Mindfulness Sharpens Awareness – Can It Help with Weight?

“Intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally” is the way that Janice Marturano, who started the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership, explains mindfulness. It is credited with sharpening the mind and promoting a heightened state of awareness. Doctors, patients, prisoners, school students, monks, and some people who wish to lose weight use mindfulness practices. Among the benefits of mindfulness, is weight control one?

Mindfulness seems to be more of a movement than an evidence-based intervention. A recent review of 98 studies of all kinds mindfulness program outcomes found that less than a fourth of them evaluated outcomes associated with mindfulness and 13 of those 28 studies found at least partial support for a benefit. The authors concluded that “the field of mindfulness research is at an early stage of exploring the relationships between mindfulness practice and clinically relevant outcomes.”

In a recent controlled study of a mindful restaurant eating intervention in women who eat out three or more times per week, investigators found significant benefits. Women who received the intervention lost more weight, consumed fewer calories and less fat, had increased self-efficacy, and encountered fewer barriers to weight control when eating out.

Moving away from an unthinking routine mental state and being in the moment can increase attention and focus. Mindfulness advocates promote it for stress management and overall wellness. The Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System is an example of one program that teaches mindfulness techniques. Other organizations promote mindfulness such as the Mindfulness Awareness Research at UCLA, the Mindfulness in Society Conference, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Beyond increasing awareness and clarity of mind, some claim there are health benefits such as reducing disordered eating behavior and promoting weight control. The Center for Mindful Eating is one organization that encourages the practices of “mindful eating” which they claim has many advantages such as encouraging individuals to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide the decision to begin eating and to stop eating. Being aware of satiety cues and physical hunger is part of the training of many weight control seminars and programs, and it has a strong intuitive appeal.

Presently, though, the evidence base for weight management benefits of mindful eating is limited. The number of studies is small, as are the studies themselves. This does not mean that savoring each bite one eats or directing awareness to all aspects of food and eating on a moment-by-moment basis has no merit.

In the big picture of what works in helping people lose weight, many approaches and potential methods are available. Some approaches that do not work for many may work for a few. If you really are intent on controlling your weight, follow the advice of the Obesity Action Coalition and be mindful that whatever plan you choose:

  • Promotes gradual weight-loss
  • Teaches you how to make permanent lifestyle changes
  • Encourages exercise
  • Does not exclude major food groups
  • Does not make certain foods “bad” or “illegal”
  • Does not make outlandish weight-loss claims

Click here to read more in the New York Times, here to access the review of outcomes research on mindfulness, here to read the study of a mindful restaurant eating intervention, and here to read more on The Center for Mindful Eating website.

Meditation by Eugène Carrière / WikiMedia

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