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The National Institute of Health estimates that of the thousands of teens that develop eating disorders, 2.7 percent of them will have a lifetime prevalence of the illness without eating disorder recovery. On average, in teens ages 13 to 14, 2.4 percent will deal with eating disorders their entire life and of those developing an eating disorder between the ages 15 to 16, 2.8 percent may live their life with this illness, without treatment.

Mindful eating is an increasingly popular practice because it calls for a new way of thinking, one that can break the eating disorder cycle and change a teen’s relationship with food.

The Science Behind Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is the process of paying attention to experiences as they occur, helping individuals focus on their emotions and physical environment while also paying attention to all aspects of the food they are consuming.

Mindfulness is the basis for a number of therapeutic interventions that have been around since the 1970s. The practice is also based on the Buddhist tradition sati, which has been part of healing for centuries.

Much of the world has mindless eating habits. In other words, they are distracted as they consume food. Mindful training can teach teens and adults alike to live in the moment during meals so eating becomes a thought-provoking and sensory event.

Mindful eating is described as a way to listen to the cues the body sends about hunger and fullness. Hunger and fullness is based on two overall components:

  • Meal duration
  • Food type

In general, the brain expects meals to take at least 20 minutes. Quickly consuming food in 10 minutes or less will mean the brain thinks this person is not done even though they may have consumed enough for their body in the moment.

The brain also takes into account the flavors of the food, such as sweet or salty. This concept is known as the flavor point. There are appetite centers in the brain that activate when a person eats something salty. Once they activate that center, their brain will encourage them to keep eating until they reach their flavor point for salty tasting food.

Think of the appetite centers in the brain as cups. Once one drop of that flavor goes into the cup, the brain expects you to fill it. Someone eating processed sugar, for example, will keep eating it until the brain says stop. If they stop before then, they may continue to crave that flavor.

Food Choices and Satiety

Some foods bring a person closer to that satiety level than others. Nutritionists may assign satiety levels to foods to pinpoint ways to balance a meal in a mindful way.

The Mind-Gut Connection

Medical science is just now beginning to understand the connection that exists between the nervous system and the gut. Digestion is the complex process of breaking food down into nutritional components and energy. Studies indicate that doing other activities while eating interferes with that process, such as:

  • Driving the car
  • Watching TV
  • Interacting on social media
  • Reading
  • Typing

The current theory is that when a person focuses on something other than their food, the digestive process actually stops. When this happens, they may miss out on the nutritional benefits of that food. It may even prevent the brain from filling those flavor cups so they eat more than they should. Mindful eating puts the mind where it needs to be — on the food, allowing the mind-gut connection to function correctly.

About Eating Disorders and Mindful Eating

An eating disorder is defined by disordered eating habits that have a negative impact on the physical and mental state of an individual. The key word there is disordered habits. One goal of eating disorder treatment is to break those disordered habits and replace them with positive behaviors, such as mindful eating.

Although constantly being researched, there is not a definitive answer as to why some individuals develop eating disorders, such as binge or compulsive eating. But, research indicates it is most likely a combination of factors such as:

  • Genetics
  • Biological
  • Behavioral
  • Psychological
  • Social

Eating disorders tend to be more prevalent in families in which other individuals have already had an eating disorder. Eating disorders in teens can start at a young age. They may be a product of genetics, but the disorder may also be due to the habits children learn from their parents.

Interventions applied by eating disorder treatment centers work to empower teens to help them to understand and overcome their illness. Mindful eating practices are one of those tools.

Mindfulness is an important tool for those with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and compulsive eating. It strips down everything they know about eating and how their body manages hunger and rebuilds it in a way that helps young people make changes that last a lifetime. Understanding the principles of hunger and fullness leads to knowing what eating cues to watch for and why. Mindfulness-based eating disorder recovery programs are proving to be a successful way to help teens develop a more positive relationship with food.

Why Mindful Eating Matters in Eating Disorder Treatment

The body has a complex mechanism to control how much energy a person takes into their body in the form of food, yet, still, it is easy to defy. There are many different emotional and physical processes that go into eating behaviors, such as:

  • How enjoyable a meal is
  • Portion sizes
  • Feelings
  • Long-term emotions
  • Surroundings, such as food advertisements
  • Peer behaviors and pressure
  • Physical activity
  • Sense of self

Eating disorder treatment centers develop nutrition protocols based on the teachings of mindful eating to help develop positive behaviors in this realm.

Through mindful eating techniques, teens with eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating disorder become aware of physical hunger and satiety cues. They understand how they differ from emotional eating. Mindfulness-based therapy helps teens enjoy food while remaining present when consuming the food.

What Are Mindful Eating Practices?

The fundamentals of mindful eating include:

  • Eliminating distractions during meals
  • Slowing meals down with mindful awareness
  • Using the senses while eating to feel the texture of the food, smell it, listen to the sounds of eating and to experience the taste
  • Taking the time to appreciate food

Through mindful eating exercises, teens can learn to focus on actual hunger cues by identifying non-hunger triggers, such as emotions or cravings. They also find ways to cope with any negative feelings associated with food, such as guilt or anxiety. They learn to understand eating is about providing the body with nutrition and energy. With that understanding, they can replace the negative thought with positive responses.

Through mindful eating, consuming food is no longer a mindless act, but one that requires focus not just on the food but on the sensory processes involved in consuming it. Teens in eating disorder recovery learn to understand their emotional responses to food, by understanding and addressing their emotional triggers to food.

Of all the eating disorders, binge eating is the one most responsive to the mindful eating techniques. By definition, binge eating involves ingesting a large amount of food in a very short time without mindfulness or control.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found mindfulness practices decrease emotional eating by almost two-thirds. It also reduced the severity of episodes.

Therapeutic Benefits of Mindful Eating

Mindful eating gives teens the power of choice. Eating disorders are chaotic.  Mindfulness helps a teen step away from habitual patterns that cause chaos to discover new things. It empowers teens with the ability to make a conscious choice about their eating habits, as well.

Consider mindful eating a speed bump that slows things down and allows a person to think about why they want to eat without judgment or negative thoughts. It is simply a pause in the chaos that allows stabilizing thoughts to intervene.

Mindfulness as a Life Practice

Mindfulness techniques go beyond eating, though. Studies show that mindfulness meditation is an effective intervention for eating disorders in teens, as well. Mindfulness meditation involves mental training that improves the ability to focus the mind. It allows someone to pay attention to their body no matter what the circumstances.

Meditation is a straightforward process and takes only a few minutes at a time. Like most forms of meditation, it starts with finding a quiet place to sit. They listen to their breathing, feel the sensations of air moving in and out of their lungs. They notice the rise of the belly and hear their breath as it changes directions.

The intense focus that comes with mindful meditation teaches the practice of living in the moment. When they sit down to eat a meal, they switch on the meditation mode and focus on the process of eating and the food.

The combination of mindfulness meditation and mindful eating can reduce emotional eating and external trigger, two issues common in eating disorders in teens, especially eating disorders like anorexia that is rooted in negative thoughts.

Once a teen masters the practice during eating disorder recovery, they can carry it with them into more difficult eating situations, such as at restaurants or parties.

Mindful eating is not a cure for eating disorders. It is one of a combination of therapeutic interventions. Effective treatment requires a holistic approach that puts teens on a path toward recovery. During treatment, teens also undergo psychotherapy sessions and group treatments that include dialectical behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, body image, creative expression and self-esteem groups. They may also participate in contract groups and treatment for co-occurring disorders such as chemical dependency or trauma.

Participating in mindfulness meditation and mindful eating exercises creates a lifetime of effective habits that change a teen’s relationship with food. They develop a better understanding of why food is an important part of health and quality of life. They learn to appreciate how food is both nurturing and nourishing while increasing their awareness of the sensations of their body in order to cultivate good habits that will stick with them.

Eating disorders are a chronic concern for many teens. Introducing mindfulness into their treatment can create change that lasts a lifetime.



Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.