You’ve likely heard about the trending mindfulness practice and how it enhances focus and uplifts moods. But did you know that it can also aid in weight loss?
You might be skeptical, assuming that sitting cross-legged doesn’t burn many calories. However, mindfulness isn’t like other weight loss techniques; it performs even better, according to an increasing number of studies demonstrating that it helps dieters not just lose weight, but also sustain the weight loss for an extended period.
For instance, researchers at North Carolina State University examined existing scientific literature and discovered that all studies incorporating mindfulness techniques produced successful weight loss results for participants. Moreover, four out of five studies conducted months later discovered that participants had succeeded in keeping the weight off.
Any extra pounds you’re carrying have more to do with your brain than your stomach
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.
Your brain has a reward hierarchy
Your brain is always comparing different types of behavior and how rewarding they are. It’s always looking for the bigger, better offer. 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 of mindful eating
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?
Pay close attention to what you’re feeling WHILE you’re eating
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?
Pay close attention to 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.