When the bowl of trail mix passed through the group, each person snagged three pieces: two of the same, one that was different. When instructed, they each ate their first duplicate piece – chewing slowly, savoring the flavor. After a few moments, they then ate the duplicate, chewing just as slowly to identify the flavors.
The crowd members then ate their final piece before discussing the experience. A man’s arm shot up in the air. “I don’t really like this kind of chocolate,” he spoke of his realization out loud. “I was so happy when I saw the chocolate pieces in there. I thought I loved that. I don’t like them at all.”
“Taking a few moments to just stop and pay attention, that’s what mindfulness is about,” said Jean Kristeller, professor emerita of psychology at Indiana State University and a prominent researcher of mindfulness-based eating techniques. She led the activity that helped the man learn the truth about a food he thought he liked. “[It’s] just stopping and paying attention, being in the moment and staying in the moment, rather than immediately reacting or going onto something else.”
Kristeller has developed mindfulness-based eating techniques, which help cultivate awareness and the ability to recognize cues that many people take for granted when eating falls into a predictable pattern. Different experiential cues such as stress also can trigger people to eat more during meals and at times when they are not actually hungry.
Yet, Kristeller pointed out, simply slowing down to learn the human body’s hunger and satiety cues could prevent people from making choices about food and eating that they later regret.
“One of the things that happen with eating disorders, but also obesity in general, is that people become really disconnected from a healthy use of hunger and satiety cues,” said Kristeller, who also is co-founder of the national Center for Mindful Eating. “They stop tuning into what the body is telling them. We’ve found that those signals are all available to people if they stop and pay attention to them, even for individuals who have very challenging eating and weight issues.”
Mindfulness-based eating is the opposite of dieting in that the mindful approach emphasizes the importance of flexibility, rather than imposing set guidelines of what to eat and when.
“Diets can help people get on a better track and lose weight more rapidly, but the downside of most diets is that they disconnect us further from our internal needs around food and awareness of hunger and appetite,” Kristeller said. “The foods you’re not supposed to eat are the ones you get in trouble with after the diet ends, and yet you don’t learn anything about how to eat those foods more appropriately. In the MB-EAT (Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training) program, people learn how to eat and truly enjoy small amounts of the foods they crave – such as cookies or ice cream – instead of these being foods that cause constant struggle and regret.
“What we find is that automatic eating is more of an issue for most people than stress-related eating,” she added. “We just have these habits and patterns that develop.”
She also has conducted extensive research in the area, including five projects that have received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Her work with mindful eating has a long history. In the first research study, then-Indiana State doctoral student C. Brendan Hallett approached Kristeller to do a dissertation using meditation. Hallett regularly practiced meditation and was aware of the benefits that mindfulness-based approaches could have in people’s lives. Kristeller had already developed a pilot program using mindful eating before coming to ISU while she was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, working with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the widely used Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.
At ISU, Hallett worked with Kristeller to adapt the program for women with binge-eating disorder. In his dissertation research, Hallett found that the program was very effective, and that participants who engaged in mindfulness-based meditations improved their eating-related behaviors more than those who did not use the meditations.
People are born with the ability to self-regulate their eating, but many people lose touch with this ability “as they are bombarded with messages from media, the diet industry and well-meaning parents about how they should be eating,” said Hallett, now a psychologist and clinical director of the Salt Lake City-based Center for Human Potential.
“Instead of listening to internal cues, people come to rely on rigid external rules that may not work well for them,” he added. “People often don’t know when they are hungry and when they are full. They are disconnected from their bodies … as well as emotions.”
Hallett still uses mindfulness-based approaches when counseling patients, integrating mindfulness with other psychotherapy techniques.
“Being mindful of one’s body, thoughts and emotional state leads to self-awareness and self-control,” Hallett said. “We learn to be less reactive to our impulses. This not only helps with issues around eating, but also in coping with life stressors.”
The results of his dissertation led to Kristeller’s team at ISU working with Duke University to receive their initial NIH-funding for their research. That study involved men and women with binge eating disorder, which led to very similar results to Hallett’s dissertation.
“They decreased the amount of binging to about once a week, which still indicates some problems but is far less than four to five times a week,” Kristeller said. “They felt better about themselves, and they felt better about being in control of their food.”
In a recently completed study funded by NIH, Kristeller received a $1.8 million grant to study the effects of the MB-EAT program on people who weighed on average 250 pounds; 30 percent of them also had binge eating disorder. In this study, she added components that help people deal more mindfully with nutritional and calorie choices.
The researchers found that the improvement in eating carried over to those who did not have binge eating problems – and that on average, people were also able to lose about one pound per week. In an NIH-funded study with Ohio State University, Kristeller found that these results extended to individuals with Type II diabetes.
Two other studies that are being conducted with the University of California-San Francisco are exploring whether the effects extend to individuals with stress-related eating but without binge eating disorder, and to women who are at risk of gaining too much weight during pregnancy.
Yet not everyone who struggles with eating-related issues is overweight or suffers from other disorders. One study that Kristeller conducted of healthy college students found that 80 percent of participants admitted to eating more when they were experiencing stress – yet this did not reach the level of binging for most of them. Many people also “automatically” eat mindlessly because of long-time practices, such as eating all the food that is on the plate, which many people were taught to do when they were children.
“In the mindful eating program, we really emphasize that, rather than having a constant struggle around eating, you can really become friends with eating and become comfortable with making many small choices,” Kristeller said. “The mindfulness will help you cultivate not only a healthier, but happier with food – including enjoying eating more, instead of being constantly anxious about it.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations.