Mindfulness is being used to help treat some types of eating disorders. Jean Kristeller, Professor of Psychology at Indiana State University, has developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT). Just as people who are addicted to drink or drugs get cravings for their preferred substance, so people whose “drug of choice” is food have a tendency to cope with stress by over-eating, often bingeing on foods high in sugar or carbohydrates.
Eating disorders are especially difficult addictions to handle because, unlike drugs or alcohol, it isn’t possible to steer clear of temptation — we all need to eat, several times a day. People who are drawn to binge have to find a way to face their triggers, without succumbing to habitual patterns.
MB-EAT incorporates a range of meditation practices designed to cultivate a more mindful relationship with food. In a culture where we often wolf down meals on automatic pilot, the experience of mindful eating powerfully illustrates how rich and multi-layered our experience can be, when we pay attention to it.
Practice: The Raisin Exercise
Perhaps you’d like to try the raisin exercise. The instructions are simple — take one raisin and place it in the palm of your hand. Offer your full attention to the object in front of you, exploring it as if you’d never seen such a thing before. Notice its weight and shape, its folds and hollows, really investigating how it looks from every angle. You might want to roll it around in your hand, or between your fingers and thumbs, or perhaps hold it up to the light — do the colors become more or less vivid depending on your vantage point? Tune in to the way the raisin feels as you hold it — do you notice any hardness, squidginess, stickiness, or dryness?
Whenever your attention drifts away from the raisin — perhaps into thoughts about what you’re doing, memories of previous times you’ve eaten raisins, or to something seemingly unrelated, just notice that your mind has wandered and return it to the raisin. Now, lift it up to your lips, but do not put it in your mouth yet. What happens? Is there an urge to gobble it? Do you automatically start producing saliva in anticipation? Perhaps place it under your nose for a while. What’s the smell like?
Now put the raisin on your tongue, but see if you can resist any urge to bite into it — first exploring the sensation on the tongue, and in different parts of the mouth, perhaps rolling it around, being curious about this experience. After a few moments, take a single bite, paying attention to the new sensations that arise — perhaps a burst of taste or juice.
Also notice any judgments you find yourself making: is the taste pleasant or disappointing? Perhaps you’re aware of a rush to swallow, or some irritation at doing the whole thing so slowly? Or maybe you’re really grateful to be tasting the raisin in this mindful way? Whatever your reaction, just hold that in awareness as you continue to watch what happens, chewing the raisin, but perhaps slower than you usually might.
Notice how it feels in the mouth as you work it into smaller and smaller parts. Finally, swallow the raisin, tracking its progress down through the throat and toward the belly, perhaps sensing the point at which you cease to feel the raisin as something separate from your body.
Practicing Mindful Eating
You can practice mindful eating with any piece of food — a satsuma, piece of chocolate, sandwich, or full gourmet meal. The point isn’t to munch everything at a snail’s pace — it’s to stay in contact with what’s happening in your body, mind, and feelings while you taste the food. Perhaps you could aim to eat one meal a week in this way, or just the first few mouthfuls of each meal. Can you pay particular attention to the sensations of hunger and fullness in your stomach? So many of us keep eating long after our bodies have had enough. With mindfulness, we can really sense how much food we want and need.
In MB-EAT, mindfulness of food practices takes center stage. By learning to be mindful of thoughts and feelings as they eat, participants become more aware of the mental and emotional triggers that can spark a binge, and notice how those triggers naturally arise, change, and evaporate without any need to act on them. This is the basis for appreciating food as a wholesome experience, rather than an addictive activity.
In a trial carried out by Jean Kristeller and her colleagues, an MB-EAT course was offered to 18 women with a diagnosis of binge-eating disorder — on average, they weighed 238 pounds, and went on food binges more than four times a week. By the end of the course, the average number of weekly binges had dropped to between one and two, while only four of the participants continued to show symptoms severe enough to be classed as binge-eating disorder. The women also reported feeling less depressed and anxious. Another study of more than 100 binge eaters found that those who practiced mindfulness were able to reduce their binges from four times to once a week.
©2012 by Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell.
All rights reserved. Excerpted with permission
of the publisher, Hay House Inc. www.hayhouse.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World
by Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell.
The Mindful Manifesto integrates the latest scientific and medical research on mindfulness with meditation’s historical context. We will see how mindfulness can: * treat mental health problems such as depression and anxiety * help us cope with the busyness of everyday life * improve our physical health and manage chronic illness * help us let go of unwanted behaviors and improve how we function in our relationships and jobs. And why stop there? Encouraging governments and other powerful institutions to take a mindful approach could make a massive difference to the health and happiness of the whole world.
About the Authors
Dr. Jonty Heaversedge is a general physician in a large practice in South East London. He completed a degree in psychology and then a Masters in Mental Health Studies, and continues to pursue a particular interest in the psychological health and well-being of his patients. Jonty is a regular contributor to television and radio, and has become an increasingly familiar face on the BBC and BBC1. Visit his website: www.drjonty.com
Ed Halliwell is a writer and mindfulness teacher. He is the author of the Mental Health Foundation's Mindfulness Report (2010), and writes regularly for The Guardian and Mindful.org on meditation, Buddhism, psychology, and well-being. He is an authorized meditation instructor, and a partner in Mindfulness Sussex. He is also a faculty member at the School of Life, which offers a variety of programs and services concerned with how to live wisely and well. Visit him at: http://edhalliwell.com/ and http://themindfulmanifesto.com