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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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Many obese people, says Kristeller, have developed a particular pattern: They try to control their eating through avoidance or limit-setting, thinking “willpower” is what they need. Then, when their plans go awry—as they inevitably do—they tell themselves that they’ve “blown it” and give up.

From a mindfulness perspective, she says, there is never a point of no return: One can choose to eat mindfully at anytime, even after “blowing it.” In addition, since the program teaches people not to avoid foods but to savor them, people don’t feel as deprived. Kristeller tries to take the guilt out of enjoying food and to help people honor their food preferences.

“We try to help people cultivate their inner gourmet,” she says.

Jean Kristeller, Ph.D: “Mindfulness Based Eating” from Omega Institute on Vimeo.

What the research says

Kristeller tested her MB-EAT program in a pilot study with a group of 18 binge eaters. The women participated in seven sessions of a group treatment program, which included assessments prior to and following treatment.

At the end of treatment, binges dropped from slightly over four to about 1.5 per week, with only four participants still meeting criteria for Binge Eating Disorder when the researchers followed up with questions after treatment. In addition, the women demonstrated a better relationship to food and eating, and their depression and anxiety decreased.

In a second study, conducted with Ruth Quillian-Wolever of Duke University, Kristeller tested the MB-EAT program on a group of obese binge eaters, comparing the group at one month and four months post-treatment to two control groups, one of which went through another educational program.

Although both the educational and MB-EAT groups reduced their binging behavior, those in the MB-EAT group showed signs of greater overall self-regulation and balance around eating, and sustained improvement in binge eating. Plus, the degree to which the women incorporated mindfulness practices into their lives predicted much of this improvement and the degree of weight loss they experienced.

“This study showed that success wasn’t just about group work and getting support,“ says Kristeller, “but that their success at losing weight was directly related to the degree to which they used mindfulness techniques.”

Currently there is no data that shows what is happening in the brain when people practice mindful eating. But Kristeller points to the large body of research on MBSR showing that people who use mindfulness increase the size and function of their pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain connected to decision making and long-range planning. She hypothesizes that mindful eating strengthens this same area of the brain, making it easier for people to cognitively process their desire to eat, rather than feeling victim to the emotional center that often drives eating.

“We are interrupting the reactivity cycle,” says Kristeller.

Stress in eating and obesity

Elissa Epel, the founder and director of the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment at the University of California, San Francisco, has been researching the role of stress in overeating. One of the biggest, most reliable paths to obesity, she says, is high stress, because it changes our appetite, stimulates overeating, and makes us more insulin-resistant, a factor that elevates blood sugar and can put as at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

“Stress affects the same signals as famine does. It turns on the brain pathways that make us crave dense calories—we’ll choose high fat, high sweet foods, or high salt,” says Epel. “When we have a ‘stress brain,’ food is even more rewarding.”

Epel notes that surveys show 50-60 percent of women eat for emotional reasons rather than because of hunger. The stress of difficult emotions dampens the reward response in the brain and causes craving, which is what drives overeating—as well as drug use—in some people. According to Epel, the hunger and reward drives are the strongest drives in the human body and very difficult to change.

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