
6. Warren JM, Smith N, Ashwell M. A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutr Res Rev. 2017;30(2):272-83.
7. Farb N, Daubenmier J, Price CJ, et al. Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. Front Psych. 2015;6:763.8. Kristeller J, Wolever RQ, Sheets V. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT) for binge eating: a randomized clinical trial. Mindfulness. 2014;5(3):282-297.