Mindful eating is the weight loss industry’s latest go-to. But, as Kim Knight reports, not everybody is convinced.

The raisin has my full attention.

It is smaller than my smallest fingernail. Creased and shiny, almost exactly like the back of the bus seat I saw this morning that had been melted by a bored passenger with a cigarette lighter. Who sets fire to a bus ... ?


The raisin has my absolute attention.


It is slightly tacky to touch. If I roll it between my fingers and hold it against my ear, it makes a sticky, clicky sound. The smell reminds me of Christmas cake. Of overripe fruit and my grandmother's kitchen in November. God, I hope my Christmas cake is cooked in the middle this year. Maybe it'll be okay with custard and a microwave ... ?


The raisin has my unequivocal attention. It's instantly sweet on the tip of my tongue, but as I push it against my teeth, the flavour dissipates. I'm desperate to bite down. It's gritty. Sugary. If I was asked to give my utmost consideration to this raisin, I would describe it as ... raisiny.

"And then, just pausing," instructs the man on the YouTube clip who is delivering this raisin-centric tutorial on mindful eating.

"And experiencing how it is if you swallow. Following it into your body. And then, just sitting with the experience of having eaten a raisin and knowing that you're one raisin heavier."

I sat and I thought. Then I put on some lipstick and went to a restaurant where I inhaled 560g of rib eye on the bone with red wine jus and a side of duck fat potatoes.

I hate raisins.

This time of year, the Western world is pre-occupied with dinner (also breakfast, lunch and that additional holiday meal that almost always happens around 4.30pm). Multiple surveys rank our New Year's resolutions. At the top of most lists, most years: weight loss.

In the 1960s, that meant amphetamines (before P, there were slimming pills). In the 1980s, it was turquoise Lycra across your butt, Jane Fonda in your VCR and The Beverly Hills Diet on your bookshelf. Lately, we've been making mousse out of avocados, jam out of chia seeds and scouring the internet for the Holy Grail of healthy living: a palatable bliss ball.

And along the way, we've been doing some thinking. One of the biggest shifts in the health and well-being industry is the increased emphasis on our state of mind. Or, more specifically, on our state of mindfulness.

The raisin meditation comes courtesy of this trend. It was devised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man behind the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The idea is that by spending three to five minutes eating a single, partially dried grape, you will get a bodily, sensory experience of this thing called mindfulness. YouTube is littered with variations on the theme. You can, for example, mindfully eat a segmented orange or (this seems easier) a small cookie.

At its most literal, mindfulness means paying attention to what you're doing. But Dr Heidi Douglass, the American-born, Hamilton-based consultant clinical psychologist who teaches a four-week introduction to mindful eating for the company Mindfulness Works, goes further: "Mindfulness is paying attention with your full awareness, and bringing in acceptance and compassion, so the stuff that you're paying attention to, you're not judging it as bad, you're not getting upset about it."

In her book, mindfulness must be accompanied by meditation.

"Anybody who says mindful eating is just looking at the food while you're eating it, has a very limited idea. In the research trials, what they found was the more meditation you did, the less impulsive you were and the less binge eating you would do. If you're not doing the meditation, you're not going to get the same results."

In her classes, participants are taught to do "mini meditations" before they eat, "to actually take a few breaths before you go near the food, and to actually think about whether you are hungry. We teach them how to figure that out, because some people don't know. They're so far removed."

When, exactly, did we forget to chew? When did our desks become lunch tables and televisions our dining companions?

"Our society has become so focused on production and productivity and multitasking," says Douglass. "People always seem to be doing something while they're eating. They're checking their Gmail, they're watching TV, they're driving. People who are watching television, say, will eat a whole lot more food in 20 minutes than people who are not."

Douglass says "hands-on" exercises (like the raisin one) can help people change the way they consume.

"When people take the first bite of a potato chip they're like, 'wow, this is really salty and crunchy and fabulous'. If they're paying attention, they may notice the third bite seems more oily and kind of soggy - and they didn't like it so much."

Chips and chocolate, says Douglass, are high-risk foods. She addresses them, specifically, in the third week of her $99 programmes. "Most people don't tend to eat these things mindfully. You'll hear people say they never eat one chip at a time - they eat them by the bag."

Douglass is aware that mindfulness has its detractors.

"People often ask, 'How am I supposed to do this if I have three kids at the table, or I have a meeting to get to - I don't have 20 minutes to eat my sandwich'."

Her response: "You can be really mindful that you're busy and you're eating faster than you'd like to."

Again, she emphasises the importance of meditation. "If you do it consistently, we're talking like even 10 minutes a day, you'll start to see the thoughts and patterns that your emotions have. Then, after a while, you'll notice you get access to this thing called inner wisdom.

At that point, says Douglass, "If a stressor happens, you might think, 'Oh, I need to get chocolate, or I need to eat a whole pizza, or I need a bottle of wine.' But you'll get access to this inner wisdom that says, 'Sure, I could do that - but maybe I wanted to do something else.'"

Call your partner. Go for a walk. Calm down.

"That's how meditation is different from just simple relaxation. It helps people become less impulsive, it helps them to stop bingeing."

According to Douglass, mindfulness has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain, and it can help the immune system to function better.

"And, unlike drugs and surgery, it's not very risky, it doesn't have side effects and once you learn it, it's free."

It also, officially, everywhere.

This month, the calorie-counting colossus that is Weight Watchers will officially add mindfulness to its "food, fit and feel" platforms.

In a supplied statement, the organisation says it will be "helping members build a positive mindset, because we know that happier people make healthier choices".

Strategies for stress management and self-compassion will be taught, and "activities that help to develop mindfulness also have an important role to play", it says.

"Mindfulness can help you stay focused on your goals, and become more aware of how the choices you make help or hinder your progress towards those goals."

And if that doesn't work, you could just buy the mayonnaise. Dr Andrew Dickson, an organisational sociologist and senior lecturer at Massey University, says "Mindful Mayo" is just one of the many products he and his colleagues found while researching what they've called "the semblance of enlightenment".

"It's on the internet. I haven't seen it on the shelves at New World, but I'm in Palmerston North. It's probably in Remuera."

Dickson says mindfulness is "like a disease, running rampant through society".

In an opinion piece published last year, he said the way the concept was being used by the weight-loss industry was "a misappropriation of the Buddhist doctrine".

And, a week before Christmas, he told Canvas: "Take good advice, give it a name - like 'mindfulness' - and it's not any advice that would have been different to a GP talking to their patient in 1946. 'Take a breath before you eat'; 'Do you really need that extra portion?' I remember one of my GPs once said to me, 'Just knock out one potato at dinnertime and you'll be fine.' What he's saying, is literally 200 less calories per day and you will lose 10.5kg in a year."

Dickson says marketers have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon and turned the word into an "empty signifier".

"It doesn't have anything inherent in it. It carries a worth that marketers and people producing products realise that, if they can attach it to their products, will appeal to a particular set of people who feel like they should be in control of their lives and in control of themselves.

"I think what mindful eating is really trying to do is raise consciousness about your eating. Being mindful and raising consciousness are two quite different things."

In its purest form, mindfulness is a key tenet of the Buddhist path to enlightenment (a life project that, Dickson points out, is a process, not a state - and therefore never actually achieved) and it should not have become a commodity.

But what if it works? What if you find a programme that incorporates meditation? What if you practice carefully and consistently and find that inner wisdom that tells you to go for a walk instead of opening a pack of salt and vinegar chips?

Westerners, says Dickson, would probably be better served by psychotherapy.

"Can you, as a Westerner, raised in a world where meditation is not part of your life, never has been ... can you equate that with the meditation that occurs in Buddhist communities that is integral to their everyday life? It would be like asking them to get used to eating pre-packaged convenience foods every day, like has been part of our life."

Paying attention to what you eat is likely to result in weight loss, he concedes.

"The problem is, we have no mechanism by which we can guarantee that's going to occur for the rest of your life. Despite the protestation of the weight-loss industry, there isn't anything, aside from gastric banding, that makes people permanently lose weight. So then the question becomes, should we really be promoting this at all? Is it ethical?

"The catch-cry that they should be writing on the bottom of this is, remember, you've got to give yourself to a new religion in order for this to actually function properly for the rest of your life. Be prepared to do more than download the latest mindfulness app. And you may need to consider a pilgrimage."