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'The Joy Of Half A Cookie' And Other Mindful Mantras For Weight Loss

Jean Kristeller's 10-week program in <em>The Joy of Half A Cookie</em> is designed to curb overeating, help you feel your hunger and trust your taste buds.
Jean Kristeller's 10-week program in The Joy of Half A Cookie is designed to curb overeating, help you feel your hunger and trust your taste buds.

Every now and then, a Julia Child or Michael Pollan come along and changes the way we eat.

Could Jean Kristeller, America's leading mindful eating researcher and the author of a new self-help book, The Joy of Half a Cookie, published Tuesday, be next? I'm of a mind to say maybe.

Back when Kristeller, now a professor of psychology emeritus at Indiana State University, was a grad student at Yale in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she had a compulsive overeating problem. She had been meditating for years, and decided to apply what she was studying about eating regulation and the mind-body connection to her overeating. As she writes, it was transformative. Once she got a handle on it, she developed a mindfulness training for a variety of eating issues called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, or MB-EAT, and set out to test its effectiveness.

In several studies, Kristeller has shown that the practice of mindfulness meditation and mindful eating effectively decrease binge eating and increase an inner sense of control overeating.

She's also been exploring MB-EAT for weight loss in a study which began in 2004 and compared MB-EAT with a control. She has yet to publish this study, but the preliminary data show that MB-EAT's added calorie-cutting suggestions and healthy eating strategies do facilitate significant weight loss in the short-term. (The study subjects — 117 obese men and women with and without binge eating issues — lost about a pound a week on average.) Whether or not the training facilitates significant long-term weight loss is still to be determined.

The 10-week plan involves a combination of mindfulness meditations and mindful-eating practices, healthy eating and calorie-cutting strategies. More specifically, it's designed to curb overeating, help you feel your hunger, trust your taste buds and become deeply satisfied with the quality, rather than quantity, of food.

If I hadn't seen the transformative effect of Kristeller's proven practices in my own practice as an eating disorder therapist, I probably wouldn't bother reading yet another mindful eating book. (I've read many.) But I had, so I did, and I'm thrilled this research psychologist has transformed her group training into a do-it-yourself plan.

I put Joy of Half a Cookie up there with Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Omnivore's Dilemma because I've seen the measurable and pleasurable difference Kristeller's plan has made to me and my clients. Although she and I have traversed the same territory for decades, the one time I heard the describe her training, it forever changed the way I work with the range of eating issues.

Still, I had some concerns and questions I wanted to run by Kristeller. What follows is an edited version of that recent exchange.

Before you discovered mindful eating, you describe being trapped in a vicious cycle of under-eating by day, overeating by night. How did you discover that mindfulness could break that cycle?

My first transformative eating experience was inspired by Susie Orbach's Fat Is a Feminist Issue. For one week, I permitted myself to lunch on high-fat, high-sugary foods [as recommended by the book]. The first few days, I savored snack machine chips and cookies. They tasted pretty good, but I didn't crave more after dinner. When the packaged snacks lost their appeal, I went for fresh croissants one day, a few pizza slices the next. By week's end, I was starting to tune into my hunger, fullness and food enjoyment with what I would now call "mindfulness."

You say MB-EAT isn't a diet, but you recommend weighing and measuring portions and other dieting strategies. What's the difference?

Diets prescribe certain foods and amounts of food for relatively rapid weight loss. They bear little relationship to a flexible, sustainable eating approach. Yet calories do "count."

I don't recommend aiming for a certain number of calories per day. Rather, I encourage a more exploratory approach to calorie content — noticing the amount of cereal in your bowl, butter on your toast, meat on your plate. Like a budget, you wouldn't shop without looking at price tags. And, if your income dropped by 25 percent, you'd need to cut expenditures, but not watch every penny or always spend exactly the same amount.

Given that caloric restriction can be a recipe for overeating, if not disordered eating, for some people, why do you challenge readers to cut 500 calories per day, forever, from their diet?

Most diets drop caloric intake by at least 1,000 calories per day. The 500-calorie challenge is about finding sustainable ways to cut calories, which is neither overly restrictive nor, in our experience, does it trigger overeating. Rather, I encourage people to cut "mindless calories": forego extra servings, refrain from cleaning your plate when full, swap higher calorie snacks for enjoyable lower calorie ones.

Nowhere do you mention how much weight study subjects lost. How much did they lose?

Average weight loss was relatively modest — about one pound per week or seven pounds. Some lost over 20 pounds, and some lost little, but, unlike our first NIH trial, which focused on binge eating, not weight loss, none gained weight. However, even in that study, a third of participants lost weight just eating mindfully.

According to a recent systematic review, mindfulness training decreases binge and emotional eating, but fails to facilitate significant weight loss. So why do you prescribe mindfulness for weight loss?

Mindfulness greatly decreases the struggle with food. Weight loss happens slowly, as is appropriate. Although some effects can and do happen quickly, learning to apply them in range of situations takes time and an ongoing sense of discovery.

After some hemming and hawing, my conclusion is as follows: If you want to lose weight and end the struggle with food, by all means, dive into Kristeller's practices for cultivating inner wisdom.

But can you achieve long-term weight loss with this? Only time and the results of her research will tell if, in fact, her approach works.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Compassion Diet.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story stated that Kristeller's study that began in 2004 was comparing MB-EAT with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, it was comparing it with a control. The story also stated that the study would have an 18-month follow-up, which was also incorrect. The story also misstated the number of subjects in the study: There were 117 subjects, not 225.
Jean Fain