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Is Mindfulness the Antidote for Obesity?

New research suggests people who habitually live in the present moment are less likely to be extremely overweight.
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(Photo: patrice6000/Shutterstock)

(Photo: patrice6000/Shutterstock)

As we all know, the obesity crisis in America can be traced back to one fateful day in 1971, when Don Draper, during a hilltop meditation session, had a vision that became the greatest-ever commercial for caffeinated sugar water. American waistlines have been expanding ever since.

Ironically, one important way of reversing that trend may be to go back to the ad man's original source of inspiration: New research suggests people who practice mindfulness are less likely than the rest of us to be obese.

A research team led by epidemiologist Eric Loucks of Brown University reports that, in a longitudinal study of 394 people, dispositional mindfulness was inversely associated with both obesity and abdominal fat—that particularly unhealthy belly weight we tend to add in middle age.

People with low levels of mindfulness were more likely to be obese, and to have unhealthy levels of abdominal fat.

The study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, featured 394 participants. All were enrolled in the Longitudinal Effects on Aging Perinatal Project, which tracks a group of people born in Providence, Rhode Island, between 1959 and 1974, examining how early-life experiences impact their later lives.

Participants filled out a 15-item questionnaire designed to measure dispositional mindfulness. They were presented with such statements as "I find it difficult to stay focused on what's happening in the present," "I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else," and "I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later."

Body-mass index and their amount of abdominal fat were measured, and compared with their weight and height at ages four and seven. Other factors that could potentially affect weight were also noted, including education level, physical activity, perceived stress, and (damn you, Draper) soft-drink consumption.

After adjusting for the above, the researchers found people with low levels of mindfulness were more likely to be obese, and to have unhealthy levels of abdominal fat, than those with higher levels.

Furthermore, people with constantly wandering minds who were not obese as children were more likely to become obese adults. This suggests that "dispositional mindfulness may relate to obesity trajectories across the life course," the researchers write.

Loucks and his colleagues emphasize that research in this field is still quite new; replication of their results is needed; and their findings do not prove causation. Nevertheless, their preliminary conclusions are entirely plausible.

A recent study found that mindfulness breeds resilience—a quality necessary for one to stick with your diet or exercise regimen. And given how much of our unhealthy eating is essentially mindless—such as stuffing our faces while we watch television—it's easy to see how simply paying attention could have a significant impact on our diets.

The tough part here is that Loucks and his colleagues aren't talking about people who meditate for 20 minutes and then go on with their day; the type of mindfulness that appears to be effective is, essentially, a way of life.

Adopting it is not an easy shift to make. But to this long list of potential benefits, we can now add maintaining a healthy weight.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.