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With rising rates of diet-related conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, we all want to know what it really means to have a healthy approach to food.

New studies emerge every day to tell us what and how to eat, but sometimes they come with conflicting results and advice.

With the rapidly changing tide of information, it’s hard to know what — and whom — to trust.

In the words of food journalist Michael Pollan, “Nutrition science is kind of where surgery was in the year 1650, which is to say very interesting and promising, but do you really want to get on the table yet?”

How much influence can one researcher and their studies have?

Another layer of doubt gets added to the equation when headlines reveal that sometimes, researchers’ methods may be less than perfectly ethical.

One instance that’s recently called the credibility of dietary science into question is the very public downfall of famous nutrition researcher Brian Wansink.

To many, Wansink was the final authority on how to harness the power of the mind for healthier eating.

If you’ve ever seen a national news segment on the interplay between the mind and the mouth, you probably caught a glimpse of Wansink.

As director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, Wansink made a career out of highlighting the ways our environment causes us to eat more than we realize.

His well-known experiments explored the effects of mindless eating, such as how visual cues influenced people’s intake of soup or the fact that hungry shoppers purchased higher-calorie foods.

With these intriguing subjects — plus a good sense of humor and friendly persona — Wansink became the media’s go-to expert on American eating behaviors.

His studies have been cited over 20,000 times in nutrition literature. His books (among them “Mindless Eating” and “Slim by Design”) have captivated consumer interest.

And though Wansink’s research focused more on the cues that promote mindless eating, he and his work were often lumped in to the public understanding of the mindfuleating movement.

To many, Wansink was the final authority on how to harness the power of the mind for healthier eating.

What happens when those studies are inconsistent and possibly wrong?

via Gfycat

Over the last year, however, Wansink’s reputation has taken a nosedive.

He’s been forced to retract 15 studies due to “academic misconduct” and has resigned from his post at Cornell.

Though Wansink maintains that “there was no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation” in his research, academic journals are inclined to disagree.

Because of errors and inconsistencies in Wansink’s data and methods, the Journal of the American Medical Association issued a release in May 2018 stating that they were “unable to provide assurances regarding the scientific validity” of six of Wansink’s papers.

Since that time, nine more of Wansink’s studies have been retracted.

The exposure of this misconduct comes as a major blow to not only Wansink’s own academic integrity, but to both concepts of mindless and mindful eating. Many are now wondering whether these ideas really hold up to scrutiny.

How does this downfall measure in the bigger picture of our health?

In light of Wansink’s retractions, we can’t necessarily vouch for whether or not we’ll snack more while watching a thriller or reach for veggies when they’re stored in see-through containers. But there’s still good news for the bigger picture of mindful consumption.

First, when you consider the lengthy, well-established history of mindfulness as a lifestyle practice, one researcher’s study retractions don’t mean so much.

While Wansink may have played a part in the surge of media attention around mindful eating, the idea of engaging the mind and senses toward food goes back a lot further than his research at Cornell.

Rooted in ancient Buddhist tradition, mindfulness has been channeled toward various aspects of human experience — eating included — for thousands of years.

Plus, much of Wansink’s work fell more into the “tips and tricks” level of information, like how to clear your kitchen of stressful, appetite-inducing clutter or what color plates to use to trick your brain into eating less.

Dietitian, chef, and food enjoyment activist Michele Redmond explains the important distinction between this and a truly mindful approach to food.

“Wansink focused on identifying external triggers in work and social spaces that can cause mindless eating and ways to control or remove those triggers,” she says.

Mindful eating, on the other hand, involves “focus on recognizing and adapting our internal responses to food and eating situations.”

It’s not about categorizing food or behaviors as bad and creating a culture of avoidance, but rather looking internally and strengthening a more holistic mindset around food.

These internal responses have been the subject of much research, other than Wansink’s, and the results are clear: A mindful approach to eating promotes:

Perhaps, then, it’s best to worry less about using “hacks” to minimize mindless eating. Instead, we should continue to strive for a more mindful approach and relationship with our food.

Hallmarks of mindful consumption include:

  • savoring
  • using all five senses to experience food
  • paying attention to hunger and fullness cues
  • minimizing distractions
  • applying an attitude of non-judgment toward eating

On the power of savoring, Redmond says, “Taking a moment to savor a bite of food by identifying key tastes, flavors, and textures naturally slows down eating and creates a mindful eating experience.”

Reducing distractions by turning off the TV and staying off the phone during meals helps anchor us in the present, making us more likely to eat just enough and not too much.

And getting in tune with physical signs of hunger allows us to discern whether we actually need food at any given time.

At the heart, mindful eating is about trusting your body and its cues

As important as scientific study may be — and as troubling as it is to learn that not all research is conducted respectably — mindful eating is, at its heart, about trusting yourself and your individual body’s cues.

No research retractions can have the final word on your own health journey. Whether or not mindlessness-reducing tips and tricks bring physical results, applying more awareness and enjoyment to your food (and your life) is always a good idea.

Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.