Mindfulness. Defined as a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment,1 it is becoming a popular tool for therapeutic intervention in performance and wellness, as well as behavioural and mental health.
As such, obesity-related behaviours such as binge-eating, emotional, eating, and external eating could be targeted with mindful therapies such as meditation, mindful eating and practice of self-compassion.2
This may be because obesity-related behaviours are stress-related. Stress is linked with weight gain, and both stress and obesity are linked with dysregulated eating, impaired glucose metabolism, abdominal adiposity, and lipid abnormalities.3
As mindfulness practice has the propensity to elicit positive health benefits physiologically as well as mentally and behaviourally, a team of researchers set to ascertain if regular mindful practice could encourage weight loss and reduce stress, whilst improving metabolic markers related to each.
A mindful study
Researchers from the University of California ran a randomized control trial, studying 194 men and women split into two groups – diet and exercise intervention only for the active control group, and an identical diet and exercise intervention for the experimental group, but they also undertook mindfulness training.3
The mindfulness training entailed stress reduction program (including meditation, loving kindness, and yoga postures), and mindful eating and walking practices. Mindful eating specifically is designed to enhance self-regulation, and awareness of hunger, fullness, food cravings, emotions, and taste satisfaction.
Participants undertook meditation up to 30 minutes per day 6 days a week, ate mindfully, and undertook additional mini-meditations.
The programs ran for 5.5 months, and at 3, 6, 12 and 18 months the patients were followed up to assess weight change and any shifts in metabolic markers.
Weight loss was greater in the mindfulness group at 12 and 18 months, but not considered statistically significant. However, fasting glucose and triglyceride/HDL cholesterol ratio fared far better in the mindfulness group.
So, while the participants lost weight, it wasn’t in this case a significant amount compared to their non-mindful practicing counterparts – but very important metabolic markers improved.
Eating mindfully is one aspect of mindfulness practice, and can address our relationship with what we eat. The idea is enhanced mind-body connection helps you to know when you are full, and therefore less likely to overeat (and get stomach aches, reflux or a barrage of burps).
Focusing on the look, smell, taste and texture of the food we eat, and chewing slowly without the distraction of Instagram or The Bachelor allows increased awareness of satiety.
Past research has seen active mindful eating reduce binging, encourage a focused enjoyment of food, and lessen the struggle to control their eating. Meditation practice in addition to this enhanced these qualities further, and can cultivate self-acceptance and ease depression.4 Wonderful!
In fact, another randomised control trial suggests combining meditation with a practice that develops self-compassion can result in greater weight loss than no meditation, or practicing meditation alone, irrespective of diet.5
And a recent observational study associated those with higher dispositional mindfulness (where one has strong awareness of emotions and thoughts in the present moment) were less likely to be overweight.1
Cultivating body and mind connection
Mindfulness practice may largely help reduce detrimental eating behaviour or other health issues as it cultivates greater awareness of physical reaction and manifestations within our body that previously we may have been deaf to.
And eating behaviour and weight aren’t the only factors to consider here!
Deep breathing and extended exhalation can activate the parasympathetic nervous system – our rest and digest mode. Meditation itself has been seen to enhance brain plasticity, lower inflammation, and boost stress resilience and mood.6-9 It could possibly slow the aging process!10
Mindful practice can reap great benefits when practiced regularly long-term. There are great apps to get you started, and a chat to your healthcare practitioner can point you in the right direction of who to undertake guided mindfulness training with.
Whether weight loss is the goal or not, the mental, emotional and physiological benefits could be profound.
Here are some foundational mindful eating tips, to get you started:
- Eat your meal over 20 minutes
- Chew slowly, taking small bites. The food ain’t going to run away anywhere! Using chopsticks or smaller utensils can help.
- Consider quietly the food you are eating for a few minutes, where it came from, how it may be helping you, and what it is like to smell and eat.
- Before you reach for food, ask yourself if you are really hungry. Perhaps you need a glass of water, a short walk or breathe of fresh air.11
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Camilleri, GM, Méjean, C, Bellisle, F, Hercberg, S, & Péneau, S 2015, ‘Association between Mindfulness and Weight Status in a General Population from the NutriNet-Santé Study’, Plos One, vol. 10, no. 6, p. e0127447.
- O’Reilly, GA, Cook, L, Spruijt-Metz, D, & Black, DS 2014, ‘Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review’, Obesity Reviews, vol. 15, no. 6, pp. 453-461.
- Daubenmier J, Moran PJ, Kristeller J, et al. 2016, ‘Effects of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention in adults with obesity: A randomized clinical trial’, Obesity (Silver Spring), 24, no. 4, pp. 794-804.
- Kristeller, JL & Wolever, RQ 2011, ‘Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: The Conceptual Foundation’, Eating Disorders, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 49-61.
- Mantzios, M & Wilson, JC 2015, ‘Exploring mindfulness and mindfulness with self-compassion-centered interventions to assist weight loss:theoretical considerations and preliminary results of a randomized pilot study’,Mindfulness, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 824-835.
- Creswell, JD, Taren, AA, Lindsay, EK, Greco, CM, Gianaros, PJ, Fairgrieve, A, Marsland, AL, Brown, KW, Way, BM, Rosen, RK, & Ferris, JL 2016, ‘Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial’, Biological Psychiatry, vol. 80, no. 1, pp. 53-61.
- Davidson, RJ and McEwen, B 2012, ‘Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being’, Nature Neuroscience, 5, pp. 689–695.
- Rosenkranz, MA, Lutz, A, Perlman, DM, Bachhuber, DR, Schuyler, BS, MacCoon, DG, & Davidson, RJ 2016, ‘Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group’, Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 68, pp. 117-125.
- Richard, M, Lutz, A, & Davidson, RJ 2014, ‘mind of the meditator’, Scientific American, vol. 311, no. 5, pp. 38-45.
- Luders, E, Cherbuin, N, & Kurth, F 2015, ‘Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy’, Frontiers In Psychology, vol. 5, p. 1551.
- Harvard Medical School 2011, ‘Mindful eating may help with weight loss’, Healthbeat, viewed 8 August 2016, <http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/mindful-eating-may-help-with-weight-loss>