Harvard Health Blog
Losing weight: Mindfulness may help
One of the hardest parts about losing weight isn't choosing what to eat. You know you should focus on fresh, lower-calorie foods and steer clear of sugary, fat-laden treats. Often, the real challenge is more about changing how and why you eat. One strategy that just might help is the practice of mindfulness, according to a recent review in Current Obesity Reports.
One of the main benefits of mindfulness approaches for weight loss is to help people recognize emotional eating, says mindfulness expert Ronald D. Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "Very few of us eat solely based on hunger cues. We also eat to soothe anxiety, sadness, or irritation," he says. That's a recipe for mindless eating: You're operating on automatic pilot, without paying attention to how you really feel, emotionally or physically.
Mindfulness practices help you notice these common patterns, which are similar to what happens with many types of addiction, says Dr. Siegel. Most human behaviors are based on conditioned patterns of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Those behaviors we refer to as addictions have good short-term consequences (the pleasure of eating a piece of chocolate cake) but bad long-term consequences (becoming overweight).
Self-awareness for losing weight? Notice your cravings
Addictive behaviors are prone to what addiction expert G. Alan Marlatt called the abstinence violation effect. For example, you might have a plan to eat healthfully, but then you see a chocolate cake. "You break down and eat a piece, but then feel so horrible about your lack of self-control that you feel a desperate need to self-soothe — and end up eating the rest of the cake," says Dr. Siegel.
Once you become aware of these patterns, the next step is finding a way to cope with cravings. Simply avoiding tempting foods is difficult, because tasty treats are widely available nearly everywhere you go. Mindfulness can help you notice the craving and recognize that you can deal with the discomfort, which may be accentuated by unhappy emotions. By turning your attention to those feelings and practicing self-awareness, you can notice that the feelings come and go. "Urges and cravings comes in waves, and we can ride them out," says Dr. Siegel.
Self-acceptance and defusion
Another aspect of mindfulness training is self-acceptance. If you do give in to a craving, forgive yourself and move on. "None of us is perfect, you don't have to torture yourself," says Dr. Siegel. Four of the 12 studies in the recent review article focused on acceptance-based behavior training, which relies on mindfulness strategies to identify emotions rather than avoid them.
In one small study of people with heart disease, participants were encouraged to recognize that eating healthfully and exercising is really challenging, and that pretending that it isn't just makes it all the more distressing. Instead, they were taught a practice called defusion, in which you distance yourself from unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This helped them tolerate the distress of trying to make heart-healthy behavior changes. Participants gave high marks to the program and made positive changes in their diet and exercise habits.
Another promising strategy noted in the review includes different types of mindfulness meditation, such as an eating-focused practice in which people were taught to acknowledge their hunger levels, emotions, thoughts, motivations, and eating environment with acceptance but without judgment. The practice was most effective when combined with self-compassion, which involved repeating phrases of good will and benevolence for oneself and others.
About the Author
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
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