Placing an emphasis on mindful — rather than mindless — eating could lead to healthier eating habits, the authors of a new study suggest.
The emotional aspect of eating – though widely recognized – is not as readily studied as some other aspects of human nutrition. But the findings of a new study in this area suggest that learning to pay attention to one’s emotions when making food and drink choices could be at least as effective as efforts by policy makers to improve nutrition labeling on products and to raise the general public’s knowledge of nutrition in fighting today’s obesity epidemic.
For the study (actually a group of four studies), the researchers sought to determine whether an ability-based program could strengthen a person’s ability to focus on goal-relevant emotional information. Based partly on the premise that “consumers are often mindless eaters”, a statement made in the 2007 book, “Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think”, the researchers sought to determine if providing a framework from which consumers could learn to pay better attention to their emotions could be an effective tool in helping them to resist unhealthy food choices.
The researchers devised a series of experiments to demonstrate that: emotional ability is trainable and that food choices can be enhanced (study 1), and; that emotional ability training improves food choices beyond a nutrition knowledge training program (study 2). A third study involved a test of a conceptual model indicating that emotional ability training increased goal-relevant emotional thoughts and reduced reliance on the unhealthy=tasty intuition, with both factors mediating mindful eating effects. In a final study, the researchers looked at how the long-term benefits of emotional ability training were demonstrated in a group of people by showing that emotionally trained individuals lost weight over a 3-month period, compared to a control group and nutrition knowledge training group.
In one study, participants were provided general training in recognizing basic emotions in both themselves others. They were then exposed to a variety of food products and packaging and asked to pay attention to the emotions they experienced and noticed in others. After the training, both the trained participants and control group who had not received the training were allowed an opportunity to select a snack – either a healthy item or a chocolate bar. The researchers found that those who had received the training were more likely to choose the healthy item.
After participants in both groups were weighed three months later, the researchers found that those who had received training in recognizing their emotions had, on average, lost weight while those who had received no training had gained weight.
“Together, these findings suggest that consumers can gain control over their food choices through enhancement of emotional ability,” wrote the authors of the study. Implications for policy officials, health care professionals, and marketers are discussed.
In their conclusions, the authors of the study urge consumer educational programs to place less emphasis on reading nutritional labels and more on encouraging exercises that improve emotional awareness.
1. Kidwell, Blair, Jonathan Hasford, and David M. Hardesty. “Emotional Ability Training and Mindful Eating.” Journal of Marketing Research (2014).
2. Wansink, Brian. Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. Random House LLC, 2007.