Overweight & Obesity – How Can Mindfulness Help?

A total of 62% of adults are either overweight or obese in England [1].

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines overweight and obesity as an excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A common population measure of obesity is the body mass index (BMI), a person’s weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of his or her height (in metres). A person with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese, and a person with a BMI equal to or more than 25 is considered overweight.

Around the world 39% of adults aged 18 and over were overweight and 13% were obese in 2014 [2]. In the UK this situation is not different. Although the national proportion of overweight people is similar to the global trend (37% in England), obesity is two times the worldwide average (25% in total). This has become a big public health issue considering that they are a major risk factor for diseases such as heart disease and stroke, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).
Despite this alarming data, overweight and obesity are largely preventable. Changes in lifestyle and eating habits are fundamental in winning the battle against obesity. Interventions are usually aimed at helping people to make healthy food choices and to increase their physical activity. In the last few years, mindfulness-based interventions have been acknowledged as an effective strategy to promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation. Supported by over 40 years of research across a number of sectors and applications; Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement [3].

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment that is taught through the practice of meditation and other mindful exercises. People who practice mindfulness regularly learn to regulate their attention by focusing nonjudgmentally on thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. This are central features of mindfulness as a strategy to change eating behaviours.

Mindfulness & Healthy Eating

Mindfulness is receiving significant attention within healthy eating and weight-loss literature as a possible strategy to improve eating behaviours [4,5,6], such as:

External eating: For most people eating is a way to face stressful situations. They eat when a deadline is getting closer, when the report is due, and generally when they experience external situations are being adverse. This is very common nowadays considering how fast the world goes. However, by practicing mindfulness we can learn to manage this stress and, in turn, stop ourselves of automatically eating as a way of reducing stress. Mindfulness-based training includes exercises, such as the body scan, that re-direct the attention to ourselves, to the experience of thoughts, feelings and body related sensations. By doing this, we learn to stop automatic reactions to stressful and adverse situations, and to find a better behaviour to face what we are living and feeling at the present moment.

Emotional eating: Some people also eat when they feel strong emotions such as sadness, anger or anxiety. A traditional example of this is when we cannot sleep and go to the kitchen for a snack, or when dumped relationship ends and we go to the fridge for some ice-cream. As food make us feel momentarily better, we teach our brain that eating is a good way to escape from negative emotions. However, this unhealthy behaviour can be changed. By practicing mindfulness we learn how to approach, experience and control emotions instead of run away from them.

Overconsumption: The serving size of foods is an important factor that needs to be addressed in both the prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity. During the last 15 years food portions have become bigger and bigger making it difficult to stay healthy. However, this is also something we can do something about by becoming more mindful eaters. “Mindless” eating is a barrier to eating the right amount of food. The regular practice of mindfulness can be of enormous help. By practicing mindfulness we learn to listen to our body sensations so we are better able to know when we are full and when we are overeating.

Mindfulness is also a useful strategy to promote physical activity. Read our Mindfulness and Physical Activity information sheet for more information.

What Does Research Have to Say?

Research has showed promising results about mindfulness when applied to overweight and obesity, for example:

The key themes explored as part of the course were:

A group of researchers trained 47 overweight/obese women during 4-month to explore the effects of a mindfulness program for stress eating. Results showed that participants not only improved their healthy eating behaviours, but also reduced levels of abdominal fat [7].

Another study examined how a mindfulness-based intervention can help to reduce the consumption of unhealthy snacks in 110 participants. Results showed that after a brief mindfulness intervention, hunger was less likely to be translated into unhealthy snacking [8]

In a case study, a group of researchers developed a mindfulness-based health wellness program with an individual who was morbidly obese. After the intervention, the person reduced his weight from 315 pounds to 171 pounds, increased his physical activity, ate healthy foods, and stopped eating rapidly. He maintained his health wellness during 12 months of follow-up [9].

Another research explored the efficacy of a mindfulness based weight loss intervention for 62 women who were invited to attend four 2-hour workshops. At 6-months intervention participants showed both significantly greater increases in physical activity and significantly greater reductions in body mass [10].

In another study, ten obese patients participated in a six weekly two-hour group mindfulness training with two monthly follow-up classes. Researchers found that an eating focused mindfulness-based intervention can result in significant changes in weight, eating behaviour, and psychological distress in obese individuals [11].

 

Becoming a Mindful Eater

Being a mindful eater refers to an individual’s tendency to maintain an open, accepting, present focus of attention in daily life and is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You can become a more mindful eater by including the following practices into your life [12]:

Cultivate everyday mindfulness: Mindfulness can be cultivated by a variety of exercises where sitting-meditation is the most common method. The meditator sits in an relaxed but alert  posture, either on the floor cross-legged or in a chair, and places attention on the in and out flow of the breath, focusing on either the  breath at the nostrils or on the rise and fall of the abdomen. When attention wanders, the meditator simply notes the distraction and returns to the breath. This is repeated throughout the meditation session [13].

Add a mindful eating component to your daily mindfulness practice: During you daily practice of mindfulness, it is a good practice to include exercises which help to bring awareness to sensations of physical hunger. Bringing mindful awareness to eating all types of food with a focus on gaining hedonic pleasure from small quantities of food. Finally becoming aware of your personal triggers for eating and making particular food choices. Emphasis is placed on noticing and amplifying each sensation, noting thoughts and feelings while eating.

Cultivate emotional balance: There is no question that eating meets emotional needs, more for some individuals than others. Mindfulness practice is used to help cultivate awareness of emotional triggers and eating patterns. As a part of your daily mindfulness practice, you might explore alternatives to eating as ways to meet emotional needs; at the same time, you are encouraged to savour your own preferred “comfort” foods in smaller quantities, with a focus on quality.

Cultivate self-acceptance: A final aim of your mindfulness practice may aim at developing a better relationship with yourself, including your body, and how you relate to others. To achieve this, the body scan exercise can be of help. It encourages distinguishing between experiencing the body and judging the body. This is can be followed by gentle yoga and mindful walking, which serve to further increase awareness of the body while simultaneously cultivating an attitude of kindness and compassion.


References:

1 Baker, C. (2015). Obesity Statistics (brief paper No. 3336). London: House of Commons Library.

2 WHO. (2015). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

3 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003).Mindfulness-based Interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

4 Alberts, H., Thewissen, R., & Raes, L. (2012). Dealing with problematic eating behaviour. The effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on eating behaviour, food cravings, dichotomous thinking and body image concern. Appetite, 58(3), 847–851.

5 Katterman, S., et al (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviors, 15(2), 197–204.

6 Beshara, M., Hutchinson, A., & Wilson, C. (2013). Does mindfulness matter? Everyday mindfulness, mindful eating and self-reported serving size of energy dense foods among a sample of South Australian adults. Appetite, 67, 25–29. 33(1), 66–84.

7 Daubenmier, J., et al (2011). Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: An exploratory randomized controlled study. Journal of Obesity, 2011, 1-13.

8 Marchiori, D., & Papies, E. (2014). A brief mindfulness intervention reduces unhealthy eating when hungry, but not the portion size effect. Appetite, 75, 40–45.

9 Singh, N., et al (2008). A Mindfulness-Based Health Wellness Program for Managing Morbid Obesity. Clinical Case Studies, 7(4), 327–339.

10 Tapper, K., et al (2009). Exploratory randomised controlled trial of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention for women. Appetite, 52(2), 396–404.
11 Dalen, J., et al (2010). Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 18(6), 260–264.

12 Kristeller, J. & Wolever, R. (2011). Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: The conceptual foundation. Eating Disorders, 19(1), 49–61.

13 Weiss, A. (2004). Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness. New World Library.


Overweight and Obesity - How can Mindfulness Help?

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