SARAH ANNE STEWART WAS a weight-loss “expert.” That is, she was good – too good, at times – at losing weight. She’d done it through starvation. She’d done it through purging. She’d done it through excessive exercise, laxative abuse and, of course, she’d done it through dieting.
In between, Stewart – a professional model during her teens and 20s – inevitably gained it back and more, fluctuating 70 pounds for a solid decade. She eventually landed in the ER, where she was told she’d die if she didn’t make a change. “My body was shutting down after years of damage,” Stewart says.
So Stewart did make a change – a drastic one. She moved from New York City to California, became a certified holistic health coach and drank green juices and practiced yoga. But it wasn’t until she began a meditation practice that she began actually caring for her body – not just caring what it looked like. For her, weight stabilization followed; for many of her clients, weight loss often does.
4 Ways to ‘Meditate’ Without Actually…
“After healing my own relationship with food and my body, I shifted my coaching model and used different meditation and mindfulness techniques with my clients as well,” says Stewart, who lives in Los Angeles. “The results were amazing. Not only were my clients losing weight, but most importantly, they were beginning to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
There’s some research and plenty of personal stories to support what Stewart has witnessed: that meditation – though not a weight-loss strategy in itself – can change people’s mindsets and behaviors in a way that leads to sustainable weight loss. “It’s not like you can just sit still and expect the pounds to disappear into thin air, but meditation is extraordinarily powerful at helping people break habits … so it can be extremely effective for weight loss,” says Dina Kaplan, founder of The Path, a New York City-based organization that hosts meditation “sits,” courses, retreats and more.
That’s because meditation builds a relationship between you and your thoughts so that you can notice them before deciding what do with them, if anything. So while you used to instinctively reach for a candy bar whenever you thought, “I want a candy bar,” a trained meditator might say, “That’s interesting, I’m thinking I want a candy bar. What do I want to do about that?” Maybe you decide to buy a candy bar, maybe you decide to let the thought pass, maybe you decide you actually want a hug. What matters is meditation gives you – not your habits – the power to make that decision, experts say. “I always hear, ‘It wasn’t until I gave up control [of my body]that I finally found control,'” says Jenna Hollenstein, a registered dietitian nutritionist and meditation guide in New York.
Meditation can also help people be more in tune with their bodies, which, in some cases, means eating less. “Research shows [meditation]can help increase awareness of hunger and satiety and help people start eating when they’re actually hungry, and stop when they’re full, but not overly full,” explains Megan Jones Bell, a psychologist and chief science officer for Headspace, a meditation app. “There’s [also]a reduction in emotional eating and mindless snacking.”
Similarly, meditation’s ability to connect people to their bodies can encourage them to eat the types of foods that give them energy and digest well, rather than those that only taste good on the tongue. “When we have processed foods and we eat them mindfully, they’re actually really gross,” finds Kimberly Carrière a clinical psychology doctoral student at McGill University, whose recent meta-analysis of 19 studies suggests that mindfulness-based interventions like meditation can improve eating behaviors and lead to weight loss among people who are overweight or obese.
Kaplan knows what Carrière means. As her meditation practice evolved, her diet and exercise patterns naturally shifted from what she had thought was healthy (counting calories and sporadically running six miles in a day) to what felt right (eating a paleo diet of mostly organic foods and running a lap around a nearby park and practicing yoga 12 minutes every day). The current pattern is sustainable because she craves it. “It’s amazing to feel like my mind and body are really optimized for health,” Kaplan says. “It would be not quite right not to care for my body with as much attention as I care for my mind.”
Finally, meditation does something typical diets (which almost always lead to long-term weight gain) do not: It teaches you self-compassion, so that when you get off track you can say, “Whoops – that’s human nature!” and move on, rather than say, “I failed; I have no self control,” and binge, Kaplan finds. “With meditation, we … have more of a sense of humor about our bad habits,” she says. “It becomes easier to lose weight or change any bad habit if you don’t judge yourself.”
1. Expand your definition of meditation.
If you want to join a formal meditation practice or hire a coach, great, but don’t feel like you have to. You can also download an app like Headspace to practice just five minutes (or less) a day, or even find ways to implement mindfulness into other activities like dishwashing, showering or walking down the street. “Take those ear buds out and listen to your surroundings,” Carrière suggests. “You’ll be fascinated by how much stuff is going on that we’re not even aware of.” Doing so can still exercise that mindfulness muscle so that it’s stronger the next time you find yourself mindlessly reaching for a bag of chips.
2. Don’t focus on weight loss.
For some people – particularly those who’ve been restricting their diets and who weigh less than is healthy for their bodies – meditation may lead to weight maintenance or gain. “It’s really about allowing your body to discover your own natural weight because it has that wisdom already in it,” Hollenstein says.
Ironically, when meditation does work for weight loss, it’s often because the meditators have stopped trying to lose weight. “There’s the belief that if I stop trying to lose weight, I won’t do anything,” Hollenstein says. But in reality, meditation gives you the control to make sustainable food and fitness choices that serve, not sabotage you.
Whether you lose, gain or stabilize your weight once you start meditating, the research is clear: Meditation does have worthwhile physical and mental health benefits, including reduced pain, improved depression and anxiety symptoms, better memory and more energy.
3. Be consistent.
While something is better than nothing, to truly reap meditation’s rewards, you need to practice consistently – ideally daily – Kaplan says. Just like a biceps curl here and there isn’t going to help you throw a baseball more powerfully, a sporadic meditation practice isn’t going to strengthen those brain pathways enough to override old habits. “Meditation changes your behavior on the deepest levels of consciousness,” Kaplan says. “You don’t have to [have a goal to]start losing your appetite for behaviors that aren’t serving you.”
4. Be patient.
Again, like exercise, your behavior changes (and any resulting body changes) aren’t going to happen overnight. But the longer you meditate, the more you’ll start noticing how it’s affecting the rest of your life – perhaps you brush off a comment that would have weighed you down, or realize you actually don’t like birthday cake because it makes you lethargic. And while the more immediate type of reward diets promise is more appealing, meditation’s benefits are worth the wait. “This is the path that you can stay on for the rest of your life,” Hollenstein says. “Once you get on this path and you start to reference that internal wisdom and you start to make decisions that foster self-trust and self-confidence, you don’t need anything else.”