Professor’s probe of racial bias in mindfulness research yields surprising results

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Research tests whether people of color benefit from ‘mindful eating’

Mindfulness, the meditation practice that teaches people to be aware of their experiences in the present moment, has become so popular it’s created a billion-dollar industry of self-help books, videos and apps — and inspired plenty of research studies on the benefits of the practice. But San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Holistic Health Studies Jennifer Daubenmier noticed a potential problem with much of this research: It primarily focused on white people.

Daubenmier responded by conducting a study to see if mindfulness benefits extend to other demographics. Specifically, her study looks at the efficacy of mindful eating — a form of mindfulness that teaches people to be present and aware of bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings in relation to the food and drinks they consume — in weight loss programs and how the results of the practice vary across racial and socioeconomic groups. The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal “Psychosomatic Medicine.”

“There’s an assumption that the benefits of mindfulness apply to people of color, but we really don’t know that for sure,” Daubenmier said. “That’s primarily due to people of color being underrepresented in research.”

Socially disadvantaged groups are disproportionally affected by the U.S. obesity epidemic but are often underrepresented in weight loss research just as they are in mindfulness research, Daubenmier says. Given these circumstances, she saw a unique opportunity to explore if meditation-based weight loss intervention programs — a field she specifically studies — can help these groups.

 “Studies show that people of color are at higher risk of obesity and lose less weight in weight loss studies compared to white people,” Daubenmier said. “My paper aims to do two of many things: to see if mindfulness does, in fact, benefit people of color and if it can help address racial disparities in weight loss.”

Another factor that Daubenmier looked at in her research is whether mindfulness can mitigate socioeconomic disparities in weight loss. Evidence shows that people from lower socioeconomic groups are also more prone to obesity. In part, that may be because they are exposed to more adversity, which leads to stress, a condition that in the long term is directly tied to obesity, Daubenmier says.

For their study, Daubenmier and research collaborators recruited and divided about 200 participants into two programs: a regular weight loss intervention program without mindfulness and a program with mindfulness. Each program held 17 sessions that spanned almost six months. The collaborators also examined the participants up to a year after the programs ended to see if they maintained any weight loss. Study participants reflected diverse backgrounds so researchers could compare results based on racial identity as well as education level, which is a factor that influences a person’s socioeconomic status.

Participants of color lost less weight overall across both programs, which is consistent with other studies. Surprising to Daubenmier, however, was that one year after the programs ended, participants of color from the regular program regained more weight compared to white participants, but people of color from the meditation-based program maintained weight at similar levels as white participants. In other words, the meditation-based program seemed to help both groups maintain their weight loss similarly. “This suggests that mindfulness can play a role in maintaining weight loss for people of color, thus reducing racial disparities in weight loss,” Daubenmier explained.

Another interesting finding from the mindfulness program: participants without a college degree lost significantly more weight at the outset than those with a college degree. On the other hand, participants in the regular program lost similar amounts of weight regardless of their education level. “This suggests that mindfulness may help people in lower socioeconomic groups manage their stress often due to hardships,” Daubenmier said. “This, in turn, could help them manage their weight.”

Although Daubenmier finds that her paper is only scratching the surface of understanding how mindfulness applies to different demographics, she’s hopeful that this paper will inspire other researchers to dig deeper.

“Given the overrepresentation of white and college-educated participants in mindfulness research, we need to think about how mindfulness can be culturally relevant to different groups,” she said. “It’s also a reminder that researchers have a responsibility to do research with equity and diversity in mind.”

Researchers from University of California, San Francisco and Indiana State University also contributed to the study.