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.
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.
“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.
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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.