Mindfulness has received increased attention both in academia and the popular press as a tool to help manage anxiety and eating issues. By focusing on the present moment without judgment, mindfulness meditation would ideally help people better manage their emotions. A small new study suggests that for some people with eating disorders, however, mindful eating may not be so helpful.
The preliminary study, released online today in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, examined women’s emotions before and after eating a blueberry coffee cake. The researchers asked the women, with and without eating disorders, to either mindfully eat the cake or to engage in a distracting word search before eating. All women were asked to engage in the opposite exercise a week later so everyone experiened both mindful eating and the distraction.
There are many theories on how eating disorder behaviors such as binge eating or purging are related to emotions. For example, people may binge eat to soothe themselves, experience a temporary high, or avoid feeling any emotion. By practicing mindfulness while eating, people with eating disorders would theoretically be more aware of their emotions and the act of eating without dissociating or feeling numb. In contrast, a distraction exercise like the word search in this study would theoretically distance people from any emotions they are experiencing in the moment.
The 17 women with eating disorders in this study reported experiencing more negative emotion after eating mindfully compared to after eating followed the distraction exercise. In contrast, the women without eating disorders reported less negative emotion after the mindful eating exercise compared to the distraction exercise.
Why wouldn’t mindful eating help reduce negative emotion among women with eating disorders? The authors suggest that many of these women aren’t well equipped to understand their own hunger/fullness cues and paying attention to these feelings while eating would be difficult. We might also guess that the act of eating a coffee cake may contribute to more negative emotions among this group.
If people with eating disorders feel more negative emotion after mindful eating, should they avoid engaging in the practice? Negative emotions aren’t always a bad thing despite how intense they can feel. An important part of mental health is learning to manage emotions rather than trying to eliminate certain emotions. It would be interesting to see how the women with eating disorders in this study would have reacted after practicing mindful eating several times – would they continue feeling strong negative emotions? How would it affect other behaviors like purging or binge eating? Would they instead experience less negative emotion over time?
Another important question relates to differences among types of eating disorders. In this study, 10 women restricted their eating and 8 women binged/purged. How would people with binge eating disorder compare those with bulimia or anorexia when asked to engage in a distraction exercise before eating vs a mindful eating exercise?
Given the small number of people in this study, it’s difficult to come to a conclusion on the utility of mindful eating for people with eating disorders. For some people it definitely won’t be a pleasant emotional experience, but whether or not it’s worthwhile in the long-term is unclear.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology
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