Choosing heart-healthy foods with mindfulness

Improving interoception and DASH diet compliance with mindfulness.


In a recent study at Brown University, practicing mindful eating was beneficial for heart health. The study involved individuals with high blood pressure who joined an eight-week program focused on reducing blood pressure through mindfulness. Those who participated showed significant improvements in their self-awareness and their ability to follow a heart-healthy diet compared to a control group. These findings were published in JAMA Network Open.

Lead study author Eric B. Loucks, an associate professor of epidemiology, behavioral and social sciences, and director of the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, said, “Participants in the program showed significant improvement in adherence to a heart-healthy diet, which is one of the biggest drivers of blood pressure, as well as significant improvements in self-awareness, which appears to influence healthy eating habits.”

In the study, Loucks revealed that a personalized mindfulness program aimed at enhancing one’s diet can have a substantial impact on blood pressure regulation. This is achieved by increasing self-awareness regarding how various foods affect our bodies, understanding bodily sensations, and acknowledging the thoughts and emotions associated with healthy and unhealthy eating, thus influencing dietary choices positively.

It’s noteworthy that high blood pressure stands as a primary contributor to heart disease and accounts for millions of preventable deaths annually, as highlighted by recent reports from the World Health Organization. The study underscores the importance of implementing effective strategies to control and prevent hypertension, including dietary modifications, physical activity, medication adherence, alcohol intake reduction, and stress management.

The study used a mindfulness program created by Loucks in 2014, which teaches skills like meditation, yoga, self-awareness, focus, and emotion control. What sets this program apart is that it shows participants how to use these skills to lower their blood pressure.

The program involved a group orientation, eight weekly sessions lasting 2.5 hours each, a day-long retreat, and recommended daily practice at home for 45 minutes, six days a week. Trained instructors knowledgeable about cardiovascular disease led the program, with classes held at Brown University in Providence and a health center in an urban, lower-income neighborhood.

The study involved 201 participants split into two groups. In the test group (101 participants), individuals underwent an 8-week MB-BP program. This program included personalized feedback and education about hypertension risk factors, training in mindfulness related to these risk factors (including mindful eating), and support for behavior change.

The control group (called “usual care”) received educational brochures on managing high blood pressure. Both groups were provided with home blood-pressure monitoring devices and instructions for their use, along with the option to consult primary care physicians.

The researchers focused on how well the participants followed the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) program, which promotes a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Despite its effectiveness, many people need help maintaining adherence to the DASH diet.

After six months, the mindfulness group saw a 0.34-point enhancement in their DASH diet score, indicating an improvement similar to shifting from consuming almost enough vegetables (2-3 servings) to meeting the recommended levels (at least four servings) or making similar improvements in other aspects of the DASH score. In contrast, the control group had a -0.04-point change in their DASH diet score.

Additionally, the mindfulness group displayed a noteworthy 0.71-point increase in their interoceptive awareness (the ability to sense and interpret body signals) score compared to six months earlier, surpassing the control group by 0.54 points.

The study’s outcomes suggest that a customized mindfulness training program for individuals with high blood pressure, focusing on diet and self-awareness, can significantly enhance both aspects.

Loucks said, “The program gives participants the tools to make heart-healthy diet changes that can lower their blood pressure and decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The researchers are exploring various program variations, such as shorter durations and fewer sessions, to assess their effectiveness. They are also investigating factors affecting the implementation of the MB-BP plan in a practical setting, which includes aspects like health insurance coverage eligibility, accessibility for diverse patient groups, and adaptability for healthcare providers.

Mindfulness holds promise as a valuable tool for individuals seeking to make heart-healthy eating choices. This study highlights the potential impact of mindfulness on dietary decision-making and the promotion of cardiovascular well-being, suggesting that mindfulness practices could be integrated into strategies for improving heart health.

Journal reference:

  1. Eric B. Loucks, Ian M. Kronish et al., Adapted Mindfulness Training for Interoception and Adherence to the DASH Diet. JAMA Open Network. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.39243.