How to Lose Weight: Mindfulness Linked to Shedding Pounds

Mindfulness, the practice hailed for its stress-busting abilities in recent decades, could also aid weight loss according to scientists.

Participants of the small study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, who attended mindfulness lessons while trying to lose weight were found to be more successful than those who didn't.

Read more: Weighing yourself this often is linked to weight loss

The research comes as lawmakers and public health experts attempt to tackle the global obesity epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.8 million people die each year due to conditions linked to being overweight or obese. In the Americas, 62 percent of men and women are overweight, and 26 percent are obese.

Part of the problem is that patients often find it tough to stick to long-term lifestyle changes to reverse obesity, the authors wrote. Weight gain and obesity are caused by eating incorrectly for long periods, which is often triggered by behaviors like emotional eating, binge-eating, and yo-yo dieting.

The researchers wanted to understand whether mindfulness could change an individual's relationship with food, and make them more attuned to the emotional and sensory cues which cause them to overeat.

Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of one's immediate surroundings and mental and emotional states in order to become grounded in the present moment. According to the authors of the study, clinicians have been increasingly prescribing mindfulness to ease conditions as disparate as heart disease and cancer to depression and anxiety.

To test their hypothesis, researchers enlisted the help of 53 people signed up to a weight management program at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust in the U.K. The researchers weighed the participants at the start and finish of the study, and asked them about their eating habits and attitudes towards food.

Of those total participants, 33 attended four sessions teaching mindfulness in relation to eating. The remaining 20 participants acted as the control and skipped the course.

The participants were lectured on how to eat mindfully, were given the opportunity to share their experiences of stigma due to their weight, and to unpick unhelpful self-critical thought patterns. They also learned about Compassionate Mind Therapy, where building self confidence is used as a means to improve one's well-being.

On average, participants who took the course lost 2.85 kilograms (6.3 pounds) more than those who didn't. They also reported having a healthier attitude towards food, as well as boosted self-esteem and confidence. The tricks also helped them to manage their body weight, they said.

If the findings of the small study are corroborated by further research, mindfulness could be prescribed as a free, simple tool for tackling obesity, the researchers hope.

Dr. Thomas M. Barber, the study's senior author at the Warwickshire Institute for the Study of Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, told Newsweek it was surprising how "easily mindfulness techniques could be taught in a group setting, and how compliant most of the participants in our study were."

However, Barber acknowledged that the study had several limitations. For instance, it was difficult to measure whether the patients were motivated to lose weight because they interacted socially in the mindfulness group sessions or because of the technique itself. The techniques were also restricted to weekly sessions in a hospital obesity service, meaning the findings may not relate to other settings, he said.

Nevertheless, Barber believes the work is still valuable.

"Although we only explored group-based mindfulness teaching within a hospital-based obesity setting, mindfulness techniques can potentially be self-taught." Creating an online portal could be one way of scaling up the technique across populations, he said.

"Mindful eating-related behaviors may therefore represent an important and novel strategy to combat the obesity epidemic. On a broader level, mindfulness approaches could be utilized in many other areas of healthcare, and indeed many other areas of life in general," said Barber.

Addressing what he described as the inherent difficulties of losing weight more broadly, Barber said: "There are a plethora of weight-loss aids available. Some are more successful than others, and some are only applicable to a small proportion of the population. Therefore, anything that can facilitate the adoption of salutary lifestyle behaviors (such as those relating to eating) should be embraced. Mindfulness offers exactly this.

"Rather than a specific diet, exercise regime, drug therapy or procedure, mindfulness offers a mindset. A renewed state of awareness and of moment-to-moment emotional processing. As such, mindfulness eating can be used to complement other aspects of healthy living such as healthy diet."

Last year, a separate study published in the journal Obesity Reviews similarly found mindfulness could help with weight loss and coping with unhealthy eating patterns. But the authors acknowledged more research was needed to uncover whether it could be used to maintain a healthy body weight long-term.