An interview with Jean Kristeller, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Indiana State University
Dr. Jean Kristeller is an Indiana State University professor emeritus of psychology, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training program (MB-EAT) more than 15 years ago. Over the years, Dr. Kristeller has conducted numerous research projects looking at the effects of mindfulness to help with people’s relationship with food and their eating habits.
Jean Kristeller (JK): I am a clinical and research psychologist and have worked in the area of eating and meditation and mindfulness for many years. Although I’m recently retired from the faculty of Indiana State University in the Department of Psychology, I’m continuing my clinical and research work. Before this I worked in medical school environments at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where we were doing cutting edge work on the use of mindfulness to help people relate better to issues they were having around depression and anxiety.
When I was on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, roughly 25 years ago, I began my first mindful eating group. At that time, I was working with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that is considered the ‘gold’ standard for mindfulness-based programs. This influenced my developing the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training program (MB-EAT). I thought mindfulness might be applicable for how to better connect with our bodies, and to get into better balance without going on and off strict diets.
One of the ironies of a strict dieting approach is it really doesn’t teach people how to eat the calories they realistically need for their new goal weight. For example, I’ve worked with people who were eating up towards 3,000 calories a day. So of course they would lose weight when they switch to a strict structured diet of 1,200 calories a day. Yet, while they knew how to eat 1,200 calories a day and how to eat 3,000 calories a day, they have no idea how to eat enough calories for their goal weight, somewhere in the middle. When it came to treats and snacking, they also didn’t know how to bring small amounts of those foods they enjoy into their ongoing eating. So I wanted to see how I could help people get into a better balance with their food and not be caught in an “all or nothing” mindset.
JK: We ran our first mindful eating study at Indiana State University comprised of women who had serious issues with compulsive overeating. In a short time, we began to see results. We found that the study participants liked the mindfulness approach. They saw it as a very different way of relating to issues around their eating habits, their weight and their anxiety. We were using foods they were afraid of overeating – such as cookies, cheese and crackers, and chips – to help them change their relationship to food and eating. After participating in the program within a month, participants were hardly binging. If they did binge, they were eating much less than before. We also noticed that they were feeling more balanced and more comfortable with their eating style. They realized they didn’t have to go to food if they were emotionally upset about something, and could eat in small quantities the very foods they almost always overate.
We used this small pilot study to secure funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which allowed us to do conduct additional research, including a study with a larger number of both men and women -- and again, saw similar results. Participants were much less likely to binge and were feeling more comfortable with their eating habits.
So for the next phase, we included people who also had significant issues with their weight, but weren’t necessarily eating as much out of control. They might be “grazers” -- people who would eat constantly, but weren’t considered compulsive overeaters, or those who ate larger meals and snacks much of the time. They tended to often go on diets, and would lose weight but then regain it. What we found was that the approaches we developed for people with serious binge eating problems worked equally well with these individuals. The majority of them were able to lose weight, while eating in a much more balanced way.
We extended this research with additional funding from NIH to study people with type 2 diabetes and people with milder levels of weight and eating issues. And we continue to see the concepts of mindful eating can be used by almost everyone, and are very powerful to help people get into better balance with their eating habits.
JK: Mindfulness is simply pausing for a moment, observing your experience, and letting go of automatic habits and patterns we have developed over the years. Habits of how we choose foods, how we think about foods in general, as well as those foods we enjoy. Practicing mindfulness helps people tune into what I call in my program “our wiser mind”.
We all eat mindlessly at one time or another. To help get off our automatic ways of choosing foods and amounts of food, I encourage people to reflect for a moment on what they want to eat at that moment and if they’re truly hungry.
It can be as simple as not grabbing whatever snack is around just because it’s there, whether or not you’re really hungry. Being mindful means to first think “Am I really physically hungry – and how much?” If the answer is yes, to think, “what do I want – what is calling me?” You know you need a break, but realize you don’t need to go for the first thing that calls you. You take a moment to reflect, and decide what you want. Is it something sweet or salty? Crunchy or smooth? Doing that helps understand what is calling you. The process is very empowering.
Once you’ve determined what you want, you can truly savor your snack. You take the time to enjoy it, rather than eating it quickly and automatically, and then feeling guilty about what you just consumed.
JK: The science is very clear in the area of mindfulness and eating. We can learn to tune into our hunger.
It’s surprising to see when people I’ve worked with on mindful eating – these are people who had eating disorders for years – can within a week or two begin to step back and realize whether it really is physical hunger or something else they are feeling. “It’s not physical hunger, it’s boredom;” or “it’s not physical hunger, I’m upset about something.” Or vice versa, where it’s, “yes I’m getting hungry; but I know I don’t want to get to the point where I’m ravenous and overeat, and ruin my appetite for dinner. So I’m going to just have something small now.”
It’s also about learning to tune into feelings of fullness and what that truly feels like. Many people I’ve worked with admit to usually eating until they just couldn’t eat any more. Focusing on your fullness becomes a very useful and reliable way of knowing when you have had enough. People in my groups tell me that they almost never eat anymore past that point of comfort.
But where the food science is really powerful is around people’s ability to tune into taste. Our taste buds get tired really quickly. The quickest signal telling us we’ve had enough is from our taste buds. We’ve found in the mindful eating practices we do, that after three or four bites of food, participants realize that their taste buds start to get tired. That the fourth bite wasn’t as flavorful or enjoyable as the first or second bite. So rather than “chasing the flavor”, and eating more to get the charge of those initial tastes back – which is impossible – mindful snacking is just stopping when the pleasure starts to drop. When you tune into what your taste buds are saying, you begin to experience what I have termed: “awakening your inner gourmet.”
JK: One of the areas we focus on in our mindful eating practice is the concept I call “quality over quantity,” and learning how to enjoy smaller amounts. It’s about distinguishing between limiting the amount you eat because you listened to your own “wise mind” versus calling in the “food police” to direct you what you should or shouldn’t eat.
We also talk about the “outer wisdom.” Whereas “inner wisdom” is about tuning into the tastes of the food and heeding your feelings of hunger or fullness, “outer wisdom” is about being aware of how much energy and calories you are taking in. So putting the caloric value on packages helps.
In advertisements it would be helpful not to show someone just mindlessly eating the big bag of chips or cookies. Rather show them enjoying their food, savoring and being mindful of what they’re eating, similar to the idea of an individual sipping and enjoy a fine glass of wine, not gulping it down. Showing people appreciating a few bites, rather than gulping them down in a distracted way, would go a long way in supporting the concept of mindful snacking.
Another area people can become more mindful about is around a product’s taste and ingredients. The more complex the flavors, the longer the taste satisfaction will last as different taste buds will get triggered. When that taste complexity is contributed by processed flavor taste, people begin to become more dissatisfied as they become more mindful. As such, we see people looking for foods that are less processed and have fewer ingredients.
Focusing on the quality of the ingredients also is helpful. As I’ve advised clients, with all the food choices that are available, what’s the point of eating something without enjoying it. And given the obesity epidemic, and people tending to eat mindlessly, helping them to tune into the flavor of the food, to grasp the idea of “quality vs. quantity”, and becoming more aware of how much they are actually eating will help. I appreciate that Mondelez is taking this seriously and hope some shift does occur in helping people become more mindful in their snacking habits.