You’ve probably heard how the trendy practice of mindfulness can improve your mood or concentration. Turns out, it works for weight loss, too.
We know what you’re thinking: Sitting cross-legged can’t possibly burn that many calories. But mindfulness doesn’t work like other dieting tools — it actually works better, at least according to a growing number of studies showing that it can help dieters not only lose weight but keep it off longer.
Researchers at North Carolina State University who analyzed existing scientific literature on the subject, for instance, found that four of five weight-loss studies that included mindfulness techniques resulted in successful weight loss for participants. What’s more, when the researchers followed up on their own months later, they found that those same participants had managed to keep the pounds off.
In order to understand how mindfulness works in weight loss, it’s important to understand that any extra pounds you’re carrying have more to do with your brain than your stomach, says psychiatrist Judson A. Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at the Brown University School of Public Health.
As he tells it, it’s your brain that remembers if chocolate cake made you feel good when you ate it. And it’s your brain that signals you to look for something similar the next time you’re feeling stressed or lonely or bored. Every time you respond to something like stress with something like chocolate, you strengthen the connection between the two in your mind. Before you know it, you’ve got a deeply entrenched habit.
But while mindfulness techniques have been shown to build up the part of the brain (known as the prefrontal cortex) that’s critical for the willpower to say no to treats, its techniques aren’t just about learning to put the brakes on poor food choices. The goal is to help you understand what’s behind the urge to eat them so you can create new, healthier habits to sub in — and ultimately feel more satisfied with the results.
“Our brains have a reward hierarchy. They’re always comparing different types of behavior and how rewarding they are. They’re always looking for the bigger, better offer,” says Brewer. As he explains, if you stop and realize that you’re tired before wolfing down a candy bar, perhaps you would choose to squeeze in a nap instead of eating something sugary. In that case, actually attending to your needs with a snooze becomes the better, more satisfying offer.
Learning to eat mindfully has other steps, too, including exercises like tracking your hunger, or better recognizing what physical sensations in your body may mean.
The process starts by simply recognizing your habits around eating. To get at those, Carolyn Dunn, a North Carolina State University human sciences professor who started a mindful eating program called Eat Smart, Move More, Weigh Less, suggests writing down when and where you eat — or snapping a photo of everything you consume — for a few days. You might notice that you stop at the same drive-through on your way home from work every night, soothe sore feelings with a bowl of ice cream, or reward an arduous workweek with a big meal topped off with a sugary treat or a glass of wine.
Once you have a firm grasp on your habits surrounding food, you can begin to explore what’s behind each by going a little deeper and noticing why you’re eating certain things. To do this, you’ll need to pay close attention to both physical sensations and your thoughts before and during meals or a snack. Dunn, for example, suggests noting how hungry you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 prior to each meal. If you’re not hungry, then what are you feeling? Anger, boredom, loneliness?
You should also pay close attention to what you’re feeling while you eat. Notice the sensations in your mouth and elsewhere in your body. Are you able to stop eating when you begin to feel full, or do you keep right on going?
Equally important is focusing on what you’re feeling after you’ve eaten. If you were snacking for hunger’s sake, you might feel satisfied. Chowing down for other reasons? “Maybe you’ll notice that your stomach feels bloated and you feel guilty,” says Brewer. The more you can show your brain the negative outcome of a bad habit, the more you reinforce the fact that the habit is not getting you that bigger, better offer your brain is chasing. “Now you’re seeing how the old behavior isn’t rewarding, and that helps your brain become disenchanted with it,” Brewer notes.
It can take up to six months, but repeating this process over and over will eventually train your mind, making it easier to change the numbers on your scale. Ultimately, the process gives you the power to control your thoughts and feelings about food, instead of unwittingly allowing them to control you. “With mindfulness practice we’re training our attention muscles so when we’re in the midst of a craving — and all we’re thinking about is the food we want to eat and everything else falls into the background — we can stop and realize that’s where our mind is, and we can start loosening the hold. We can shift our attention to something that is going to help us get what we need,” says Kara Nance, an internal medicine and obesity medicine specialist in Schaumburg, Illinois, who helped develop the mindfulness app Eat Right Now.
To get a taste of using mindfulness to shed pounds, try some of these strategies from the Eat Smart, Move More, Weigh Less mindful eating program at North Carolina State University.
Be an exclusive eater: Don’t watch TV, read a book or search the internet during mealtime or snack time. You won’t be able to pay attention to your food or your body if you’re eating with distractions — and you may end up eating more than you need to.
Eat slowly and mindfully: Put your fork down between bites, chew your food well and make each meal last 20 minutes. Savor your food, noticing the texture, shape, feel and flavor of each bite. Doing so will ultimately help you not only enjoy meals more but recognize you’re satisfied enough to stop eating.
Watch your hunger levels: Notice if you’re eating because you’re hungry or if other external cues are sending you toward food. Be sure to eat before you get too hungry to lessen the chances of making impulsive food choices.
Address stress: Stress can make you turn to food even when you’re not hungry. Recognize when you’re anxious and address your stress in other ways. Try taking deep, relaxing breaths or go for a short walk.
This article was written by Betsy Stephens for AARP: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2019/mindfulness-weight-loss/?intcmp=AE-HEA-HL-R1-C1-ART#.html