A study of 400 people found that those who were mindful, which means they pay attention to their present thoughts and feelings, were less likely to be obese. They also had less belly fat than less mindful people.
The study only measures an association, notes says Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, who led the study. It does not prove that higher mindfulness causes weight loss.
But here’s what Loucks hypothesizes is going on: Like other animals, people are evolutionarily predisposed to stock up on calories when they are available and to rest when they get the chance. In prehistoric times that was a sensible survival instinct but in a first-world context of fast food and television, it can easily lead to excessive weight gain.
Mindfulness, which other studies have shown can help people overcome cravings and eat a healthier diet, Loucks says, may be the cognitive tool people need to overcome their instincts. Similarly, it may help people override an aversion to initiating exercise (research suggests that people feel great after working out but often feel ambivalent about getting started).
“That’s where the mindfulness may come in,” Loucks adds. “Being aware of each and every moment and how that’s related to what we do and how we feel.”
Dispositional mindfulness is not the same as mindfulness meditation, in which people make a conscious, focused practice of attending to their current state and sensations. Instead, it’s more of an inherent personality trait, though it can also be taught.
“This is everyday mindfulness,” says Loucks. “The vast majority of these people are not meditating.”
A Pound of Belly Fat
Loucks’ study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, looked at how 394 people in the New England Family Study (NEFS) scored on the six-point Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). Participants rated their agreement with 15 prompts, such as “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.”
The researchers also measured the amount of belly and hip fat each person had using the dual energy X-ray absorptiometry scanner at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. They also gathered measurements of body mass index and other data on each participant’s health, lifestyle, and demographics.
The research team’s analysis found that even after adjusting for a multitude of possible confounding factors (e.g., age, smoking, socioeconomic status), people with MAAS scores below four were 34 percent more likely to be obese than people with a score of six.
Meanwhile, people with the lower MAAS scores had, on average, a bit more than a pound of belly fat (448 grams) than people with the high score. Both of these results were statistically significant.
Because the volunteers have been NEFS participants since childhood, the researchers could track whether they were obese as children. Among the study’s findings is that people who were not obese as children but have become so as adults were significantly more likely to be low MAAS scorers.
Loucks acknowledges that the differences, while significant, are not huge.
“Awareness seems to be enough to have a small to medium effect,” Loucks says. “Then there is the question of what could we do to increase it.”
Clinical trials of whether specific interventions enhance the apparent benefits of mindfulness would help determine whether it indeed has a causal role in lowering obesity risk. Prior studies of mindfulness in weight loss have yielded promising but still inconclusive results, Loucks adds.
The National Institutes of Health funded the study.