A daily dose of mindfulness can curb your cravings and melt your middle.
For most people, losing weight isn’t particularly complicated: Eat less, move more.
And yet, 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why?
“Knowing what to do isn’t usually the problem,” explains behavioral psychologist Lara Fielding, Psy.D., Ed.M., author of Mastering Adulthood. “It’s motivating ourselves to actually do it.”
So why is it so difficult to rally ourselves to eat well and exercise every day? The short answer: Our brains are hardwired to do what feels good.
Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that extra carbohydrate consumption causes a spike in serotonin, a chemical that improves mood, increases energy and focus, and even boosts libido.
In addition, an International Journal of Obesity study found that eating high-fat foods messes with brain’s reward system. We get a quick mood boost, followed by a cliff-like comedown that’s complete with depressive symptoms. Then, in an effort to pick ourselves back up again, we go back for seconds.
Now the good news: Even though we’re hardwired to follow this destructive pattern, the brain behaves like a muscle. In other words, we can train it to break the cycle. Enter: mindfulness.
A daily mindfulness practice around eating can take your brain off autopilot, says Dr. Fielding, so that you avoid an unconscious high-calorie spiral.
In fact, in a 2018 review from North Carolina State University, researchers concluded that mindfulness practices are critical in the treatment of obesity and other weight problems for one simple reason: They make behavioral changes way more doable.
“It’s important to realize that our actions don’t happen in a vacuum,” Dr. Fielding explains, “but are a reaction to situations, based in our feelings and emotions.”
In other words, you don’t overeat or skip workouts just for the heck of it—you do so for very specific reasons. Mindfulness allows you to pinpoint those reasons so that you can spot your triggers while there’s still time to counteract them.
“Often, it’s like we live in a virtual reality in which we miss the matrix of underlying factors,” Dr. Fielding says. “But the key to hacking into the system is to mindfully acknowledge the link between our triggers and our actions.”
4 Brain Hacks for Weight Loss
As abstract as mindfulness might sound, it’s not actually that difficult. Here, Dr. Fielding shares four ways to train your brain to make healthy weight loss a whole lot easier.
Brain Hack #1: Track Your Habits
“I’ll often have someone go home and write down what they are doing and when they are doing it,” Dr. Fielding says. “For example, ‘When do I overeat?’ Someone might write down that it’s at night. They follow the traditional migration from TV to refrigerator. That helps us establish a situational trigger.”
Brain Hack #2: Figure Out What You’re Feeling
Once you notice a pattern between situational triggers and unhealthy behaviors, ask yourself, “What thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations show up in that situation?” It could be anything from stress, boredom, exhaustion, or hunger, Dr. Fielding says. Then think: If you don’t eat that cookie or skip that workout, how will you feel?
Brain Hack #3: Validate Your Emotions
This part is important, Dr. Fielding says. Instead of judging yourself because you sometimes eat to feel better, realize that it’s natural. “As humans, we naturally want to do things that make us feel good, even if we know they aren’t healthy for us,” she says.
Brain Hack #4: Decide on a New Reaction
Once you determine the thoughts and feelings that drive certain behaviors, you can brainstorm new reactions that are not only healthier but also will better meet your needs, Dr. Fielding says.
For example, if overeating at night in front of the TV is the situational trigger—and the emotion driving that behavior is de-stressing from a long day at work—consider what else you can do in that situation to relieve tension. It might be calling a friend, organizing your work for the next day, or simply taking a long bath, Dr. Fielding says.
Or, if your trigger is a grumbling stomach, how can you change your reaction so that you reach past the Thin Mints and grab a handful of almonds instead?
By deciding ahead of time how you’ll react to certain triggers, you’ll not only remove the thing that’s keeping you from successfully losing weight (overeating in front of the TV), but also do something good for yourself—such as reconnecting with a friend or getting ahead at work.
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Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program, to make sure it’s safe for you.