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Mindful Eating Helps Weight Loss

Publication date: 31 December 2011

This week I noticed this research news: mindfulness helps weight loss.

It's good to see such research being published, though it's hardly a surprising result. I thought it would be useful to speculate as to why mindfulness should be benefit weight loss.

There are probably lots of relevant factors, but I think a lot of the benefits will stem from slow eating (I assume that practising mindful eating leads to slower eating). Eating slowly is one of the best pieces of advice you could give to dieters, because it has a clear physiological impact.

In the first place, we can see the impact on blood sugar levels. Eating a meal, particularly one high in carbohydrates (and especially refined carbohyrdrates which rapidly break down into sugars) causes a surge in blood sugar levels. The body needs to counter this, and it does so by releasing the hormone insulin, which tells cells to open their doors to blood sugar. One likely effect of high blood sugar and high insulin is the conversion of excess sugar into fat, for storage. Research demonstrates that eating a meal slowly enough can limit the blood sugar / insulin peak to a negligible one.

Another physiological factor relating to slow eating is the impact on digestive secretions. Slow eating, and even more so having a conscious anticipatory phase before eating, gives the body a chance to muster its digestive secretions (stomach acid, digestive enzymes, etc.) which of course support digestion and lead to better absorption of the full range of nutrients. This will have a general beneficial effect on health, and perhaps on the body's ability to burn off calories.

Research suggests that enzyme production strongly correlates with how relaxed we are when we eat - sometimes dramatically so. It's likely that mindful eating means more relaxed eating, as well as slower eating.

Another major impact of slow eating is on the body's satiety signals. Exactly what makes us feel satiated is complex and multi-factorial, but one thing is clear: satiety signals develop slowly. Giving yourself time to feel them is therefore vital.

We can also consider the psychological benefits of mindfulness in relation to weight loss. In my experience of working with weight loss clients, one of the most important resources these clients need to develop is the ability to resist cravings and inappropriate impulses to eat. Mindfulness is a powerful tool in this regard. The key to successfully resisting craving is to avoid getting into a narrow-minded battle of will-power. You'll lose more often than not. Struggling against cravings only serves to strengthen them. Rather, the solution is to create mental space around cravings, so that they don't come to dominate our awareness. This is just what mindfulness does - it expands our awareness, creating a mental sense of both space and time. With mindfulness we discover that cravings will pass away quite quickly of their own accord if we regard them with an attitude of acceptance. Of course they'll return at some point, but if we can centre ourselves in the present moment we don't need to worry about that.

More broadly, mindfulness can serve to increase our awareness of the effects of particular foods. Sugary foods may give an instant 'hit' but are not satisfying in the longer term. Awareness is likely to lead to healthier food choices.

Let me finish with a set of interconnected practical suggestions for weight loss. Serve yourself a reasonable portion of food at meal time - not over-filling your plate. Take your time to consciously take in the pleasures of eating (it's common for dieters to go into a kind of trance while eating). When you've finished, you can decide if you want more food. Take in your whole body sense. Imagine how you'll feel in an hour's time. If you still want to eat, postpone your final decision for a further 10 to 15 minutes. Then if you're still hungry, respect your body's intelligence, in the knowledge that you'll probably feel less hungry later on.

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