Many of us yearn to lose excess pounds and — which is often harder — keep them off.
And emerging evidence suggests that “mindful” meditation may help us attain those goals.
For example, the usefulness of meditation for weight control gained recent support from two small clinical trials and an evidence review.
Let’s examine those recent findings, some of which also suggest that mindful meditation can aid with blood-sugar control — a key factor in weight control — and heart health.
Before we delve into those studies, let’s quickly review the basics of mindful meditation and living.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness meditation or mindful meditation is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition.
Ironically, despite its name, its goal is to effortlessly achieve a calm state of “mindlessness”.
Unlike yogic meditation — which typically involves silent repetition of a mantra (sacred word) — practitioners of mindful meditation simply focus on their breathing or heartbeat.
The basic idea is to let thoughts to pass by without lingering over them, and thereby relax into judgment-free, moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment.
And there’s significant evidence suggesting that meditation brings a range of health benefits, as described in these prior newsletter articles:
In addition, there’s some clinical evidence that mindfulness meditation may help reduce stress, boost memory, enhance focus, accelerate thinking speed, reduce mental effort, enhance immune functions, foster cognitive flexibility, improve relationships, and reduce the rumination associated with anxiety and depression.
However, like the claims made for some pharmaceutical drugs, those made for mindful meditation often exceed the strength of the evidence — see Are Claims for “Mindful” Meditation a Bit Mindless?.
British study finds mindfulness supported weight loss
Earlier this year, researchers from the UK’s Warwickshire Institute published the results of a small, six-month-long clinical trial.
Their goal was to test whether mindfulness meditation could enhance the outcomes of an intensive weight-management program that involved obese participants.
All 53 participants were enrolled in a comprehensive weight-management program at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (Hanson P et al. 2018).
Each participant was asked to attend four educational sessions, during which they learned about the difference between mindful versus mindless eating.
As a control group, the researchers also examined the outcomes among 20 program participants did not take the mindful-eating classes.
The mindful-eating classes included instruction in “compassionate mind therapy,” which focuses on awareness of — and avoidance of — self-criticism, as well as the importance of self confidence in achieving behavior change.
After six months, the researchers analyzed the outcomes to see whether each participant’s attendance record for the mindful-eating classes predicted their degree of weight loss.
And the results seem to support the value of mindful eating:
In addition, the participants who attended all or most of the mindful eating classes lost nearly 6.3 pounds more than the control group of 20 people who didn’t take the mindful-eating course.
Interestingly, the participants who only attended one or two of the four classes also tended to be those who were more overweight at the outset of the study.
As the study’s lead author, Petra Hanson, Ph.D., said, “Individuals who completed the course said they were better able to plan meals in advance and felt more confident in self-management of weight loss moving forward. We hope this approach can be scaled up to reach a wider population.”
Mindfulness may also help to cut cravings
There’s good evidence that cravings can predict both overeating and weight gain, so scientists are beginning to focus on control of cravings to enhance weight control or loss.
A recently published literature review from the University of London found that mindfulness practices may help prevent or interrupt cravings for food and drugs by occupying short term memory (Tapper K et al. 2018).
Dr. Katy Tapper, lead author of the review, noted that mindfulness meditation has a long tradition of being used to curb cravings: “According to ancient Buddhist texts, craving leads to suffering but can be avoided through mindfulness meditation practice.”
However, there’s been little scientific understanding of how mindful meditation influences craving-related outcomes, either independently, or in combination.
The authors of the new review examined 30 prior studies that had probed the effects of different mindfulness practices on cravings, and how they might work to reduce them.
And, the London team’s review revealed that some of the beneficial effects of mindfulness in result from simply interrupting cravings by occupying our “working memory,” which manages immediate processing of ideas and language.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that regular mindful meditation may reduce its practitioners’ reactions to cravings.
Mindfulness improved weight and blood sugar control, plus heart health
Two years ago, University of California San Francisco scientists collaborated with USDA researchers on a clinical study designed to gauge the effects of mindful meditation on blood sugar levels and general heart health
They recruited 200 obese adults and assigned them to one of two groups for their study:
Only the volunteers assigned to the mindfulness group received training in mindful meditation and were taught how to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations while eating and during exercise (i.e., mindful eating and mindful exercise).
Both groups were given the same diet and exercise guidelines, and the trial lasted nearly six months, after which the participants were followed for a further 12 months (Daubenmier J et al. 2016).
At 18 months after the start of the study, people assigned to the mindfulness group had lost nearly four pounds more — an average of 4.3% of their body weight — than those in the control group.
In addition, the mindfulness group showed positive effects on blood sugar control after 18 months and healthier cholesterol levels after 12 months: two factors strongly linked to heart disease and adult-onset diabetes.
This trial’s results suggest that practicing mindfulness can help to make more thoughtful food choices and more aware of when we're hungry or full.
As the study’s lead author, Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D., of UC San Francisco, said: “Our study suggests that mindful eating can go further than making healthy food choices and recognizing when we’re full; it could improve [blood] glucose [sugar] levels and heart health to a greater extent than behavioral weight-loss programs that do not teach mindful eating.”