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Tracking down hunger with nose, ears and heart – Psychologists test a promising new therapeutic approach for eating and weight disorders

Psychologin Diana Peitz. Photo: Thomas Roese.
Photo :
Psychologin Diana Peitz. Photo: Thomas Roese.

A crispy bread roll, a juicy mango, or a warming soup - our food appeals to many senses and usually serves more than just the need to fill the stomach. Yet we often barely notice what a meal has to offer and hastily scarf down canteen food - and miss a lot. Psychologist Diana Peitz has developed a training program that is supposed to teach us to be more mindful and attentive to our food. In an online study, she is currently testing the effectiveness of this program. Heike Kampe participated in the study as part of a self-experiment and talked to Peitz about it.

I am the science officer in a spaceship. For a long time now, I have been traveling with my team through the vastness of space, and slowly our food supplies are dwindling. We land on an unknown planet and begin our search for food. In front of me, an enigmatic object is laying on the ground. It is about the size of a bean and of a dark amber color. Its surface is full of furrows and dents. I take it with me to the spaceship to have a closer look at it. It feels soft and malleable, and it does not smell unpleasant. I am brave and put the object into my mouth. My tongue feels around it, my teeth bite into it, and the inside releases a seductive sweetness. I eat it with pleasure. The unknown object is a raisin. But I have never seen one like this before. I encounter it for the first time.

This is my first step into a training program that will be with me over the next two weeks and teach me the concept of “mindful eating”. Mentally I leave the spaceship and again sit at my desk. I have received this exercise via video, and it is supposed to help me exit the autopilot mode that often characterizes how we deal with food. It can prevent us from actually perceiving what or how much we eat. The bag of chips that we have just opened may suddenly be surprisingly empty.

Together with 250 other volunteers, I take part in a study that is scientifically supervised by psychologist Diana Peitz who analyses and evaluates the results for her dissertation. The researcher wants to know how effective this training is, which originated in the US. Its key exercise was developed by pediatrician Jan Chozen Bays and psychotherapist Char Wilkins.

For Peitz, the training program is an instrument to enrich our daily meals with more awareness. The concept of mindfulness, originally from Buddhism, is of increasing interest to health researchers and psychologists because it seems to have a healing effect on numerous physical and mental disorders. Psychotherapists are already successfully using mindfulness-based programs to target stress, burnout, depression, and alcoholism. But what exactly is mindfulness?

“It includes attentiveness to what is happening in the moment, but also the acceptance of this experience, without judgement,” Peitz explains. The psychologist is convinced that eating disorders can be especially positively influenced by a mindfulness program. “Meta-analyses show consistently positive effects of these programs on pathological eating habits. However, the research in this field is still in its infancy, especially in Germany. "

So much for theory. After completing a detailed online questionnaire about my eating habits, attitudes, feelings, height, and weight, I begin to practice mindful eating. For this purpose, I have received a protocol for each of the 14 training days, which I am supposed to complete every day. On a scale of zero to ten, I am supposed to assess my hunger for any meal of the day. This is not as trivial as it sounds because hunger is not always the same. A video at the beginning of the program introduces me to nine different types of hunger.

I learn that the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tactile sense, heart, and mind all have a kind of hunger that is satisfied in different ways. Not to forget the stomach, of course, which can send very clear hunger signals by rumbling? The hunger of the eyes also shouldn’t be too difficult to pinpoint, I think. “A treat for the eyes,” as the proverb goes. When a meal looks delicious and is nicely prepared, your mouth starts to water. The nose hunger is similar because a pleasant smell stimulates the appetite. But what about the mental hunger? This is already more difficult. I'm completely at a loss when asked about cell hunger. How, for heaven’s sake, can I listen to my cells and know what kind of food they need right now? “A matter of practice where mindfulness can help,” the introductory video tells me. Similarly to knowing exactly when we are thirsty, we could learn again to intuit what nutrients our body needs at the moment.

Once a day I take the time to listen to myself before and after a meal, observe the look and smell of my food, and assess my desire to devour it. I realize quickly: It is not so easy for me to take five minutes every day to be more attentive to my food. It seems I rarely have my meals in a quiet atmosphere, but often squeeze them in and “work them off” quickly while my thoughts are elsewhere. At first, it is a bit irritating to sense the hunger that the breakfast bun triggers in me instead of simply taking a bite. The autopilot mode is not so easy to turn off.

The days go by and slowly but surely something begins to perplex me. So far, I haven’t rated any of the nine types of hunger a “ten” - not even a nine or an eight. Apparently, I'm rarely really hungry. No wonder: I am basically always snacking on something - a piece of chocolate, grapes, peanuts, or a cheese sandwich, mostly while working and looking at my screen. A typical case of carelessness while eating. Still, I do not have a guilty conscience because again and again I am reminded in emails and instructions to be friendly and compassionate with myself. It's about perception, not about judgement. “A guilty conscience will not help," explains Peitz. “Nobody will change his or her eating habits as a result of this. Compassion can provide a new approach to shaping eating habits.”

On day eight the time has finally come: A piece of raspberry cake with whipped cream makes my mouth water. I really want to eat it, but I also know very well that it is not primarily my stomach that is terribly hungry. The stomach hunger gets only a six. But my mouth wants to feel the juicy raspberries and the soft whipped cream, my heart lusts for a sweet, fat piece of cake to comfort and relax me. I want to treat myself. I fill in the first bold tens in the columns for mouth and heart hunger.

This discrepancy between the different types of hunger, which characterize all of my meals, does not come as a surprise to Peitz. “We eat for many different reasons,” she explains. “Especially the heart hunger is central and often entices us to eat. However, we are often unaware of the different needs.” The result: Someone who carelessly scarfs down food is not really full and satisfied afterwards. “We somehow feel dissatisfied,” says Peitz. To fill the gap, we eat more even though our stomach is actually full. This is exactly where the program comes in. “When we realize that hunger is not just hunger, we can make more conscious and independent eating decisions rather than following automatisms and old habits,” explains Peitz. Especially for people who have problematic eating habits - even if they suffer from a binge eating disorder with uncontrollable binge eating or obesity - the exercise could be helpful, Peitz hopes.

It remains to be seen whether the intervention actually works. At the end of the two-week training program, I fill in the questionnaire again. My data are included in the evaluation like those of the other participants and a waiting control group, who completes their training with a time delay. After three months, I will be questioned again - after all, the researchers want to know whether the subject will retain a potential effect in the long term.

“Much of our eating habits is automated,” Peitz explains. “That's why it's so difficult to give up old habits.” The program - the researcher hopes - will create new habits to control nutritional habits more consciously. “The training is only a small part,” she emphasizes. Nevertheless, she expects small but measurable effects.

The last meal I enter into my hunger protocol is a vegetable stew. I carefully peeled and diced potatoes, carrots, and red beets, harvested tender string beans from the balcony and finely seasoned everything. I am looking forward to the meal. I appreciate the colors - the bright red of the beets and the rich green of the beans. But something is missing on the plate. A blob of sour cream on top. I'm still not satisfied. Only after getting some chives from the balcony and adding them on top of the sour cream, everything seems right. That is a ten on the eye hunger scale. Will I be able to retain this mindfulness and appreciation for my meals and needs in the future? Or will the autopilot quickly take over again? My food will show it.

The Project

Psychologist Diana Peitz, who is writing her doctorate at the Department Counseling Psychology under Prof. Petra Warschburger, and the students Hannah Micklitz and Magdalena Fuchs examine whether the intervention positively influences eating habits and awareness in a study with 250 subjects. Similar programs may be used for treating eating and weight disorders in the future.

The Scientist

Diana Peitz studied psychology at the University of Freiburg and Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2015 she has been working at the University of Potsdam writing her PhD thesis on mindfulness, self-compassion, and eating. She and her colleague Ewgenia Roth developed the program Essperience offering courses on mindful eating in Berlin.

Diana Peitz studied psychology at the University of Freiburg and Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2015 she has been working at the University of Potsdam writing her PhD thesis on mindfulness, self-compassion, and eating. She and her colleague Ewgenia Roth developed the program Essperience offering courses on mindful eating in Berlin.


Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published Online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde