Maintain Weight Loss with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Just as meditation can help us with stress, sleeping, focus, and much more, it can also have an impact on our relationship with eating and managing our weight.” – Headspace
Eating is produced by two categories of signals. Homeostatic signals emerge from the body’s need for nutrients, is associated with feelings of hunger, and usually work to balance intake with expenditure. Non-homeostatic eating, on the other hand, is not tied to nutrient needs or hunger but rather to the environment, to emotional states, and or to the pleasurable and rewarding qualities of food. These cues can be powerful signals to eat even when there is no physical need for food. External eating is non-homeostatic eating in response to the environmental stimuli that surround us, including the sight and smell of food or the sight of food related cause such as the time of day or a fast-food restaurant ad or sign.
Mindful eating involves paying attention to eating while it is occurring, including attention to the sight, smell, flavors, and textures of food, to the process of chewing and may help reduce intake. Indeed, high levels of mindfulness are associated with lower levels of obesity and mindfulness training has been shown to reduce binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program is a mindfulness program including meditation, body scan, yoga, discussion and home practice. So, it makes sense to examine MBSR as a part of a weight loss program.
In today’s Research News article “Keeping weight off: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction alters amygdala functional connectivity during weight loss maintenance in a randomized control trial.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7799782/ ) Chumachenko and colleagues recruited overweight adults (BMI>25) who had lost at least 5% of their body weight and wished to maintain it off. They were randomly assigned to receive 8, once a week for 1.5 hours, sessions of either a healthy living course or the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. They were measured before and after training and 6 months later for body size, perceived stress, depression, and eating disinhibition. Before and after training they also had their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
They found that after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training there was a significant increase in the connectivity between the Amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while this was decreased after completing the healthy living course. Over the 6-month follow-up period the MBSR participants did not gain weight while the healthy living course participants gained on average 5.9 pounds.
These results are interesting and important. There are many dietary programs that produce weight loss. But almost inevitably the weight is regained subsequently. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training was found here to prevent that weight gain. Hence, MBSR may be an important ingredient in weight loss to help maintain the loss. The results also suggest that MBSR may alter the brain, increasing the functional connectivity in brain circuits that are thought to underlie emotion regulation. This fits with the prior findings that mindfulness training improves emotion regulation. This suggests that MBSR may prevent non-homeostatic, emotional, eating by strengthening emotion regulation and thereby prevent weight regain.
So, maintain weight loss with mindfulness.
“By itself, mindful eating is not a weight-loss cure, but as part of an approach or tool it can catapult healthy eating and weight loss,” – Josh Klapow
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Chumachenko, S. Y., Cali, R. J., Rosal, M. C., Allison, J. J., Person, S. J., Ziedonis, D., Nephew, B. C., Moore, C. M., Zhang, N., King, J. A., & Fulwiler, C. (2021). Keeping weight off: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction alters amygdala functional connectivity during weight loss maintenance in a randomized control trial. PloS one, 16(1), e0244847. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244847
Obesity is associated with significant comorbidities and financial costs. While behavioral interventions produce clinically meaningful weight loss, weight loss maintenance is challenging. The objective was to improve understanding of the neural and psychological mechanisms modified by mindfulness that may predict clinical outcomes. Individuals who intentionally recently lost weight were randomized to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or a control healthy living course. Anthropometric and psychological factors were measured at baseline, 8 weeks and 6 months. Functional connectivity (FC) analysis was performed at baseline and 8 weeks to examine FC changes between regions of interest selected a priori, and independent components identified by independent component analysis. The association of pre-post FC changes with 6-month weight and psychometric outcomes was then analyzed. Significant group x time interaction was found for FC between the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, such that FC increased in the MBSR group and decreased in controls. Non-significant changes in weight were observed at 6 months, where the mindfulness group maintained their weight while the controls showed a weight increase of 3.4% in BMI. Change in FC at 8-weeks between ventromedial prefrontal cortex and several ROIs was associated with change in depression symptoms but not weight at 6 months. This pilot study provides preliminary evidence of neural mechanisms that may be involved in MBSR’s impact on weight loss maintenance that may be useful for designing future clinical trials and mechanistic studies.