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Mindful table is healthy for teens

What if how you ate mattered as much as what you put in your mouth?

Gabrielle Castillo, 16, and her grandmother, Rita Castillo, 64, say applying principles of mindful eating has made a world of difference for their North Valley family at mealtimes.

Mindful eating means many things, but most of all it’s learning to slow down and really taste your food, rather than gobbling up hundreds of calories more before your stomach says you’re full, they say.

Gabrielle says she’s even lost a few pounds after an eight-week program, a joint research project between the local Center for Family and Adolescent Research and the University of New Mexico.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded about $800,000 to the researchers and the treatment-development program, says local researcher Jeanne Dalen. Family Eating Awareness and Skills for Teens, or FEAST, will examine the effectiveness of mindful eating for overweight adolescents, 14 to 17 years old.

Gabrielle says the project helped her analyze what she was eating and why she was eating it.

Like many overweight people, especially teenagers, Gabrielle doesn’t want to say how much she weighs, but she says her doctor told her that she was overweight and the number was unhealthy.

With help from her nutritionist and her doctor, she and her grandmother found the mindful eating program. “My grandma and I learned how to talk about eating healthier, rather than just clashing. We got new skills.”

She says she’s learned how to pause and think before she eats and notice the reaction to what she’s feeling. She learned to recognize her feelings and then discover that she didn’t always have to act on it by eating chips, candy and fast food.

“With mindfulness, you are actually able to tell what you are feeling. You don’t have to feel sad, just because someone else is feeling sad. You can focus on yourself,” she says. “It helped me to get to know who I am right now. The program helped me physically and mentally.”

Emotional triggers

Gabrielle is the oldest of four sisters, all of whom her grandparents are raising. Although she and her sisters eat similar foods and portions, Gabrielle had problems with weight, she says: “My little sisters eat like grown men. They were always looking at me, putting me on a diet and not everyone else.”

That made her angry, she says. “I didn’t want people scolding me. I ate to make them mad. When my grandparents told me to eat something healthy, I would do the opposite.”

She remembers an incident of a meatless meatloaf that one little sister, then 12, concocted one evening. “Mostly it was my little sister’s idea. She wanted it done a certain way and it did not look good at all. I refused to eat it.” So Gabrielle called her cousin and they went out to get fast food, candy and chips.

But that was then.

Through the program Gabrielle has learned she likes a plate of sliced cucumbers for a snack, maybe some celery, because it’s crunchy, too. She’s learned to appreciate turkey, something she thought was tasteless in the past.

Pilot program

Dalen and her colleague, research scientist Janet L. Brody, are devising a pilot program for adolescents based on the beta mindful eating program that the Castillos and other local adolescents and their families completed this past fall.

Families with an overweight teenager are invited to participate in a study of mindful eating. The program is designed to promote weight loss while bringing a greater enjoyment and balance to eating. It aims also to reduce stress and manage emotions during the eight-week course, which teaches mindfulness techniques. For more information, visit

At the end of the program’s three years, it will have served about 110 individuals directly, but its scope is broader because the program can be implemented across the country, says Dalen.

“It’s really a family frame. Even in the closest families there can be issues around eating,” she adds. “Adolescents don’t want to be watched. They want to make their own choices. Families play a large role in behavior, but adolescents are learning to be more autonomous, more independent. Sometimes food is the only control adolescents feel they have in their families.”

What the studies say

Past studies of mindful eating, including a 2009 UNM study called MEAL, or mindful eating and living, show that adult participants lost weight, better controlled food-related anxiety behaviors like binge eating or purging and reduced stress. Markers for inflammation also declined in the UNM study.

Researchers around the country are scrambling to understand how to turn the tide of obesity for adolescents, Dalen says.

Although some studies indicated obesity in teenagers maybe slowing, the prevalence of obesity among U.S. youth, 12 to 19 years old, increased 83 percent from 1999 to 2012. Recent studies also show that young people have increasing health complications from obesity, such as diabetes. Obesity in youth is also the best predictor for continued obesity in adulthood. About 35 percent of adolescents are overweight or obese, Dalen says.

The researchers hope to learn more about adolescent eating patterns in the study, Brody says. “We need to go much deeper into the experience to find concrete ways to make it resonate in an adolescent mind. How do you get adolescents to connect to their bodies, when they have spent so much time being embarrassed about their bodies? How do you get them to feel safe enough to talk about that?”

Know thyself

Brody cautions that mindful eating is not about giving up all the food you like for plates of raw vegetables: “It’s about balance. We try to connect the inner and outer worlds.”

Dalen says they aren’t eliminating chocolate or chips from the diet, but allowing all kinds of food as long as the principles are followed. “It doesn’t mean that dietary knowledge isn’t important.”

She says parents and adolescents have so many negative messages around food, that it’s no wonder than many meals are anxiety-ridden. “We all have so many invisible rules around eating. … We try to let go of the judgment. When people feel like they failed, they tend to give up. We make eating fun again. We bring the fun and curiosity back to food.”

“The notion of mindfulness is that the right answer is inside us,” Dalen says. “That our inner dietitian knows what our bodies need, in our own rhythm, in our own time.”