The Weight Loss Power of Mindfulness


Part 4 of 10

By Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz


Some call it “multitasking”; the French call it “vagabond eating.” In America, it’s a growing trend. Whatever form it takes—eating a meal or snacking mindlessly while working in front of your computer, driving, watching TV, shopping with a friend, or talking on the phone—the Task Snacking overeating style our research uncovered puts you at risk for becoming overweight.

Have you ever meandered through the mall while munching? If so, you’re task snacking. Do you watch TV, flip through a magazine, or work while eating? These are more task-snacking behaviors. As a matter of fact, doing other things while eating is so common in our culture, it’s become normal. Not only do most of us not pay much attention to where we’re eating and what we’re doing while we’re eating, we also don’t believe that these two factors have anything to do with our weight. But they do.


Task Snacking: It’s a Double Weight-Whammy

How might task snacking work against your waistline when you eat while working, munch while watching TV, or snack while driving? In other words, how is eating in a not-too-conscious, not-too-mindful way a recipe for weight gain?

Impaired digestion. Because the brain can attend to only one topic at a time, when you do multiple tasks simultaneously, it constantly shifts its attention. If you were to undergo a PET scan—Positron Emission Tomography, a powerful, noninvasive imaging technique that accurately images the cellular function of the human body—while task snacking, it would show lights blinking on and off in areas of the brain associated with the various tasks you’re undertaking. When you eat while the mind isn’t focused on your food, the digestive process is impaired, making food not nearly as nutritious as it could be. In turn, this can trigger hunger and the drive to eat more so that you’ll feel satisfied via the nutrients your mind and your body need for optimal health—nutrients that you’re not metabolizing.

Less satisfaction. Task snacking is a recipe for weight gain in yet another way: when the mind isn’t paying full attention to the sensation of food—its taste, scent, texture, and presentation—then eating itself becomes less satisfying. Put another way, eating while doing other things makes it harder for your mind to register that you are, indeed, eating. In response, you may compensate for getting less pleasure or gratification from food by continuing to eat more and more.

In other words, you get a “double weight whammy” when you eat while multitasking: 1) not only are you more likely to overeat because you’re not really tasting and enjoying your food and in turn, allowing your mind-body to get the message that you’re satisfied, you’re also increasing the odds of overeating because 2) when you eat while doing other things, you’re impairing the digestive process and how well your body absorbs vitamins and minerals. When this happens, you may experience food cravings that are really a signal that you’re missing some nutrients in your diet. In this way, task snacking can create a vicious cycle of poor digestion, inadequate nutrition, and overeating to try to get the vitamins and minerals you’re not metabolizing.

The bottom line: Mindless task snacking is likely to lead to eating more, enjoying it less…and weight gain. What’s a task snacker to do? Discover the weight loss power of mindfulness.


Does Mindfulness Manage Weight?

What do mindfulness and meditation have to do with task snacking, eating, and your weight? A lot. In our research on the seven overeating styles, the more our study participants reduced their task snacking, the more they reduced their weight—suggesting that you eat less when you focus on your food and the process of eating than when you are task snacking. Though the field is in its infancy, other researchers, wondering if mindfulness can manage weight, have posed this question: Can a meditative sensibility make a difference to your weight and well-being? And if so, in what way? Here, three studies that delve into the ancient discipline of mindfulness meditation to explore its effect on metabolism and its potential to manage eating disorders, weight, and more.

Metabolism of mindfulness. To find out whether paying attention to food when you eat affects how your body metabolizes it in a positive, beneficial way, researcher Donald Morse, a physician and professor emeritus at Temple University in Philadelphia, designed a unique study to assess whether eating mindfully versus eating while distracted or stressed (task snacking) makes a difference to metabolism. He designed his experiment this way: one group of female college students would meditate for five minutes before eating cereal (a food high in carbohydrates), while another group would distract themselves with mental arithmetic before eating the cereal (a form of task snacking). Afterward, when Dr. Morse and his team measured both groups’ saliva (where metabolism of food begins), he discovered that those who meditated mindfully before eating produced 22 percent more of the digestive enzyme alpha-amylase.

Morse’s study has two significant implications for task snackers. First, because alpha-amylase helps you digest and metabolize carbohydrates in carbohydrate-dense foods (such as potatoes, bread, and cereal) as well as B vitamins (of which there are eight), if you eat while task snacking you’re likely to absorb fewer nutrients than you need for your mind-body to function optimally. The study also “shows that there’s a real benefit to having a leisurely meal,” speculates Morse. “The decrease in alpha-amylase production is just the tip of the iceberg. When you gulp down your food, your entire digestive system is affected.”

Morse’s study tells us that not only does task snacking have long-term implications for your digestion, but his findings also imply that if you make subtle changes in the awareness you bring to food so that you’re eating mindfully (doing one thing at a time—eating when you eat, working when you work), you’re more likely to stop overeating and gaining weight.1

Less binge eating. In the 1980s, Jean Kristeller of Indiana State University, developed her Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT), a comprehensive nine-week program that includes meditation to address hunger and satiety, and connecting to the inner wisdom that signals whether you’re full and satisfied, or hungry with an appetite for a particular food. MB-EAT focuses on finding satisfaction in quality, not quantity.

To find out whether her MB-EAT program could help women with eating and weight problems, Kristeller recruited 18 obese women, ages twenty-five to sixty-two. Each met the criteria of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) for Binge Eating Disorder (BED), defined as recurrent episodes of out-of-control eating twice a week or more for six months or longer. With a focus on three forms of meditation—general mindfulness meditation, eating meditation, and mini-meditations—homework included daily meditation to developed focused attention, mindful-eating exercises, and more.

At the end of the six weeks, Kristeller concluded that the program was, indeed, beneficial. Three weeks prior to starting the intervention, most women binged an average of five times each week. After three weeks of learning and practicing mindfulness meditation in preparation for the study, the women lowered their average number of bingeing episodes to 3.9. And when the six-week program ended, the average number of binges was less than one (.9) per week.2 Just as encouraging, when Kristeller did a three-week follow-up, she discovered the women were still benefiting, with bingeing episodes less than twice (1.6) weekly. In other words, bingeing behavior continued after the study, but there were far fewer episodes than when the study had started. Significantly, emotions that often sparked a bingeing episode, such as depression and anxiety, decreased. Kristeller’s findings were so encouraging that the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health funded the psychologist and her team to do a similar nine-week program to examine how mindfulness meditation can promote weight loss.3

Weight loss possibilities. A first-of-its kind study that sheds light on the meditation/weight equation was conducted by researchers at Dr. Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) in Sausalito, California.4 The study, rooted in work Ornish did throughout the 1980s and 1990s, put meditation on the map by including it as part of a comprehensive program to reverse heart disease through lifestyle changes alone—stress management (meditation and yoga); a no-fat-added, plant-based diet; exercise; and group support—without drugs or surgery.

Following the publication of Ornish’s reversal research, many health professionals contacted him wanting to know which components of the program contributed the most to reversing heart disease. Was it the low-fat diet? Meditation and yoga? Perhaps it was the exercise, or could it be the group support? Or was it the combination of all the components, working synergistically, that brought the benefits? Ornish and his research team decided to find out.

Patients and their spouses met in groups twice weekly for three months, for a total of 104 hours, to learn about the low-fat diet, exercise, social support, and stress-management techniques including yoga sessions that ended with about ten minutes of meditation. During their time apart, participants were asked to practice stress management for one hour per day, with the option of doing this by listening to meditation tapes, medical psychologist Gerdi Weidner, PhD, told us. We talked with Weidner, vice president and director of research at PMRI, to learn about the results of the study firsthand.5

For task snackers, what’s most relevant about the study are three key findings. The first revealed that the amount of time each person spent meditating was directly linked with the amount of weight lost, regardless of whether participants changed their dietary fat intake or their exercise habits. In fact, those who did not change their dietary fat intake but increased their stress management practice by as much as six hours per week lost an average of almost twenty pounds for men and more than twelve pounds for women.

Second and equally pertinent, the greatest weight loss was achieved by those who increased their yoga and meditation while they decreased their intake of dietary fat. Specifically, those who increased their stress management practice to six hours per week and reduced their dietary fat intake to 15 percent calories from fat lost an average of about twenty-seven pounds for men and twenty pounds for women at the end of three months.

The third key finding goes against the conventional energy-in (food), energy-out (exercise) guidelines: an increase in exercise didn’t contribute any further to the amount of weight loss. Rather, it was the amount of time participants meditated and the degree to which they lowered their dietary fat intake that brought the best results.

Although the exact reasons meditation leads to weight loss are unclear, Weidner offers some possible explanations about why meditation may contribute to weight loss. Meditation directs your awareness away from external cues (such as eating lunch at noon, when you “should”) to focusing your attention internally (eating when you’re actually feeling hungry). It may also diminish stress-related eating (See “Step #2: Overcoming Emotional Eating” for more about this)—turning to food when you’re feeling anxious or upset.

Adds Weidner, “In our analyses, increases in stress management and meditation contributed not only to weight loss but also to reductions in diabetic risk and hostile feelings [a risk factor for heart disease]. And less dietary fat intake added further to weight loss and to reductions in perceived stress. Add exercise to the equation, and your ability to burn energy (calories) increases.”

In other words, practicing all components of the Ornish lifestyle reversal program is the key to achieving beneficial health outcomes—including weight loss. So, too, with the 10 weight loss solutions we’re telling you about in our SUCCESSFUL LOSER SERIES, meaning, implement all the antidotes to the overeating styles—including mindful eating, the antidote to task snacking—and you’re more likely to lose more weight.


Cultivating Mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness—paying attention intentionally—empowers you to slow down long enough to experience the subtleties and health-enhancing benefits of food. This is beneficial, because when you focus on your food, you’re not task snacking; you’re simply tasting your food and savoring the experience of eating. Simply put: you’re “in the moment” and are eating when you’re eating.

Here, some tips for cultivating mindfulness each time you eat:

Savor flavor. The next time you eat a mixed meal, such as a salad or stew made with varied ingredients, bring your attention to your mouth; then, as you chew, try to identify the flavors in your food. Is it mostly sweet, or is salt the major flavor? Did you experience a burst of flavor at the first bite? Are you still enjoying the taste of the food after the second and third bites?

Taste tea. Followers of Japan’s Way of Tea (often called the Japanese Tea Ceremony) believe that when the elements are balanced and in harmony, they create a form of perfection. The five elements are:

  • metal (minerals in the soil that help create tea leaves);
  • wood (the tea plant);
  • water (that brings tea back to life);
  • fire (the sun that heats the water);
  • earth (the mother of tea and material for teapots).

The next time you sip some tea, bring mindfulness to the experience by thinking about whether you can see and taste each element with each sip. Consider bringing a similar consciousness to all the beverages you consume during the day.

Move into mindfulness. There are three distinct steps you can take to replace task snacking with conscious, intentional awareness:

(1) Intentionality: don’t just think about doing it; make a decisive choice to focus on the food before you when you’re eating.

(2) Commitment: act on your intention. Carry it out by gently letting go of feelings, thoughts, and activities that may be interfering with your intention and commitment to mindfulness.

(3) Focus: with intention and commitment to mindfulness, keep your attention on the food or food-related activities you are experiencing.


The Weight Loss Power of Mindfulness

Taking the time to “eat when you eat,” and in this way to truly taste and savor food, is the key to overcoming task snacking and reducing your risk of weight gain. Here’s the antidote to task snacking:

Step #4: Bring moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness to each aspect of the meal.

In other words, replace eating while doing other things—driving, working, or watching television—with being mindful of your appetite level, what you’ll be eating (see Step #3: Eat Fresh, Weigh Less for more about this), the eating experience itself; even the cleaning up process. When you take the time to contemplate food in such a way even for a few seconds before and during eating, you’re taking another step away from task snacking and toward making weight loss last.


Special Feature


Because “flavoring” meals with a meditative sensibility can make a big difference in your weight and well-being, we created a FREE AUDIO for you to use each time you eat. The benefit: READ about mindfulness meditation and LISTEN to THE MINDFULNESS MEAL MEDITATION to practice focused awareness while eating, and both you and your waistline will be poised to reap the rewards.



  1. Donald R. Morse and M. L. Furst, “Meditation: An In-depth Study,” Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine 29, no. 5 (1982): 1–96.
  2. Jean Kristeller, “An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder,” Journal of Health Psychology 4, no. 3 (1999): 357–63.
  3. Jean Kristeller, “Know Your Hunger,” Spirituality & Health 8, no. 2 (2005).
  4. J. J. Daubenmier, G. Weidner, M. Sumner, N. Mendell et al., “The Contribution of Changes in Diet, Exercise, and Stress Management to Changes in Coronary Risk in Women and Men in the Multisite Cardiac Lifestyle Intervention Program,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 33 (January 2007).
  5. Gerdi Weidner (PhD, vice president and director of research, Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, CA), conversation with Deborah Kesten, October 20, 2006.



Visit our free Whole Person Nutrition Program for more about what and how to eat to be a successful loser. It’s filled with practical guidelines, menu plans, recipes, and more.7


Step #1: Lose Weight Without Dieting
Step #2: Overcoming Emotional Eating
Step #3: Eat Fresh, Weigh Less

“The Healing Secret of Mindfulness” in The Healing Secrets of Food
“Focus on Food” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Get Fresh” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Access Your Appetite” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Jettison Judgment” in Make Weight Loss Last

Next post:

Think outside the diet to make weight loss last with Step #5 of our BE A SUCCESSFUL LOSER series, “Nourish Your Senses, Lose Weight” posted on our NewView blog.

You’ll get plenty of clarity about what’s true and useful—or not—by keeping up with nutritionist Deborah Kesten, MPH, and research scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD, the writers of this post, by liking them on Facebookfollowing them on Twitter, or sending us an email.

What are your thoughts about “The Healing Power of Mindfulness?” Tell us about them in the Comments section below.