Science Behind The Mindfulness Diet

A growing body of scientific research supports the principles and practices of The Mindfulness Diet as a successful approach to establishing a healthy relationship to food and eating based on mindful eating, mind/body integration, stress management, and mindful awareness of body, mind, emotions, and behavior. Below are brief abstracts from over 30 studies from 1991 to the present that support the health benefits and science at the foundation of The Mindfulness Diet.

In 1991, a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that young children have an intuitive ability to eat from their innate bodily needs.1

In 1994, a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported that exposure to the media-portrayed thin ideal is related to eating pathology, and that greater internalization of this ideal predicted increased body dissatisfaction, which was related to heightened eating disorder symptoms.2

A 1997 study in the journal Health Psychology reported that “during weeks of high perceived stress, participants exercised significantly fewer days, omitted more planned exercise sessions, were less satisfied with their exercise, and had lower self-efficacy for meeting exercise goals.”3 Also in that year, in an article entitled A 10-Year Longitudinal Study of Body Weight, Dieting, and Eating Disorder Symptoms, it was reported that “dieting is a notoriously ineffective means of achieving weight loss [and that] the data indicate that most diets are doomed to fail.”4

In 1999, a mindful eating study reported that mindfulness training decreased both the frequency and severity of binge eating episodes. The same study also reported that mindfulness improved attitudes towards eating, and lessened depression and anxiety. In addition, the study reported that non-eating exercises such as forgiveness meditations helped to resolve common binge triggers, and that the participants were surprised that giving up a degree of conscious control over their eating actually led to increased control. Finally, it was reported that mindfulness contributed to becoming detached and non-critical toward the self, an aspect of mindfulness that appears important to the success of the intervention.5

In 2001, a study reported that media exposure is related to eating attitudes, self-objectification, and body dissatisfaction in both men and women. Participants who read fitness (men) or beauty (women) magazines had a greater concern about their physical appearance and exhibit more disordered eating behaviors than those who do not.6

A study in 2002 reported that a program of mindfulness led to effective and lasting reductions of symptoms of psychological distress, and enhanced well-being and quality of life.7

A 2003 study indicated that mindfulness led to reductions in anxiety.8 In 2003, another study reported that mindfulness led to significant improvement in mood states and reductions in psychological distress, compared with controls.9 In the same year, it was reported that mindfulness predicted self-regulated behavior and positive emotional states, and that increases in mindfulness over time relate to declines in mood disturbance and stress. The same study concluded that mindfulness “has a significant role to play in a variety of aspects of mental health.”10

A landmark study, also from 2003, reported that mindfulness exercises increased activity in those parts of the brain associated with happiness and optimism. The participants practicing mindfulness experienced a decrease in negative emotions, while those on the waiting list noticed no change. The difference was still present four months later.11 In the same year, another study reported that high stress is associated with a higher fat diet and less frequent exercise.12

In 2004, a study at the UCLA School of Medicine reported that by helping patients recognize thoughts and feelings and learn to look at them in a more detached way, mindfulness dampened overactivity in brain areas associated with compulsive behavior. In that year it was also reported that mindfulness training along with cognitive therapy could help prevent depression from returning, and prevent negative thinking, such as thoughts of failure or worthlessness.13

A 2005 study confirmed the growing evidence that mindful eating can lead to excellent improvements in binge eating symptoms.14 It was also reported that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, particularly in regions associated with attention and sensory processing.15

In 2006, a study indicated that mindfulness may be associated with better exercise outcomes.16 Another study reported that an 8-week mindfulness program led to a 32% overall reduction in stress symptoms, and a 56% reduction in total mood disturbance.17 A 2006 review of mindful eating approaches to eating disorders reported that each of the approaches “provides individuals with a heightened ability to simply observe feelings, behaviors and experiences, to disengage automatic and often dysfunctional reactivity, and then to allow themselves to work with and develop wiser and more balanced relationships with their selves, their eating, and their bodies.”18 Another study reported that television viewing increases viewers’ intake of high-density foods.19

In 2007, an article on mindful eating research reported that increases in mindfulness predicted decreases in the reported number of binges, and that more awareness of satiety cues was correlated with a reduction in the number of binges. Participants found that allowing the body to self-regulate (eating when hungry and stopping when full) was more satisfying than the diet-binge cycle that they were used to, and reported being pleasantly surprised by not gaining weight.20 Another study in 2007 reported on a link between mindfulness and exercise, saying that “intentions predicted physical activity among mindful individuals and not among less-mindful individuals.”21 Another article that year reported that mindfulness “provides a new dimension to assist in educating for a healthy body-mind unity.”22 And yet another article that year reported on the direct correlation between stress and weight gain.23

In 2008, it was reported that a study of an obese individual that included physical exercise, a food awareness program, mindful eating, and a mindfulness procedure as a self-control strategy, helped that individual to reduce his weight from 315 pounds to 171 pounds, increased his physical activity, helped him to eat healthy foods and stop eating rapidly, and substantially reduced his serious medical risk factors. 24 Also in that year, another study reported that a group intervention focused on mindful eating led to improvement in binge eating symptoms, depressive symptomatology, and emotion regulation skills and increased motivation to change maladaptive eating behavior.25 Another interesting study in 2008 reported that higher levels of mindfulness led to a “merging of action and awareness,” clear goals, improved concentration, and greater attentional control and emotional control.26

A 2009 study reported on mindfulness and weight loss showed that, particularly in those who applied the principles and practices of mindful eating consistently, there were greater increases in physical activity and significantly greater reductions in Body Mass Index.27 Another study reported that mindful eating is helpful for weight management and that “a growing body of literature … suggests that [mindful eating] and other mind-body strategies support and enhance a multi-modal weight loss program that focuses on lifestyle changes of diet, exercise, reduced stress, and mindful living.”28 A 2009 study reported preliminary support for the role of acceptance (allowing) and mindful eating in improving the quality of life of obese individuals while simultaneously augmenting their weight control efforts.29

In 2010, a new study suggested that mindfulness meditation could lead to more flexible emotional regulation and an enhanced ability to detach from negative states.30 Another study reported that mindful eating and other mindfulness-based strategies can effectively reduce food cravings in an overweight and obese adult population, and that this may be due to “prevention of goal frustration, disengagement of obsessive thinking and reduction of automatic relations between urge and reaction.”31 Another report reported that mindfulness training led to awareness of eating behaviors faster for the mindful eating group than a control group, and concluded that “mindful eating may be an effective approach towards dietary change.”32 Finally, another new study reported that disordered eating-related thinking was positively associated with poor psychological health, and inversely related to mindfulness. Mindfulness, which was “also inversely related to general psychological ill-health and emotional distress, was found to partially mediate the relations between disordered eating-related cognitions and the two predicted variables.”33

1Birch, L.L., et al. (1991) The variability of young children’s energy intake. New England Journal of Medicine, 324, 232-235.
2Slice, E. et al. (1994) Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: an examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 103, No. 4, 836-840.
3Stetson, B.A., et al. (1997) Prospective evaluation of the effects of stress on exercise adherence in community-residing women. Health Psychology, 16:6, 515-520.
4Heatherton, T.F. et al. (1997) A 10-year longitudinal study of body weight, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106:1, 117-125.
5Kristeller, J.L., et al. (1999) An exploratory study of a meditation-based intervention for binge eating disorder. Journal of Health Psychology, 4:3, 357-363.
6Morry, M.M., et al. (2001) Magazine exposure: internalization, self-objectification, eating attitudes, and body satisfaction in male and female university students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 33:4, 269-279.
7Majumdar, M., et al. (2002) Does mindfulness meditation contribute to health? Outcome evaluation of a German sample. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 8:6, 719–730.
8Tacon, et al. (2003) Mindfulness meditation, anxiety reduction, and heart disease. Family & Community Health, 26(1), 25-33.
9Rosenzweig, S., et al. (2003) Mindfulness-based stress reduction lowers psychological distress in medical students. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 15(2), 88–92.
10Brown, K., et al. (2003) The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84:4, 822-848.
11Davidson, R.J., et al. (2003) Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65:4, 564-570.
12Ng, D.M., et al. (2003) Relationships between perceived stress and health behaviors in a sample of working adults. Health Psychology 22(6): 638-42.
13Harvard Women’s Health Watch, February 2004.
14Baer, R., et al. (2005) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy applied to binge eating: A case study. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 12:3, 351-358.
15Lazar, S.W., et al. (2005) Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16:17, 1893-7.
16Ulmer, Christi S. (2006) Mindfulness as a moderator of coping response and the abstinence violation effect: A test of the role of mindfulness in the relapse prevention model for exercise. Dissertation Abstracts International, 68/3, 174.
17Minor, H., et al. (2006) Evaluation of a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program for Caregivers of Children with Chronic Conditions. Soc Work Health Care, 43:1, 91-109.
18Baer, R. (Ed.) (2006) Mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions: Conceptualization, application, and empirical support. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
19Anderson, D.R. (2006) On the road to obesity: Television viewing increases intake of high-density foods. Physiology & Behavior, 88:4-5, 597-604.
20Kristeller, J.L., et al. (2007) Mindfulness meditation: a treatment of binge eating disorder. In The Relevance of Wisdom Traditions in Contemporary Society: the Challenge to Psychology. Eburon.
21Chatzisarantis, N., et al. (2007) Mindfulness and the intention-behavior relationship within the theory of planned behavior. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 663-76.
22Lu, C., et al. (2007) Mindfulness: A new dimension in physical education. Future directions of research on teaching and teacher education in physical education conference. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
23Warne, J.P., et al. (2007) Stress, diet and abdominal obesity: Y? Nature Medicine, 13:7, 781-783.
24Singh N.N., et al. (2008) A mindfulness-based health wellness program for managing morbid obesity. Clinical Case Studies, 7:4, 327-339.
25Leaheya, T.M., et al. (2008) A cognitive-behavioral mindfulness group therapy intervention for the treatment of binge eating in bariatric surgery patients. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 15:4, 364-375.
26Kee, Y.H., et al. (2008) Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9:4, 393-411.
27Tapper, K., et al. (2009). Exploratory randomised controlled trial of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention for women. Appetite, 52:2, 396-404.
28Koithan, M. (2009) Mind-body solutions for obesity. Journal of Nursing Practice, 5:7, 536–537.
29Lillis, J., et al. (2009) Teaching Acceptance and Mindfulness to Improve the Lives of the Obese: A Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model. Ann. Behavioral Medicine, 37, 58-69.
30Chiesa, A., et al. (2010). Functional neural correlates of mindfulness meditations in comparison with psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy and placebo effect. Is there a link? Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 22:3, 104–117.
31Hugo, J.E.M., et al. (2010). Coping with food cravings. Investigating the potential of a mindfulness-based intervention. Appetite, 55:1, 160-163.
32Sopko, C. (2010). Evaluating a mindfulness intervention as an aid for dietary change. The Ohio State University. Department of Human Nutrition Honors Thesis.
33Masuda, A., et al. (2010). Mindfulness mediates the relation between disordered eating-related cognitions and psychological distress. Eating Behaviors, in press, corrected proof.