Mindful Eating to Offset Food Cravings
Focusing on your breathing could decrease cravings, according to a new study.
Posted October 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Mindful eating is an alternative to dieting
- Mindful breathing might help to decrease cravings
- Learning to eat mindfully requires practice
You know the joke about dieting – “I’ve lost 100 pounds, only it’s the same ten pounds that I’ve lost 10 times.”
Unfortunately, for most dieters, it’s frustrating, not funny. Although weight loss from dieting is not impossible, for most dieters it’s difficult at best, and often futile. Part of the problem is that we live in an “obesogenic” environment. We are continually exposed to visual cues for attractive, energy dense foods. Seeing the food can elicit cravings. Sooner or later we give in and grab the food that is forbidden on the diet.
Researchers have used eye tracking methods to study the role of visual cues in eating. It’s been shown that, compared with their normal weight peers, people with obesity look at energy dense foods like ice cream or chips longer. Reducing the time spent viewing these foods might decrease cravings for them.
In a new study, researchers in Birmingham, England investigated the effects of a brief mindfulness breathing training on attention to food cues. Participants receiving the mindfulness training spent ten minutes listening to instructions about attention and breathing. They weren’t supposed to change anything, just focus on breathing. If their mind started to wander they were to bring the focus back to their breathing. Participants in the control group spent ten minutes listening to a natural history recording.
Seated in front of an eye tracker, participants in the study viewed a split screen with a pair of images of a high density food (e.g., burgers) and a low density food (e.g., broccoli). Participants who completed the mindfulness breathing meditation exercise gave more attention to low density foods; control subjects gazed at high density foods longer. The results suggest that a brief mindfulness intervention might reduce attention paid to energy dense foods and possibly reduce cravings for these foods.
It’s unlikely that mindful breathing training would result in significant weight loss by itself. Nonetheless there’s evidence that a more comprehensive mindful eating program would be clinically useful. For example, researchers at McGill University in Canada reviewed 19 studies of mindful eating programs. They found mindful eating was effective in reducing obesity-related eating behaviors and resulted in weight loss.
Becoming a mindful eater doesn’t happen overnight; typically repeated practice is necessary. Here are a couple of suggestions you can use to get started:
- Make eating a singular activity: turn off the TV, don’t read, text, or talk on the phone. If it feels weird eating without background noise try it for a few minutes and then add more time at the next meal.
- Pay attention to how you’re eating. Are you preparing the next fork-full while you’re chewing? Instead, put your fork down between bites. This will slow the pace of eating giving you the opportunity to focus on the different sensations each bite provides.
More detailed instructions can be found in several books including, Eating Mindfully by Susan Alpers. Mindful eating isn’t a miracle cure for obesity but if you’re frustrated with dieting it’s worth a try.
Hussain, M., Unchiasu, M., Wood, J., et al. (2022). Exploring mindfulness and mindful eating and visual attention towards food cues: preliminary findings. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 6, 402–416.
Carrière, K., Khoury, B. Günak, B.B., & Knäuper, B. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions for weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews 19, 164–177.
Alpers, S. (2003). Eating mindfully: How to end mindless eating & enjoy a balanced relationship with food. Oakland: New Harbinger.