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Making better food choices with mindfulness

Mindfulness has been touted as the antidote to stress and the path to serenity. But can it also help us make better food choices?

Dr Felix Septianto, a lecturer in marketing at the Faculty of Business and Economics and doctoral student Amy Errmann decided to test that question in research funded by the Food and Health Programme at the University of Auckland.

In their trial there were two groups of people. One group took part in a mindfulness meditation session. The other group was taught how to restring a guitar. Neither group was told what was going to happen next, which was an offer of two choices of food, a healthy salad or a turkey and cheese sandwich. The result? 70 percent of the mindfulness group selected the healthy option, and only 43 per cent of the group of guitar stringers. The trial was carried out by collaborators at the Korea University in Seoul with 120 participants aged between 18 and 26. The research will be submitted for publication shortly.

Amy says, “Food is a great way to examine the impact of mindfulness because so much of our relationship with food is impulsive.” For Felix, the research builds on his interest in the psychology of product choice and how positive emotions like gratitude can lead consumers to waste less food.

Amy’s doctoral research is on the impact of mindfulness on the behaviour of consumers, from choosing what’s for dinner to the clothes they buy. The broader question she is interested in is whether the practice of mindfulness can lead consumers to more sustainable choices.

The definition she uses stems from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who, as an academic at the Massachusetts University School of Medicine, pioneered mindfulness as a way to reduce stress for patients experiencing chronic pain in the 1980s. He made it acceptable for Western patients by divorcing it from its roots in Buddhism. He has told the Guardian, “I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain fakery.” Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is simply, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Felix and Amy’s research seeks to show that mindfulness builds self-control and through that results in choices that lead to better well-being by avoiding the impulsive decisions we make driven by our desire for quick gratification.

Mindfulness helps people self-regulate, and that means everything from how they respond to their physical sensations or thoughts. When it comes to food, we eat for many reasons, for comfort, to manage anxiety and stress and to meet social expectations. Felix says, “Essentially, if you are being aware then if you are hungry you eat, if you are not hungry, you don’t.” For his part Felix says the more we know about the psychology behind food choice, the more this will support initiatives leading to food sustainability and healthier diets.

Amy says mindfulness can be a useful tool in world that increasingly feels like it is always on and bombarding us with choices and decisions. The practice meets the need to deaccelerate and sits with other trends such as social media breaks and leaving the smartphone at home.

The next step is to take the research out of the laboratory and see what happens in the real world. In future the researchers would like to test their findings with people carrying out their normal routines. They want to know if these initial findings can be repeated in the complexity of daily life.


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