Mindfulness is the process of paying attention both to inner cues (thoughts, emotions and sensations) and to the environment. Mindfulness-based weight loss programs are a recent arrival on the scene, but research suggests they have much to offer chronically unsuccessful dieters. One such program is the Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL) program at the University of New Mexico Center for Life Integrative Medicine Specialty Clinic.
MEAL was developed by Brian Shelley, MD, who noticed that standard mindfulness-based stress reduction programs were changing participants’ eating behaviors. He wondered whether a mindfulness program focusing specifically on eating could help people who were overweight or obese and trying to lose weight.
The MEAL program is 6 weeks long, with a weekly group meeting and practical homework. Each meeting consists of sitting meditation, gentle yoga and walking meditation. However, participants also engage in mindful eating exercises and discussions about food, hunger and weight.
Shelley says the program’s success lies in its ability to address specific issues that would not come up in a general mindfulness program—topics like foods that trigger binges, how to shop mindfully for food and how to deal with environmental pressures to overeat. “The MEAL program provides a cohesive group that shares the same overall goal, and mindfulness is the bridge from goal to action.”
The program uses experiential exercises to help participants apply mindfulness to everyday eating decisions; for example:
- eating a single raisin (or other simple food) slowly, exploring its visual appearance, smell, texture and taste
- eating typical trigger foods, like potato chips and cookies, mindfully, to distinguish between expectation and experience of enjoyment and satisfaction
- noticing the effect of drinking water on hunger and fullness
- sharing a potluck meal where each participant brings one healthy item and one less healthy item, and everyone practices making food choices and leaving food on the plate
As reported in 2006 in Complementary Health Practice Review, participants in the MEAL program experienced reductions in binge eating, anxiety and depression, as well as an increase in self-acceptance. Statistical analyses showed that the decrease in binge eating was most strongly related to participants’ greater self-acceptance.
This first study of the MEAL program did not look at body mass index (BMI) or weight loss. However, a second study, reported in 2009 in the journal Explore, found that obese women lost a moderate amount of weight during the program. At a 1-year follow-up, the women had sustained an average weight loss of 10–12 pounds. They also showed improvements in two important health indexes: waist-hip ratio and C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the body. The weight loss was comparable to that of a control group, who participated in a weight loss support group led by a physician, a nutritionist and a psychologist. However, the changes in waist-hip ratio and C-reactive protein were greater in MEAL program participants than in those enrolled in the traditional weight loss program.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for creating health, but it’s not a quick solution. The mindful eater must learn to make conscious choices, again and again, that go against the loudest messages and most convenient options in our society.
For more in-depth information and other mindful eating strategies, refer to the complete article, “Mindfulness & Weight Loss,” in the online IDEA Library or in June 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.