Woman eating with pleasure.

Nourishing the Heart: How Mindful Eating Impacts Cardiovascular Health

Are you familiar with mindful eating? Did you know there are a number of formal studies looking at heart health-related outcomes of mindful eating programs? What does the evidence show?

Read on and we’ll examine it, after a quick look at what exactly we mean by mindful eating.

What is mindful eating?

Eating mindfully is simply the practice of really paying attention to the experience of eating, physically and emotionally, without judgement.

It’s pretty much the opposite of the multitasking, inhale-it-on-the-go, barely-noticed-the-taste style of eating so many of us often practice. (Myself included!)

Mindful eating is applied mindfulness, as famously described by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

It involves noticing all the sensations involved in eating, from how the food looks and smells to how it feels in your mouth, how it sounds when you bite, to (of course!) how it tastes. Hand holding a cookie

You also take note of feelings related to hunger and fullness, as well as how your body feels afterwards: Bloated or sluggish? Energized? Pleasantly satisfied?

In addition, the idea is to also pay attention to the emotions and thoughts brought on by certain foods. But the goal is to just observe. No good/bad judgements. If you find yourself thinking “Ugh, I have no willpower,” or similar negative thoughts, gently move your focus back to the eating experience.

Acceptance and simply being present while eating are the goals.

What mindful eating is NOT

Don’t confuse mindful eating with being “careful” about food. We’re not talking about mindful as in “mind your manners.”

Eating mindfully doesn’t mean conscientiously following rules, eating less, or eating certain foods, but rather simply paying attention to your experience of eating. It might help you to feel satisfied with less food, but that’s not the focus.

And finally, mindful eating is also not necessarily slow or distraction-free, although those can help, especially when you’re first learning to eat more mindfully. You don’t have to eat every meal or snack in silence, over hours. (Phew!)

If heart health is a priority for you, how can mindful eating help?

The research, which is relatively preliminary in nature, is more about heart health related findings versus heart disease specifically.

Can mindful eating improve blood pressure or cholesterol? There is a good study supporting a reduction in blood pressure, but not much about cholesterol.

The best evidence for mindful eating is around binge eating, reducing the frequency and severity of binging episodes, a compelling benefit for many of my clients.

There’s also some evidence that it helps with emotional eating and what researchers call “external” eating — eating in response to the sight, smell, and taste of food versus actual hunger. Neither is necessarily a problem, but you may get to the point where you want to do it less often.

All three of those behaviours have been linked to weight gain, so addressing them may help prevent or slow it down, but there isn’t clear and consistent weight loss tied to mindful eating. Participants in some studies lose a bit, on average, at least in the short run, some don’t. It doesn’t appear to be any better for weight loss than conventional approaches, which isn’t saying much.

(Note that most participants in these studies were Caucasian women, so the results may not be generalizable to men or other ethnic groups.)

What about diabetes?

Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, so it’s worth looking at those findings as well. In one study, mindful eating worked as well as (but not better than) intensive dietary counselling for weight and blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes, so it could be an alternative for those who would rather not count every calorie. At the very least, another tool in your toolbox.

Other studies showed improvements in nutrition and eating-related self-efficacy (the belief that you can do it) and diabetes-related quality of life, although not fruit and vegetable intake.

One study in gestational diabetes, which can double heart disease risk, demonstrated significant improvements in blood sugar control, although the mindful eating practice was combined with yoga, so it’s hard to say which made the biggest difference.

These diabetes findings are all based on single studies, so more research is definitely needed.

Other Related Outcomes

Mindfulness and mindful eating have also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as symptoms of depression, which may improve the long-term prognosis for people with heart disease, and lower risk for those without. Emotional health and heart health are closely linked.

(Mindful eating may also help with stress-related digestive problems. Not heart-related, but good to know if you need it.)

One Caveat

It’s important to note, however, that these benefits were seen in research settings where participants typically participated in structured multi-week programs led by a trained professional.

Can you get the same results on your own? Maybe. It might be worth a try. (See resources below.) Plus, you may find it helps you in more subjective ways that are less likely to make it into a medical journal, but perhaps are as impactful for you personally.

Subjective Benefits?

I often say that food is one of life’s great pleasures, but not if it’s just another thing to rush through on our to-do list.

Really paying attention to the taste and texture of our food can heighten enjoyment of eating. (And the resulting sense of satisfaction might just keep you from rummaging around the kitchen for more.)

For some, gaining insight into how your mind and body respond to certain foods and eating habits can be empowering. You may start to really trust your wisdom and your decisions around eating, rather than relying on a diet or (dare I say) a dietitian to tell you what and how much to eat.

I had a client tell me once that food was the four-letter “F word” in her life. If food causes you a lot of grief too, mindful eating might just help you build a better relationship with it. It’s hard to measure, but beneficial nonetheless.

Programs used in the research

The structured programs used in research settings can be expensive and tough to find, but it’s not impossible. Search for “mindfulness-based eating awareness training” (MB-EAT), which is one of the widely studied approaches, along with the name of your city, to see if anything comes up. There are more and more online courses as well.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is also well researched. It’s not specific to eating, but it was used alongside mindful eating practices in some of the studies I cited above. It’s been shown to reduce stress and emotional reactivity, as well as improve mood, focus, and memory. Uh, yes please.

Other treatments used include Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Less formal approaches

If participating in a program like that isn’t realistically going to happen for you, you can still practice mindful eating.Woman enjoying her food

Take a peek at The Center for Mindful Eating. They have many excellent free or low-cost recordings and webinars.

Calgary dietitian Vincci Tsui, RD wrote The Mindful Eating Workbook, which I found quite helpful. As the name implies, it’s a workbook, so instead of just reading, you do thoughtful exercises and write down your insights.

Michelle May, M.D. and Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RD, CDCES are also well-recognized leaders in this field, offering (paid) online courses in mindful eating, including for those with diabetes/prediabetes and binge eating. But their website also offers free resources and a series of books.

There are lots of other professionals offering mindfulness and mindful eating instruction, but these are ones most often used in the research. Whatever approach appeals to you, the key is that “a mindful state develops over time and with regular practice, both formally and informally, on a daily basis.”

Even if you don’t tackle a formal mindful eating course or book, you can commit to simply taking a couple of deep breaths before you eat, focusing your attention on at least the first bite, and trying to eat more slowly. It’s not easy when you have a lot on your plate I know, but the benefits are compelling.

Want to try it?

While it might take a bit of a commitment to see the benefits mentioned above, this exercise can give you a taste of mindful eating, so to speak. Grab a few raisins, a piece of candy, or any finger food you’d like to experience more mindfully. (The exercise starts at 3:17 after an introduction.)

It’s a reading from Vincci Tsui’s Mindful Eating Workbook.

As I described above, it leads you through really experiencing the food with all your senses, letting it linger in your mouth, nonjudgmentally considering how it differs from your typical eating experiences.

Either way, relax, enjoy, and let us know what you think, in our free Facebook group.

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