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Meditation for weight loss. Does it work?

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meditation and weight lossMeditation and weight loss, is there a connection?

New research from the McGill University in Montreal has found that in comparison to exercise and diet-based approaches, mindfulness meditation can help you not only lose weight but keep those pounds off for the long term. The news will no doubt be welcome to those who don’t want to spend the holidays on a Peloton.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in Canada and the United States, with about 20.2 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 — about 5.3 million adults — now classified as obese and a full 40 per cent of men and 27.5 women now classified as overweight. The health problems associated with overweight and obesity are well known, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. The social costs are also high: a 2015 study put the annual economic burden associated with excess weight at $23.3 billion, which makes overweight and obesity more costly than tobacco smoking.

And while weight loss programs that focus on diet and exercise —so-called lifestyle change programs— are thought to be the most effective counteraction, even they aren’t particularly successful.

Weight loss. Meditation. A connection?

“Although [lifestyle change] participants lose an average of 7% to 10% of initial body weight, they tend to regain one-third of this lost weight within a year after treatment,” say the authors of the new study. “And by 5 years, approximately half of all participants will return to their original weight.”

The researchers from McGill’s Departments of Psychology and Educational and Counselling Psychology conducted a review of 19 studies from the past ten years which examined how effective mindfulness strategies might be in combatting obesity, concluding that while such strategies can be moderately effective in weight loss, they are “largely effective” in reducing obesity-related eating behaviours. In fact, the researchers found that mindfulness training was better than lifestyle change programs at maintaining a lower body weight.

So, how does meditation help you lose weight? The key seems to be that obesity-related eating behaviours are often related to a lack of awareness of some of the body’s own cues about hunger and being full. In addition, obese people may have weaker skills when it comes to emotional regulation, often manifesting as emotional eating and stress eating.

Mindfulness meditation, in turn, commonly involves developing a more acute or clearer state of awareness of one’s own thought processes and emotions, brought about by attending in a non-judgmental way to one’s surroundings and one’s own thoughts and bodily rhythms such as breathing and heart beat. In this way, proponents say, mindfulness can address some of the very tendencies that contribute to weight gain.

“Behavioural modification is central to successful weight loss and its maintenance,” say the study’s authors. “Higher present-moment, non-judgemental awareness may assist an individual in recognizing and altering behavioural responses to internal cues (e.g. thoughts/emotional reactions) and external cues (e.g. environmental triggers) that would otherwise go unnoticed.”

The review found that in studies comparing diet and exercise-based interventions with ones based on mindfulness training, participants in the lifestyle change programs lost an average of 4.7 per cent of their initial body weight by the program’s end, whereas those involved in mindfulness programs lost an average of 3.3 per cent of their initial weight at the conclusion. And in follow-up examinations, mindfulness participants more often continued to lose weight where lifestyle change participants more often regained some weight.

Can mindfulness help you lose weight?

Okay, first we have to tackle the difference between meditation and mindfulness without offending absolutely everyone. Psychologist Joshua Schultz says he views mediation as one form of mindfulness, of which there are many. He sees mindfulness as a quality and meditation as a practice.

Researchers KayLoni L Olson and Charles F Emery, in their study called Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review, reported on nineteen studies, including 13 randomized controlled trials and six observational studies and found that mindfulness can indeed help you lose weight.

“Significant weight loss was documented among participants in mindfulness interventions for 13 of the 19 studies identified for review,” the study concluded. “However, studies do not clarify the degree to which changes in mindfulness are a mechanism responsible for weight loss in mindfulness interventions. Methodological weaknesses and variability across studies limit the strength of the evidence. Further research is needed to document and evaluate the psychological, behavioral, and biological mechanisms involved in the relationship between mindfulness and weight loss.”

Can reading help you lose weight?

Tell someone that meditation can help them lose weight might come as a surprise to them. This suggests that perhaps we should not think of weight loss so narrowly and open our mind to other things. Indeed, there is evidence that reading, yes reading, can help you lose weight.

A study out of Duke University enrolled thirty-one obese girls between the ages of nine and thirteen.

“The girls read a novel called Lake Rescue, whose protagonist is an overweight preteen who struggles with low self-esteem, feelings of isolation and teasing because of her size,” explained Time Magazine writer Alice Park. “A group of 33 girls read a different book called Charlotte in Paris, which did not have an overweight heroine, and another group of 17 girls read neither book. At the end of the six-month intervention, all the girls who read books had lost weight, but the girls who read Lake Rescue lost more. They lowered their body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight and height used to measure obesity, by .71, compared with .33 in the Charlotte group an average .05 increase among the nonreaders.”

Duke’s Dr. Sarah Armstrong suggests the method may work because it made girls aware of their condition without the pressure of an “authoritative” voice that can come with diets and exercise.

Does Noom really work?

One entrant peddling a “woke” approach to weight loss is weight loss app Noom. You have probably seen the commercials. Noom was founded in 2008 by friends Artem Petakov and Saeju Jeong, who wanted to create a weight loss product that combined technology and psychology. It’s obviously working on a financial level, as the company posted revenue of more than $400 million last year. But does Noom really work?

Noom works like a lot of other diet apps. You enter your height, weight, age and activity level and the app suggest foods you can eat, dividing them into various color codes (eg: red is for junky or more caloric food). Ultimately it works by creating a caloric deficit.

Healthline ranks Noom quite highly, with some caveats.

Any reduced-calorie diet plan or program can help you lose weight if you follow it,” says writer  Gavin Van De Walle. “Still, sticking with a diet is difficult for many people. Most diets fail because they’re difficult to maintain. To date, no studies have compared the effectiveness of Noom with other weight loss diets, but researchers have analyzed data from Noom users. In one study in nearly 36,000 Noom users, 78% experienced weight loss while they were using the app for an average of 9 months, with 23% experiencing more than a 10% loss, compared with their starting weight. The study also found that those who tracked their diet and weight more frequently were more successful in losing weight. All the same, more comprehensive research into the program is needed.






The new study is published in the journal Obesity Reviews.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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