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Mind over meal: Study reveals a weight loss strategy you may never have considered.

(Photo by Bigstock)

Much has been written about the positive benefits of mindfulness – the idea that you bring an awareness to the present moment and identify emotions as you feel them. But could the habit also benefit physical well being like reducing obesity, and by extension, the risk for heart disease?

That’s what Eric Loucks, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, hopes to prove.

In a recent study, Loucks found people who live in the moment tend to have less body fat. In a related study, he developed a framework for studying whether mindfulness intervention could help mitigate cardiovascular risks like smoking, high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet.

[Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your  brain]

Loucks believes that because early humans had to hunt and gather their food, our brains are designed to eat as much as we can out of a subliminal concern that we don’t know when we’ll get more. Also, because the hunting and gathering required so much physical exertion, we’re also programmed to rest when we can, hence the aversion we sometimes feel toward exercise.

“However, the human brain and sense organs have not had evolutionary time to change responses to these types of sense cues,” Loucks wrote in his study.

So eating healthier and exercising more requires thought and self-regulation.

Louck studied nearly 400 individuals, and measured their body composition as well as their mindfulness disposition using an established 15-question survey that asked such questions as” “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.”

People with low levels of mindfulness on the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) were 34 percent more likely to be obese. Those people also held a pound more of fat in their bellies. (If you’re wondering why Buddha is often depicted as having a big, round belly, that’s not Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddism. He was actually quite svelte.)

“My hypothesis is that for those who are more aware of their thoughts around eating they might start to notice negative emotions around diet if there are excess amounts consumed. They might also notice how they feel better when they are more physically active,” Loucks said in an interview.

[How to communicate like a Buddhist –mindfully and without judgement]

Many of us have positive, celebratory associations with high fat, sugary foods from childhood. But what if before indulging in the office birthday cake, you stopped and asked yourself why you want to eat it. Is it a craving, is it emotional? Then you can ask yourself if you want to engage that.

Sometimes you’ll decide that, yes, I just really want that cake right now. Other times, you’ll realize no, I don’t really need it. Either way, you’ll be making the decision mindfully and with intention.

In the subsequent study about heart disease triggers Loucks suggests that teaching people three central tenets of mindfulness: attention control, emotion regulation and self awareness could change behaviors and thus improve cardiovascular health.

With a nearly $5 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant, Loucks’ next phase will be to develop such customized mindfulness interventions specifically targeted at reducing heart disease factors like obesity to see if you can really think yourself thin.

Is your body mass index a useful measurement? Kevin Hall, creator of the NIH Body Weight Planner, dispels some myths about shedding pounds. (Video: The Washington Post)

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