Using Mindfulness to Promote Sustainable, Healthy Weight Loss

Jul 30, 2019

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that nearly 160 million Americans are overweight. Busy schedules, unrealistic diets, and lack of access to healthy food make losing weight seemingly impossible, but mindfulness might be able to help. Michael Bordieri visits Sounds Good to discuss mindful weight loss.

Mindfulness, defined as "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens," can assist with safe, sustainable weight loss. "Mindfulness can be helpful in many areas of life, including with eating," Bordieri explains. "It's important to note that [mindfulness] is not a magic cure. One of the challenges we have in the weight loss and diet area is that there are lots of miracle cures that are offered, and some of them, even on their face, seem a little silly. You know, cookies are somehow going to help you reach your ideal figure. Some can outright be dangerous, so not fasting to a level where you really are depriving your body of nutrients."

Unhealthy and unrealistic diet programs are often only sustainable in the short term. "One of the challenges of dieting is we view them primarily from the lens of restriction. 'Here are the things I can't have, I'm taking all the joy out of eating so that I can lose weight.' That sets up people for failure when they get off the diet, or they get tired of restrictions, they bounce back into old habits," says Bordieri. These short-lived results from the diet, paired with binge eating and weight gain after quitting the diet, create a 'yo-yo' effect.

Yo-yo dieting, or the yo-yo effect (also known as weight cycling) is a term coined by Kelly D. Brownell at Yale University. "Many Americans are successful with short term weight loss programs," says Bordieri. "They can go with one-week or two-week or maybe even a month plan. But one of the challenges is many of those diets are quite restrictive and what we get is this yo-yo phenomenon where folks lose the weight, but gain it back pretty quickly after they go off the diet." This up-and-down weight gain and loss "can actually increase health risks," Bordieri explains. "It's unhealthy to be gaining and dropping weight. So one thing that psychologists are looking for in this area is how to help folks go on a more slow and steady approach. Not drop 20 pounds in four days, but instead, kind of have a more gradual and healthy, sustainable approach towards eating in general."

Busy schedules and modern technology can make it difficult to approach eating and food mindfully. "I think certainly in our modern world we're seeing more and more intrusion of screens into our eating time. Whether it's a cell phone, or eating in front of a computer or the TV. What we find is, scientists when they research this find that people eat more when they're distracted while they eat," Bordieri says. "Trying to multi-task, eating while doing other things, leads you to consume more calories. One possible solution or way of helping people gain a more healthy relationship with their eating is actually to kind of focus more on it." 

"What would mindfulness look like? In some ways, we can start with all five senses," Bordieri explains. "Obviously, taste is a key aspect of food, it's what we're eating for, but we have lots of other senses going on as well. So one is, you know, sight. Chefs will often say we eat first with our eyes. So, creative plating and making the food look good on your plate actually can help you cultivate a more healthy relationship with your food and help you enjoy it more in the process. You can also look to slowing down and really focusing on things like texture, how the food feels, or the different tastes that are there. Smelling your food and seeing what sort of aromas are there as part of it."

Mindful dieting is centered around the idea of moving the act of eating food from a background task to a primary task, one that requires full focus and attention. Taking the time to utilize all five senses while eating food not only makes the experience more enjoyable, it also allows the body and mind to catch up to each other. "One thing is that our bodies will let us know when we're full, but there's often a delay between when we sort of get to that ideal sort of fullness physiologically and when we experience the sensation of fullness psychologically," Bordieri says.

"There's been over 20 research studies now looking at mindfulness as an approach to weight loss [here and here], and the data so far is quite promising. Folks tend not only to kind of move towards a path to weight loss, but of course, we see all the other benefits of mindfulness as well. Folks tend to be more active in the world, they tend to have better, healthier relationships with their thoughts and feelings, increased self-compassion. Which can be another big part of kind of unlocking that weight loss puzzle. I think sometimes, we try to be drill sergeants with ourselves and really restrict and clamp down and unfortunately, what that does over the long run is kind of create an adversarial relationship with yourself and your body and that's not really a healthy place to live. So mindfulness can kind of help you be at better peace with your body and maybe enjoy a meal more when you're having it," Bordieri concludes.