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An Age-Old Secret to Losing Weight

Obesity has become a public health issue. New research suggests moment-to-moment awareness does a better job of helping people control their weight than any diet.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Veronika Mannova/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This story originally appeared on Greater Good, which covers "the science of a meaningful life," published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Deborah Hill used to think she was skinny. Her 5 foot 9 inch frame could take on a lot of weight without making her look out of shape. But last year she was shocked to discover that she weighed over 210 pounds, which classified her as medically obese.

“It was just crazy,” says Hill. “I’d never had a problem with weight.”

Hill is one of a growing number of Americans—over 35 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control—who are considered obese, having a body mass index of 30 or greater. Obesity increases health risks like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, to name a few, and the health care costs to treat obesity-related illness are skyrocketing, with CDC estimates in 2008 reaching $147 billion dollars.

But now there is a new prescription for combating obesity, one that goes beyond ubiquitous diet and exercise regimens: mindfulness, the moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings.

Researchers are learning that teaching obese individuals mindful eating skills—like paying closer attention to their bodies’ hunger cues and learning to savor their food—can help them change unhealthy eating patterns and lose weight. And, unlike other forms of treatment, mindfulness may get at the underlying causes of overeating—like craving, stress, and emotional eating—which make it so hard to defeat.

Mindfulness has definitely helped Hill. In the last year, she has lost 40 pounds and developed a much healthier relationship to food and eating.

“Mindfulness has been huge for me,” she says.

Why mindfulness?

Jean Kristeller, a professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana State University, is a pioneer in the field. She first became interested in applying mindfulness to eating issues when working as a clinician with overweight college students who were compulsively eating large quantities of food—or “binging.” She thought her students had an underlying dysfunctional relationship to food that was being ignored in the clinical community in favor of dieting, which “didn’t mesh” for her.

But when she encountered  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, she says, “more than a light bulb” went off for her. She wondered if it could be possible to teach people with eating disorders to become refocused on their internal hunger and signs that they were full—and develop a more accepting approach to food and eating.

“He was taking a tradition of cultivating awareness and an accepting way of our experiences—both inner and outer—and encouraging people to bring themselves into better balance,” says Kristeller. “This fit with my theoretical model of reconnecting people with their inner experiences.”


With the help of a doctoral student, she created a program called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training—or MB-EAT, based on Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR—that teaches people how to taste their food, recognize their levels of hunger and fullness, and be more accepting of their food preferences. One exercise involves eating a few raisins slowly, paying close attention to their flavor sensations and how they change with time.

“When most people do the raisin exercise, they are stunned by it,” says Kristeller. “They see that if they eat a few raisins mindfully they can enjoy them as much or more than if they eat a whole box.”

Of course, even Kristeller admits that it’s easier to get people to regulate their intake with health foods, like raisins, than “problem foods,” like chocolate brownies. So, the program doesn’t stop with raisins—it teaches people that, once they learn to pay attention, brownies can be best experienced and savored in a smaller number of bites.

 
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