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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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“When the obese brain tricks you into thinking that you’re starving, it’s hard to fight that,” she says.

Her lab has studied the impact of mindfulness training on people’s stress metabolism. Normally, fat distribution in women is concentrated in the hips; but women who release high levels of cortisol, the stress-related hormone, tend to store fat in the deep belly tissue—fat that is very difficult to take off. Epel and post-doctoral fellow Jennifer Daubenmier decided to test a program similar to Kristeller’s MB-EAT program but with added stress reduction exercises on obese women to see how it would impact the women’s cortisol levels and fat distribution.

Results showed that the more mindfulness the women practiced, the greater their anxiety, chronic stress, and deep belly fat decreased. In addition, the women in the mindfulness program maintained their body weight while the women in the control group increased their weight over the same period of time.

“This is what we call a proof of concept study,” says Epel. “We didn’t ask people to change how many calories they ate; we just wanted to know if decreasing stress would have an impact by changing fat distribution, and it did.”

In a more recent study, of which Deborah Hill is a participant, Epel and colleagues are looking at how mindfulness techniques affect weight loss. The program aims to reduce stress, increase awareness of external and internal cues for eating (like being in a party situation or feeling bored), and foster more self-acceptance around food, while teaching people about nutrition. While data from the study is still being evaluated, Epel expresses surprise by the promising results so far.

“Mindfulness has turned out to be much more powerful than I thought, in its ability to affect weight,” she says.

Not a panacea

Still, the research on mindful eating is relatively young, and it is not without its critics. One concern is that the mindfulness approach is too weak to be effective, given the overwhelming problems with our current food environment, such as the prevalence and cheapness of unhealthy, high calorie foods, and the marketing that pushes convenience foods on an overly stressed population.

Michele Mietus-Snyder, co-director of the Obesity Institute at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., has been studying childhood obesity in highly stressed communities, where obesity levels tend to be highest.

As part of a study funded by the American Heart Association, Mietus-Snyder taught mindfulness, as well as nutrition and healthy eating, to a group of inner-city kids and their parents in Northern California to see what impact it would have on the kids’ levels of stress, cortisol, and c-reactive protein, a risk factor in heart disease.

She quickly learned how “naïve” she was to think that these tools could make a significant impact. Because of the chaotic environment in which the study families lived, it was hard for them to participate consistently, even though the parents and kids both seemed receptive to the program. 

“The tool of mindfulness, as valuable as it is, could just not take root in these kids’ lives,” says Mietus-Snyder. “The entropy of life took over.”

Results from her study found that neither the mindfulness group nor a control group—who received exercise in place of the mindfulness class—changed their metabolic profile by much, though both groups did have overall reductions in anxiety and in the kids’ body mass index scores. She hypothesizes that just bringing the parents and kids together once a week to learn about healthy eating may have been at least partly responsible for the positive results in both groups.

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