Is Mindfulness Meditation The Ultimate Weight Loss Program?
Countless weight loss programs have been created in the past couple of decades. And though some have indeed lived up, or even exceeded expectations, most fail to target the root cause of why people become overweight. Most if not all weight loss programs focus more on the body rather than on a person’s mindset towards food intake.
If you intend on making a change in diet, health, or lifestyle this year, you’re not alone. Some sources estimate more than 126 million Americans set New Year’s resolutions. Historically, we’ve seen that only a fraction will be successful. There are many possible explanations for this drop-off, including unrealistic goals and expectations. Another factor could be that most lifestyle-change strategies focus directly on the body and behavior yet neglect the mind. Could mindfulness or meditation be a missing link?
The typical New Year’s resolutions require a good amount of mental fortitude for success. Common goals resemble: “Lose 10 pounds by Feb 15th” or “go to the gym three times a week.” This approach relies on self-control, which is controlled by the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the evolutionarily youngest part of the brain. The PFC is the first brain region turned off when someone is hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (hence the “HALT” acronym in 12-step programs). When difficult emotions arise or energy reserves run out, the PFC shuts down and people want to engage in the less healthy behavior, even when they know cognitively they “shouldn’t” smoke or eat the brownie, and they no longer possess the willpower to resist the urge. One key to overcome this is to train the mind to crave beneficial behaviors and reject the harmful ones, says Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Mindfulness is one of the most potent mental fitness techniques, as well as a vessel for awakening. Neuroscientists have demonstrated mindfulness meditation can rewire our brain in ways that promote happiness, attention, empathy, and morality. Now, research shows mindful practices can also positively influence our behavior and even our biology.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the forefather of secular meditation, describes mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” The term mindfulness is derived from the Pali word “sati,” which can be roughly translated as “to remember.” This initially seems odd for a term related to living in the present moment. In this context, though, it means a different kind of remembering: recalling the commitment to pay attention and even bringing to mind the consequences of past actions and future goals. This kind of remembering, which is quite different from a simple “black-lab consciousness,” or awareness without context, can help mindful people make decisions that support their health.
Brewer is among the growing number of physicians and health psychologists who think mindfulness and meditation can play a pivotal role in lifestyle change. His approach is unique. When working with smokers, he doesn’t ask them to stop smoking; instead, he encourages them to smoke “mindfully.” As his patients begin to pay attention to their cravings and the experience of smoking, many realize they actually abhor the taste and smell of cigarettes. As they also become mindful of the consequences—their morning cough, and asthma symptoms, they consciously experience how smoking impacts their bodies. Many then naturally begin smoking less frequently. Rather than wanting to smoke and feeling they “shouldn’t,” they genuinely want to smoke less. “Everybody knows that smoking is bad for them—but to have a visceral sense that smoking smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals—that’s wisdom rather than knowledge,” says Dr. Brewer. It’s something you “know in your bones. And wisdom is really what drives behavior.”
Mindfulness also helps people make good choices, even when cravings are present. As people become more mindful, they learn to notice cravings as bodily sensations that arise in any given moment. As they become consciously aware of the sensations that make up the craving, they learn to observe these from moment to moment and notice any judgment that arises alongside it. In doing this, they grow their power to witness a craving arise, peak, and subside without necessarily acting upon it. In doing so, they literally train their self-control.
This makes sense. During mindfulness practice, the mind focuses on a specific object, such as the breath. When the mind wanders to another object, such as a thought, a sound, or a physical sensation, attention should be gently but consistently brought back to the breath. Mindfulness helps one control the power of attention and harness the gap between stimulus and response.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Dr. Viktor Frankl