Mindfulness and (binge) eating

I came across mindfulness as I completed my Master’s dissertation on binge eating (please visit Beat for more information on this and other eating disorders). Having personally struggled with binge eating on and off for the past 5 years, this was a topic that was close to my heart, and permanently present in my own everyday life (read more about my story here). However, it was not until I completed a course in mindfulness as part of my PhD, that I realised just how important mindfulness is in areas of eating, particularly disordered eating. While my PhD revolves around mindfulness and movement, I decided to write today’s post on mindfulness and eating, as it is a topic that interests me greatly.

Conducting a brief literature review to familiarise myself with the topic, I initially discovered that mindfulness is often used in studies with individuals suffering from binge eating and binge eating disorder. This, of course, is what interested me about this topic in the first place, but I did begin to wonder whether or not mindfulness was beneficial for other eating disorders as well, particularly those eating disorders not associated with overweight or obesity.

I found a review by Wanden-Berghe, Sanz-Valero, and Wanden-Berghe (2011) that investigated applications of mindfulness to the treatment of eating disorders. In this post I will briefly summarise their findings.

Firstly, mindfulness has until now been applied to a wide range of physiological, psychological, and emotional conditions, such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Addiction
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Other psychopathologies

In terms of eating disorders, most studies have been conducted on obesity and weight-related eating disorders (e.g., binge eating disorder, food addiction, and emotional eating). Indeed, out of the 8 studies identified in this review, four articles studied individuals with binge eating, three articles studied individuals with bulimia nervosa, and only one study investigated the effects of mindfulness on anorexia nervosa (restricting type).

Findings indicated generally positive effects of mindfulness on eating disorder symptoms across the range of eating disorders, and are summarised below:

  • Binge eating – reductions in binge eating, reduced emotional eating, improvements in emotion regulation, increases in mindfulness.
  • Bulimia nervosa – improved emotion regulation and potential to build positive coping skills and self-awareness.
  • Anorexia nervosa – increased weight, reduced desire for thinness and decreased feelings of ineffectiveness.

However, there are also important considerations regarding the findings that must be discussed, which not only relate to the generalisability of the results, but also with regards to the definition and characterisation of mindfulness itself.

  • Firstly, the sample sizes of the studies were relatively small, and the study on anorexia nervosa included only one participant (case study). While any improvement in an individual’s mental and physical health is considered positive, future studies should aim to investigate a wider range of individuals of different age, mental health status, physical ability, ethnicity, gender, and condition severity.
  • Secondly, the studies used different adaptations of mindfulness-based therapies (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Cognitive-Emotional Behaviour Therapy, and Cognitive-Behavioural Mindfulness Intervention). As mentioned in previous posts, it is essential to define mindfulness as a concept, so that interventions that claim to be mindfulness-based actually embody mindfulness.
  • Finally, it would be of value to compare “pure” mindfulness-based interventions (e.g., meditation practice) with other standard therapies (e.g., Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy), so that the potential added benefit of mindfulness to the treatment of eating disorders can be established.

In the meanwhile, it is generally agreed that mindfulness can benefit various conditions, including eating disorders, by not only reducing symptoms, but also enhancing other quality of life aspects, such as reduced stress and anxiety.


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