Mindful Eating Gone Horribly, Horribly Wrong

buddha question markA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a continuing education course (gotta get those CEUs!) called “The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” I was initially disappointed by the description that focused heavily on mindful eating as a treatment for obesity and stated, “Research shows that mindfulness practices can lead to altered gene expression and neuroplasticity. These and other changes can positively influence resilience, self-regulation, and well-being, which in turn improve weight management efforts [emphasis mine].” You had me until the incredible logic leap to “improve weight management efforts,” but I wanted to hear what kind of evidence they were using to show that mindful eating would lead to long-lasting weight loss anyway, just to ensure that I continue to be as fully informed on the subject as I can be.

There were things I loved about the class. I loved what I learned about meditation and all the wonderful benefits it can provide. I loved the mindfulness exercises which instantly cleared my head and instilled in me a sense of calm, at least for a few minutes (not at all my natural state). I enjoyed the mindful eating exercises, which I have done before, because they are always instructive (yep, still don’t like raisins).

What I didn’t love: the scant evidence they were using to show that mindfulness could produce long-lasting weight loss. The studies were few, the results were minimal, the sample size small, and the duration of the studies were always less than three years – about the time people start to regain weight after any sort of intentional weight loss efforts. And the stigmatizing of obesity throughout the class was bad. I couldn’t help wonder how this stigmatizing affected some of my “obese” classmates who hadn’t ever heard of Health at Every Size®. Would they try mindful eating in the hopes of fixing their “wrong” fat bodies? And when it failed to make them thin, which seems at this point to be the most likely outcome, would they abandon mindful eating for the next diet to come along that promised weight loss?

And then recently I came across this article  about this study, which concluded, “Mindful people are less likely to be obese and are more likely to believe they can change many of the important things in their life.” While the article is careful to initially point out that mindful eating hasn’t been shown to be a “cure” for obesity or even necessarily help people lose weight, they then go on to talk about how mindful eating might help with willpower to make better food choices and stick to an exercise plan which might help one to not become obese. Even though that’s pretty much impossible to determine from this study (the study found that people who scored higher on a mindfulness scale had a lower prevalence of diabetes and obesity, and a higher sense of control over their lives. Period. They didn’t find that fat people were turned into thin ones by meditation).

Although I am no expert on mindfulness, from what I have learned, I think there are wonderful things there. I think mindful eating probably has the potential to help people reconnect with their bodies, improve their relationship to food, practice self-care and maybe even improve health. But I can’t help but think, if you come at mindful eating with the idea the particular outcome must be weight loss, you’ll never even come close to eating nirvana. Mindfulness involves non-judgment, and I can’t think of anything more judgmental than feeling the need to change your weight or shape. I’m imagining second guessing, frustration with the scale, a distraction from the true joy that can be found in eating. A focus on weight loss – an external thing – doesn’t seem mindful at all.

I think this mindful-eating-as-obesity-cure is the tip of the iceberg. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of progress; as the non-diet, Health at Every Size® message spreads, there will be those who want to co-opt the language and the ideas but subvert it into another weight-loss industry money maker. Don’t be fooled. Be a mindful consumer (see what I did there?). If someone is offering weight loss, ask to see their evidence, especially the long-term results.

Check out this great summary of what mindful eating is all about from AmIHungry.com. Stigmatizing messages of weight loss are wonderfully absent.

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5 thoughts on “Mindful Eating Gone Horribly, Horribly Wrong

  1. Dylan February 29, 2016 / 10:04 am

    Eating nirvana! Love it!

  2. jodietitian March 1, 2016 / 5:25 am

    great post! I think for many it is really hard to shake that drive to change their bodies…..which is too bad because learning how to be “mindful” and getting more “in tune” with your body (hunger, energy level, etc) has nothing to do with weight, and more to do with figuring out how to take care of yourself so you can FEEL GOOD. I love going to those seminars too, but I will skip that one when it comes to New England! Thank you for the update!

    • GlenysO March 1, 2016 / 8:53 am

      The doctor who ran it was from the MB-EAT program. I much prefer Intuitive Eating and Ellyn Satter’s models over MB-EAT as it turns out!

  3. kellbrigan March 1, 2016 / 7:22 am

    Same old. Back in the 60s, Orbach stared up the “love yourself as you are now so that you’ll stop being what you now because what you are now is icky but you’re only icky now because you don’t love yourself” bullshit. Just another attempt to justify bigotry.

    • GlenysO March 1, 2016 / 8:52 am

      I feel your frustration. I read “Fat is a Feminist Issue” when I started my HAES journey and was dismayed how much it was about still trying to change the fat body. I believe Susie Orbach has had quite a shift since then and works more towards body-acceptance, and seems to have dropped the “and this will help you lose weight” part. I think, though, she works more to eradicate eating disorders and stays safely away from the fat-is-okay message. I’ll do some more reading to see what her message is now.

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