An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia nervosa—and they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But a new study suggests that mindfulness could be an effective form of treatment.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. © Dan Archer

Researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia administered questionnaires to first-year psychology students. The questionnaires measured the students’ mindfulness skills, how many (if any) eating disorder symptoms they had, and how accepting they were of their body image. The researchers also assessed other aspects of the students’ well being, including their mood and levels of self-compassion and distress.

The results, published in Clinical Psychologist, show that students who reported approaching experiences non-judgmentally and being present to the moment—two key aspects of being mindful—had a healthier relationship with food, their bodies, and themselves. They also had better mental health overall.

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Why might this be? The authors speculate that a neutral, accepting approach to one’s experience—the “non-judgment” of mindfulness—should foster acceptance of one’s body and identity. What’s more, focusing on the present moment might prevent people from ruminating on negative thoughts about themselves.

Interestingly, students who spent more time observing their emotions, thoughts, and environment—another dimension of mindfulness—were less accepting of their bodies. They also had more symptoms of an eating disorder, and worse mental health overall. The authors speculate that being very observant could focus more attention on food and one’s weight. If this attention is not accompanied by nonjudgmental acceptance and moment-to-moment presence, it could be distressing.

More research is needed to determine whether mindfulness causes healthier attitudes toward food and body or whether people with those attitudes happen to be more mindful as well, perhaps due to some other factor.

If mindfulness is in fact found to be the cause, that findings could support mindfulness-based programs to treat eating disorders.

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