Mindfulness and meditation are known to improve psychological health, but how can being present actually change your body fat and help you lose weight? Past animal studies have found a link between stress eating and where fat is deposited. Food preferences (even in rats) shift under stress to consuming more fat and sugar, with energy stored as fat moving to the body’s midsection.
In humans, the answer may be found in the psychological aspects of weight gain and eating habits. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce episodes of binge eating, decrease emotional eating, and impact weight loss. Here’s some more information about how mindfulness can help you lower belly fat and lose weight.
Chronic Stress and Belly Fat
Chronic stress has been associated with a greater concentration of fat in the abdomen, primarily through overproduction of cortisol, which has also been linked to higher mortality. A team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, set out to determine whether reducing stress through mindfulness meditation could actually lead to a loss of belly fat — even without a change in overall body weight. (Meditation has already been found to be associated with greater longevity.)
Meditation in Action
While you may associate strenuous physical activity to lose fat, mindfulness research shows that consistent meditation can actually lower belly fat. Published in 2011 in the Journal of Obesity, the study took a small group of 47 overweight or obese women (with an average body mass index of 31.2) and gave half of the subjects a series of classes on mindfulness meditation techniques.
These sessions included coaching on paying attention to sensations of hunger, food cravings, identifying emotional eating triggers, becoming aware of negative emotions, as well as advice on self-acceptance and forgiveness of others. Guided meditations were offered to introduce new mindful eating skills, like paying close attention to a sense of taste and eating much more slowly than usual.
Mindfulness Practices With Classes, Retreat Day, Home Assignments
In total, the study group got nine two-and-a-half-hour classes and a silent retreat day in which they were encouraged to practice their new meditations and mindful eating skills. They were also encouraged to use the mindful skills at home in assignments of up to 30 minutes a day, six days a week, as well as before and during meals, and to log their mindfulness activity. Both the study and control groups were given two-hour nutrition and exercise information session. By the end of the study period, all participants were measured for abdominal fat distribution, as well as blood cortisol levels.
Two main outcomes were examined: first, did the mindful eating and stress reduction program reduces emotional eating? And second, did it affect the amount of belly fat in the participants?
- Emotional eating improved: Overall, the participants experienced less anxiety, less eating in response to emotions and external food cues, as well as a greater awareness of bodily sensations.
- Cortisol levels and belly fat: Blood levels of cortisol were lower in the treatment group overall when compared with the control group, though not significantly so. When only the subjects with obesity were analyzed, however, the lower levels were significant. In addition, the participants who had the greatest improvements in mindful eating, who were more aware of their hunger sensations and more successful at lowering chronic stress, had the largest reductions in abdominal fat — up to more than 500 grams, or just under one pound, during the four-month intervention. This loss of fat in the belly region happened even without a change in body weight. The subjects with obesity in the control group, by contrast, gained weight on average during the study period.
Relax More Eat Less
Although this was a small study, similar studies all show that patients with obesity do better at reducing stress with mindfulness exercises. Their results offer an intriguing look at how meditation practices for stress reduction may help reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, with a corresponding drop in abdominal fat — without traditional dieting.
The researchers say their study suggests that mindfulness training in humans may help them cope better with stress and other negative emotions, which could, in turn, lead to a healthier distribution of body fat from eating better and relaxing more. Of course, mindfulness meditation does not directly cause a decrease in abdominal fat, but by decreasing one’s level of stress, cortisol levels may decrease which can impact other behaviors.
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- Jennifer Daubenmier, Jean Kristeller, Frederick M. Hecht, Nicole Maninger, Margaret Kuwata, Kinnari Jhaveri, Robert H. Lustig, Margaret Kemeny, Lori Karan,and Elissa Epel. “Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study.” J Obes. 2011; 2011: 651936.
- M. Nackers,Shawn N. Katterman, Brighid M. Kleinman, Megan M. Hood, Lisa Joyce A. Corsica. Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviors. Vol. 15, Iss. 2, April 2014, pp. 197,2 04
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