Mindful Dieting & Meditation

In the New York Times Sandra Aamodt writes that a “recent study into the causes of obesity is just the latest example of research showing that in the long run dieting is rarely effective, doesn’t reliably improve health and does more harm than good. There is a better way to eat.

The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience. Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. When dieters’ weight drops below it, they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones and find eating more rewarding.

The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 55 kilos and drops to 36, their brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal.

If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead? I recommend mindful eating — paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgement, to relearn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands. 

Relative to chronic dieters, people who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full are less likely to become overweight, maintain more stable weights over time and spend less time thinking about food. Mindful eating also helps people with eating disorders like binge eating learn to eat normally. Depending on the individual’s set point, mindful eating may reduce weight or it may not. Either way, it’s a powerful tool to maintain weight stability, without deprivation. 

I finally gave up dieting six years ago, and I’m much happier. I redirected the energy I used to spend on dieting to establishing daily habits of exercise and meditation. I also enjoy food more while worrying about it less, now that it no longer comes with a side order of shame.”

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