Stress-reducing techniques and mindful eating may help combat weight gain without dieting, shows study.
UCSF researchers found that women in the study who experienced the greatest reduction in stress tended to have the most loss of deep belly fat.
To a greater degree than fat that lies just under the skin, this deep abdominal fat is associated with an elevated risk for developing heart disease or diabetes.
"You're training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns - to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example," said UCSF researcher Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
"If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision," she stated.
The women who participated in the study were not on calorie-counting diets. Instead, 24 of the 47 chronically stressed, overweight and obese women were randomly assigned to mindfulness training and practice, and the other 23 served as a control group.
Although no diets were prescribed, all participants attended one session about the basics of healthy eating and exercise.
The training included nine weekly sessions, each lasting 2 1/2 hours, during which the women learned stress reduction techniques and how to be more aware of their eating by recognizing bodily sensations - including hunger, fullness and taste satisfaction. At week six they attended an intensive seven-hour, silent meditation retreat.
Those who had greater improvements in listening to their bodies' cues, or greater reductions in stress or cortisol, experienced the greatest reductions in abdominal fat.
Among the subset of obese women in the study, those who received the mindfulness training had significant reductions in cortisol after awakening and also maintained their total body weight, compared to women in the waitlist group, who had stable cortisol levels and continued to gain weight.
"In this study we were trying to cultivate people's ability to pay attention to their sensations of hunger, fullness and taste satisfaction as a guide for limiting how much they eat," Daubenmier explained.
"We tried to reduce eating in response to emotions or external cues that typically drive overeating behaviour," she added.
Daubenmier said the small study is preliminary and must be confirmed in ongoing, follow-up research.
The study has been published online in the Journal of Obesity.