The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is spending nearly $150,000 to test a "mindful eating intervention" on third graders in California.
A grant awarded earlier this month outlined the project that will use the methods of a Zen teacher to try to fight childhood obesity and turn kids into "change agents" to teach others how to eat healthily.
The project, entitled, "Foodie U: The Impact of a Pilot Mindful Eating Intervention on Food Behaviors Among Children and Families," will focus on low-income Hispanic children.
"The elementary school age is a crucial period for developing life-long dietary habits while parents still significantly influence their food intake," the grant said. "A school-based mindful eating intervention with parent involvement may positively influence children's food behaviors."
Mindfulness is a New Age meditation technique that traces its origins from Buddhism. People engaging in mindfulness are encouraged to focus on the present moment "non-judgmentally." A 60 Minutes segment on mindfulness showed Anderson Cooper using the practice by eating in silence very slowly, focusing on every bite.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent $100.2 million on studies testing mindfulness meditation.
Now, the USDA is studying mindfulness methods, in the hopes of changing the eating habits of youngsters. California State University has received $149,890 for the project, which is set to last until February 2017.
The study will involve focus groups and testing mindful eating practices on 500 low-income third to fifth graders and their parents in Tehama County, Calif.
The "Foodie U Intervention activities" include "classroom and home activities about enjoyment of flavor, texture and appearance, hunger and fullness awareness, food and mood, family sit-down meals, and a cultural feast."
"Two parent workshops will also be held to introduce mindful eating practices to parents, as well as to further strengthen their knowledge and skills in promoting mindful eating to family members at home," the grant said.
The researchers are modeling some of the mindfulness intervention off of Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen teacher from Oregon.
Bays argues that children have a "natural internal nutritionist that tells them what and how much to eat," but they lose it because parents "begin to interfere, cajoling, bribing and trying to force food into the child’s closed mouth."
"Mindful eating is a way to become reacquainted with the guidance of our internal nutritionist," she writes on her website.
Her tips for mindful eating include beginning family meals with grace, playing the "how full is my stomach" game, and being creative with food, like telling children "broccoli is trees for dinosaurs to eat."
"Everyone’s deepest hunger is for love and connection," Bays said. "Loving words are vital to our health. Loving words are a way to feed the heart that does not involve food. If you want your family and friends to feel well nourished, give them generous helpings of genuine expressions of gratitude and affectionate words. ‘I really appreciate your …’ ‘When I am with you I feel …’"
The Center for Mindful Eating, where Bays is a member of the advisory council, defines mindful eating as choosing food with good vibes.
"Mindful Eating is allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom," the group, which charges membership dues, said. "By using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body, acknowledging your responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment, and becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating you can change your relationship to food."
The goal of the USDA project is to make children consume fewer "high palatable, high calorie foods," while also raising the "awareness and appreciation" of food.
"Finally, students who gain knowledge and skills related to mindful and healthy eating will have the potential to become educational leaders and community change agents for better health and well-being," the grant said.
The study is recruiting graduate and undergraduate students at California State University who will serve as "nutrition educators" and "mindful eating facilitators" for the children involved.