Science - September 26, 2013

Focused eater listens better to body

Rob Ramaker

Mindfulness leads to better dosing of food.
Self-awareness may work better for overeaters than adapting their environment.

We all know the scenario. As you watch television you repeatedly dip into a bag of crisps and suddenly it’s empty. Surely you haven’t just single-handedly consumed 150 grams of crisps? ’Fraid so. Time and again nutrition researchers have shown that we eat more when we are distracted, whether by computer games, television, or even company. Nutrition scientist Brian Wansink even wrote a book on the subject: Mindless Eating.

For her PhD research, Evelien van de Veer investigated whether this phenomenon works the other way round as well. She looked at whether focused peopled listen better to sensations of hunger or satiety. In doing so she made use of the concept of mindfulness, which means something like ‘being aware without judging’.  This term originated in Buddhism and has become popular among psychologists over the past few decades. They use relaxation exercises to help their patients concentrate on their bodies. This kind of therapy is used to alleviate chronic pain and depression, for example.

Compensatory behaviour

In six experiments, Van de Veer found evidence that mindfulness caused test subjects to listen better to their bodies. In one experiment, for example, students were given a fatty and a light milkshake, of which they were free to consume as much as they liked a little later. A questionnaire revealed how focused the test subjects were by inclination. ‘Focused’ students appeared to compensate after drinking a fatty milkshake by snacking less. They did not compensate for a light milkshake. The students who were distracted more easily displayed no compensation behaviour and snacked to the same extent after both milkshakes.  

But self-awareness can lead someone to compensate precisely by eating more. In one experiment the test subject listened to a recording. What some of them heard was a body-focused mindfulness exercise while the others heard an informative narrative. Afterwards half the participants ate a large granola bar and the other half a small one. The students then participated in a fake tasting test in which they were free to eat as many cookies as they liked. The researchers secretly monitored how many cookies everyone ate. The focused test subjects turned out to compensate for the small granola bar by eating more cookies. Once again, the other participants did not join in this compensatory behaviour.


Van de Veer’s conclusions do not seem to lend themselves to instant practical applications. But the results do underline the useful­ness of support for overeaters. ‘Now efforts often concentrate on changing the environment,’ says Van de Veer. ‘But people will always find themselves facing temptations.’ A focused eater can probably maintain a stable weight over a longer period of time.

What is meant by mindfulness?
It is not always easy to work with an undefinable concept such as mindfulness. ‘Mindfulness does not objectively exist as such of course,’ responds Anne Speckens, professor of Psychiatry at the Radboud University Nijmeegen, by email. ‘Everyone practices it and interprets it in their own way.’ Van de Veer saw mindfulness as a character trait. In some tests she stimulated it with a four-minute exercise. Other psychologists see mindfulness as the skill of maintaining focus. This has to be learned in an intensive course followed by regular practice.

Foto: Sweet Object