Mindfulness as a Tool to Combat Stress and Overeating at UCSF

No time to prepare meals, or even to have a simple breakfast. Too many snacks during the day, and too much fatty and sugary food to relieve stress. Sound familiar? These are some of the most common comments that Rachel Radin, Ph.D., hears while helping individuals with their healthy eating goals.

In her current research, Dr. Radin, the Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and the Center for Health and Community, is trying to figure out how our stress at work can influence our decisions when it comes to food, and how mindfulness could be used to help.

Dr. Rachel Radin, PhD, is investigating the relationship between stress and unhealthy eating choices at UCSF. 

Why mindfulness?

Dr. Radin’s background is in clinical psychology. Previously, she worked in Washington DC focusing on child obesity. There, she used psychological interventions to improve eating behaviors, through a combination of nutrition and stress management. "It was more than traditional psychotherapy. We were trying to understand how our relationships with other people affect our eating behavior."

In 2017, she started to work with Drs. Elissa Epel, Ph.D., Ashley Mason Ph.D., and Frederick Hecht M.D., at UCSF, who were studying the effects of a mindfulness‐based weight loss intervention in adults with obesity. "I was interested in people who had binge eating disorder, if they could perform better. And the answer was yes, mindfulness was more efficient among people who related binge eating."

Rachel explains that the mindfulness intervention group lost an average of 1.9 kg more than the control group at 18 months compared to the control group, but she emphasizes that this difference was not statistically significant. However, she adds, participants who practiced mindfulness achieved greater improvements in fasting blood glucose and triglyceride/HDL levels one year after the end of the intervention.

These results show that the mindfulness could lead to an improvement of eating behaviors and, as a consequence, overall improved health. 

Current research
This previous experience sparked a passion in Radin to gain deeper understanding of mindful eating. Now, here at UCSF, she is leading a team to test mindful eating for improving individual eating behaviors for those who are experiencing moderate levels of stress.

Specifically, Radin is responsible for conducting individual motivational interviews, using questions that help participants understand the main issues that lead them to use food as a reward for overcoming their stressful days. "We are not making any assumptions about what's going on, we just really want to hear about what's concerning, to understand what they want to change in their eating,” she explains.

People are most motivated to make a behavior change when it comes from them....They have to feel that 'this is very important to me; I'm really motivated to do this change'. 'I feel that I can do it'.

Rachel Radin, PhD

Center for Health and Community, UCSF

That said, the main purpose of these questions is not to give directions about nutrition or to tell participants what to eat or what to avoid. Rather, the program aims to help individuals determine, on their own, what they can change in their everyday routines to manage stress and, possibly, improve their relationship with food. "Each person is an expert on themselves. As adults, they probably have been bombarded with information about what is healthy and what is not, and they probably already tried a lot of diets", she points out.

Chocolate as a reward: "I deserve it!"
The most common issues described to Radin include lack of time, stress and overeating, are just a few examples of what prevents most people from having healthier eating habits. Many people claim that they don't have time to take care of their own needs, not even to sit properly and have a meal at lunchtime. "Sometimes they hardly eat anything from 9 am to 3 pm. That's a long period of time!" she observes.

As a result, they overeat the snacks available in the office, like chocolates and candies, just to feel some relief after stressful moments. Also, many end up feeling starved by the afternoon, becoming more susceptible to making unhealthy choices when they go to eat.

Another typical reaction from going without food during the day is to overeat at night, when they finally get home. "After a stressful day they feel like: 'ok, this is my time to reward. I deserve to eat something really delicious'." Radin notices that is hard to break this cycle. "You are busy, you are stressed. When you have time to eat it's hard to find a healthy option. Your brain is starving, and it thinks in just the delicious things that makes you feel rewarded."

So, to change this scenario, Radin encourages the participants to find themselves what is possible to change, asking about realistic answers. "People come with really good solutions!", she observes, explained that is way much easier when they verbalize their problems, so they can see some small changes which are practicable.

"I could bring a bag of oranges to leave on my table so when I have cravings, I will eat an orange", said one participant. Usually, these interviews follow natural suggestions, not directions. "People are most motivated to make a behavior change when it comes from them. I can be an expert in healthy eating and give all the directions but is not as meaningful when it comes from an outside person. They have to feel that 'this is very important to me; I'm really motivated to do this change'. 'I feel that I can do it'."

Are you a UCSF employee interested in joining a study that incorporates mindful eating? Visit the Stress Free UC Study website for more information on how to join.


Dr. Rachel Radin, PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, Center for Health and Community. Her research interests include clarifying the biopsychosocial processes that contribute to eating behavior and metabolic health in adults. Rachel aims to ultimately develop complementary and integrative health interventions to improve the health of individuals with obesity and other health-related conditions.