By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts
When it comes to eating and managing our weight and our health, it is important to acknowledge the importance of the mind-body connection. Our hectic, jam-packed lives may literally be weighing us down. In a recent poll, 38% of adults reported eating or overeating in the past month as a means to deal with or avoid stress, and about 50% of these adults reported these behaviors in the past week.
If this is a feeling or behavior you can relate to, you’re not alone. The good news is: There are steps you can take that may be able to help you to manage or lose weight, and meditation for weight loss is one of them.
Specific practices and techniques — meditation, mindful eating, and intuitive eating — can help us learn or relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food and how to remove any problematic feelings we may have surrounding eating. Weight loss may be a side effect of cultivating this renewed relationship, but it’s important not to establish losing weight as the primary goal. Doing so may constrain us so that we are unable to truly eat intuitively or in a mindful way.
Instead, focus on enjoying foods — eating because you’re hungry, not because you’re stressed about work or family issues and feeling overwhelmed. You will learn through these practices how to appreciate and love your body for all it can do for you.
When it comes to talking about meditation for weight loss or meditation for eating and working toward developing a healthy relationship with food, it can help to understand what the terminology means.
Stress or emotional eating occurs when people tend to eat and overeat because of strong emotions or feelings, rather than responding to their own internal cues of hunger. Sometimes when we experience strong emotions, these emotions can outweigh our physical feelings of fullness and satiation, and this can result in us overeating. In these cases, food is used as a coping mechanism, dulling strong emotions momentarily. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that this experience contributes toward perpetuating a cycle. Feeling stressful emotions can lead to overeating, which leads to guilt or shame, circling back to feeling — and not being able to process or handle — negative emotions or stress.
Mindful eating is a technique or framework you can use to help repair your relationship with food and eating experiences. It calls us to be present and to engage our senses — how the food tastes, smells, and most importantly, how it makes our bodies feel. Mindful eating incorporates intuitive eating, to help us slow down and listen to our internal cues of true hunger versus cues of satiation, and as such, it can help us reduce or even entirely cease our emotional or binge eating. While mindful eating can lead to weight loss, losing weight should not be the goal outcome or motivation. If our food choices are made based on a certain physical outcome we are wishing for, it indicates that we have already stopped eating mindfully. The Headspace app includes a 30-session training pack as a complete program to teach mindful eating.
Intuitive eating is a mind-body, non-diet approach to health and wellness. It rejects the concept of dieting and teaches us to trust our bodies and listen to our internal physical cues, with the goal of healing our relationship with food. Intuitive eating includes principles of mindful eating, however it encompasses a broader expanded philosophy that spans across, moving your body because it feels good to move, and using nutrition information without bias.
When it comes to losing weight, we typically think of taking a spin class or opting for the salad instead of a burger for lunch. Consequently, it may seem counterintuitive to consider sitting in one place and focusing your thoughts, and doing a meditation for weight loss. These sorts of perceptions are only viewing part of the picture. Keep in mind that weight loss is not simply physical, and it’s not simply black and white. As humans we’re emotional beings, and acknowledging that fact is helpful in developing a healthy relationship with food, and potentially losing body fat or maintaining whatever weight is healthiest for our bodies.
Consider a 2017 meta-analysis of 19 different studies that found that typical weight loss methods (diet and exercise) work in the short term, but eventually the study participants’ weight was gained back after the programs ended. On the other hand, weight loss protocols that included mindfulness interventions such as meditation (in addition to eating well and exercising), were seen to be more effective in reducing weight and keeping it off among study participants.
So, why is it possible that meditation helps when it comes to weight loss, exactly? There are physical and psychological factors at play. Another 2017 meta-analysis found that generalized meditation helped reduce cortisol and C-reactive protein levels. If our cortisol levels are consistently high, this is connected with the persistence of obesity over time, according to a 2017 study.
Psychologically, research shows that meditation may help squash overeating. A 2014 review compared 14 different studies and found that using mindful meditation as the #1 intervention decreased binge eating and emotional eating. Meditation has been shown to lower our stress levels. In fact, Headspace reduces stress in 10 days. This is important because stress is a contributing factor, causing many of us to overeat. Meditation teaches us to sit with and observe our emotions without passing judgment, instead of resorting to our go-to coping mechanisms like overindulging on food.
Meditation can help us become more mindful eaters and even address any emotional eating issues that might persist.
1. Remove the shame and guilt.
For those who struggle with emotional eating, feeling stressed can lead to overeating to soothe or avoid these feelings. This can lead to guilt or shame. Break the cycle. Meditation not only helps reduce stress, which removes the trigger in the first place, but it also helps you become more aware of your emotions and feelings, so you can recognize those times when you’re eating when stressed versus when you’re actually hungry. Meditation has also been shown to increase our compassion, which may cause us to become more accepting of other people who may have different body types from our own.
2. Maintain weight loss and a healthy weight for the long haul.
Meditation can help your weight loss efforts stick. While diet and exercise may help you reach your weight loss goals, meditation alongside healthy eating and exercise makes weight loss efforts sustainable.
3. Lower stress and inflammation levels.
Meditation reduces cortisol and C-reactive protein levels, which is beneficial to our overall health and may help us achieve weight loss and maintain a healthy weight. Cortisol is associated with storing fat in our abdomen area (belly fat), and elevated C-reactive protein levels can be a sign of inflammation, which is at the root of many diseases including obesity.
4. Better control of cravings.
5. Decrease our stress and anxiety.
Losing weight takes a lot of effort, and keeping the weight off can be stressful, even leading to feelings of anxiety. Thirty days of using the Headspace app for daily meditation reduces stress by a third, so it is a proven tool.
Mindful eating is about developing an awareness of your feelings around food, and your internal physical cues. It teaches you how to decipher between physical and emotional hunger. Need helpful tips to get started?
1. Ditch the distractions, including screens, when you’re eating.
Turn off the TV, keep your phone off the dinner table, and step away from your computer.
2. Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
Try a simple check-in halfway through your meal to assess how you’re feeling. Are you still hungry? Are you beginning to feel full?
3. Enlist your senses.
Make sure your senses are part of your mindful eating arsenal. Focus on the smell of your food, the taste, and the melding flavors. Make note of the different textures.
4. Pay attention to how the food you’re eating makes you feel.
Do you feel energized? Sleepy? Are you experiencing any bloat or an upset stomach? Did your meal or snack keep you full, or are you hungry right afterwards?
5. Drop the judgment… of yourself.
Eating mindfully can be complex, and it takes time. Don’t beat yourself up if you have a misstep. It’s all part of the process.
6. Stay in touch with how you’re feeling.
Are you eating because you’re hungry, or are there feelings or emotions driving the craving?
When you’re ready, press play on Headspace’s 10-day beginner’s course on mindfulness basics — available with your membership or free trial. Jump into your new practice with the essentials.
Then explore hundreds of exercises for sleep, stress, focus, and more. Or give a 30-session course on mindful eating a go. Become more aware of your relationship to food.
READ NEXT: What is mindful eating?