Overconsumption, increased stress, and resulting weight gain often propel individuals to a wish for change, such as making a New Year’s resolution to get control of eating and to lose weight. Unfortunately, many people make the same New Year’s resolutions year after year because goals such as “lose 75 pounds” or “get up at 5 a.m. daily to run” are typically not achievable or sustainable. A large amount of psychological research also underscores the importance of selecting goals that are realistic and moderate rather than extreme. An “all or nothing” radical change program frequently results in “nothing” because it’s not possible to maintain a 500 calorie a day “cleanse” without binge eating in response to an overly depriving diet.
Sadly, even if we are being more moderate about weight goals, more research is finding that, as millions of people have experienced for themselves, it is very difficult to lose weight and to maintain the loss (see this article in the New York Times). We have known for some time that only a minority of individuals manage to sustain significant weight loss, but now we understand more about how and why this is so difficult. Humans evolved in a “feast or famine” environment, and our bodies developed numerous mechanisms designed to ensure our survival. We seem to be hard wired to prefer sweets, fat, and lots of variety, all of which were adaptive in our ancestral environment. Diets tend to be viewed by the body as alarming indicators of potential starvation that must be abated by a metabolic drop, and actual weight loss seems to result in ongoing secretion of chemicals designed to increase food intake and restore the lost weight.
Does this mean it’s hopeless to try to lose weight? Not at all; I know many people who have done it and maintained their loss. Individuals who binge eat and respond to negative emotions by overeating can frequently change these patterns and gradually lose weight. Also, stress is a significant contributor to weight gain; stress results in the secretion of cortisol, which promote abdominal weight gain. Research is demonstrating that mindfulness based interventions can be very helpful with such issues. Dalen et al. (2010)conducted a six week mindfulness class that showed numerous beneficial outcomes on eating variables as well as emotional factors. Participants reported weight loss, reductions in binge eating, increases in feelings of control around food, and improvements in their levels of stress and depression. Daubenmier et al. (2011) conducted a four month mindfulness based program for stress eating. Obese treatment participants showed large decreases in cortisol secretion. Although they did not lose weight over the course of the study, they maintained their weight, whereas control group participants gained weight and showed no changes in cortisol. Finally, a one day mindfulness and acceptance workshop (Lillis et al., 2011) was found to decrease self reported binge eating in a three month follow up.
Mindfulness based interventions enable individuals to become more accepting of internal experiences rather than avoidant. Being able calmly and compassionately to sit with a painful feeling and to recognize it as a transient mental event lessens the urge to self-medicate with food. Becoming more aware of what hunger and satiety feel like promotes more attuned responses to these signals from the self. Such attunement fosters the development of an sensible eating program that may result in weight loss.