How mindful eating changes eating behaviours

I am often asked whether mindful eating works and how it works, so the focus of my research update will be on these two things.

The research review that I am reporting on today outlines the evidence for mindful eating and also proposes three ways in which mindful eating changes eating behaviours.

The research paper

The paper reviewed is “A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms” Nutrition Reviews (2017) 30, 272-283

A couple of new technical research terms this week:

intervention study tests a particular treatment or approach e.g. mindful eating program.

observation study on the other hand tracks people’s health in their usual day-to-day life.

This particular research review paper included results from both intervention and observation studies. In total, 68 research papers were included.

The researchers coded the different papers on whether they had positive, neutral, mixed or negative results on eating behaviours.


Summary of results from intervention studies

The intervention studies ranged in length from 6 weeks to 4 months, but one study was less than 6 weeks and one was longer than for months.

The types of interventions included mindfulness, mindful eating, intuitive eating, acceptance-based programs, and cognitive-based behavioural therapies. Some interventions included a combination of these different approaches.

Mindfulness and mindful eating had the biggest impact on reducing binge eating, emotional eating, and non-hunger eating.

These approaches also had a positive impact on changing food choices and produced mixed results on reducing body weight, which I will discuss below.

One study recorded blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and showed a lowering of blood sugar levels during the mindfulness-based program. 

Mixed results were received for mindful eating and risk markers for heart disease, bearing in mind there were only two research papers reporting on heart disease.


Summary of results from observation studies

Sixteen studies were included in the review, and they mostly reported on associations between an aspect of eating or mindfulness in relation to a health marker or outcome within existing research studies.

    • Intuitive eating was associated with a lower BMI in 4 studies.
    • Decreased emotional eating as linked to higher levels of mindfulness.
    • A higher level of mindfulness was negatively associated with energy-dense foods.
    • Overriding feelings of fullness were related to moderate to extreme levels of effort to maintain weight.
    • Greater mindfulness was associated with fewer binges and episodes of emotional eating.
    • Higher levels of mindfulness in people who had bariatric surgery were positively associated with controlled eating behaviour.

Potential mechanisms to change eating behaviours

#1 Increased awareness of, and increased responsiveness to, internal physical cues

    • Mindful eating has been shown to slow down the consumption of food.
    • Slowing down the pace of eating allows time for the feelings of satiety and fullness to register, supporting greater control over eating.
    • By eating more slowly, satiety is registered earlier and less food is consumed.

The use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has suggested that mindfulness works by increased awareness of the internal state, e.g. hunger, satiety, and fullness.

#2 Increased awareness of, and reduced responsiveness to, internal emotional cues

The practice of mindfulness trains our brain to notice distressing thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

By observing these distressing states, tolerance grows and the habit to eat in response to our discomfort reduces.

Mindfulness also reduces the misinterpretation of emotions as physical hunger, leading to less non-hunger eating.

MRI studies have shown that the practice of mindfulness leads to a quieting of the emotional parts of the brain.

#3 Increased awareness of, and reduced responsiveness to, external cues

Overeating can be a result of environmental triggers such as the size of packaging or portions of food.

The practice of mindfulness breaks the automatic eating behaviour of eating everything in the packet or on your plate.

Also the recognition, through mindfulness, that the attractiveness of foods is based on passing thoughts and beliefs, rather than real experiences, reduces the likelihood of purchasing and eating behaviours.

MRI results for a group of adults who had undergone an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, compared to a control group who had received no training, showed that the intervention group had a higher connection to their visual and auditory areas of the brain.


Transforming research results into everyday life

The researchers suggest that whilst the results from their review provide some explanation as to why mindful eating works, more research is warranted.

They also stated that whilst the weight-reduction results are mixed, meaning some studies showed weight loss and others didn’t, they strongly recommended that mindful eating be a part of healthy weight programs.

As in many areas of research longer studies are required to monitor results over time.

This has been a consideration for the Eating for You programs, as I am aware that changing habits takes time.

And this is why a membership program is in place to support ladies to achieve lasting results.

Like the research studies, our programs focus on changing thoughts, beliefs, and mindsets about food to support term changes to eating habits.

Ladies who have completed the Eating for You programs over 12 months ago report they are able to continue with the mindful eating practice and the weight naturally comes off.

The Eating for You programs are focussed on changing eating habits, not weight loss.


The Eating for You programs are focused on changing eating habits, not weight loss.

This was Judy’s experience:

A big breakthrough for me was getting rid of the diet rules about good foods and bad foods.

I realised that I had broken the diet and eaten cake and that my attitude was, Well, I may as well give up and eat more cake.

It was really all or nothing.

Breaking this habit of thought gave me confidence to work on other eating habits, really tune into hunger and satiety, and stop eating when I wasn’t hungry.

And I have lost weight gradually. And the good thing is, I know I can keep this weight off because I have changed my habits.

Want lasting weight loss too?

Join me on a free 15-minute mindful eating discovery call.

If I can help you, I will share a personalised tip to start changing your eating habits so you can enjoy lasting results for your health and weight.

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