Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Remarkable Way to Cut Down on Belly Fat – According to Science

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Want to Cut Down on Belly Fat Here's What You Need to Know

Let me start with this. As long as you’re healthy, luscious curves are gorgeous and something to be celebrated. Too much of a good thing though is too much of a good thing and when curves get too curvy, it can be a sign that physical health is on a downward slide. Excessive abdominal fat can be particularly worrying. According to Harvard Medical School, it is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic disturbances, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and gallbladder problems. 

The relationship between food and people can be … complicated. Food has become a therapist, a stress reliever, a relaxant, a social bonder, a medicator, an entertainer – so many jobs! Food was never meant to be all of these things and although in small doses it can perform all of these tasks beautifully, there will always be trouble when it’s called upon to do too much more than what it was ever meant to do – nourish us.

True, there are many foods that are delicious bad for us, but there isn’t any food that wrestles its way into our bellies all on its own. We’ve tried to change food so that it doesn’t have such a punch – we’ve stripped calories, sugar, fat and fun from food. It hasn’t worked. That’s because the problem isn’t food, it’s what we do with it.

It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it.

When eating is done ‘mindlessly’, it becomes an automatic response to a number of different emotional, physical and mental cues. It’s becomes the go-to in response not only to hunger, but also to boredom, frustration, stress, exhaustion, anger … name it.

There is an alternative to this, and it’s eating mindfully. Mindfulness is all about being aware of your own physical, mental and emotional being in the present moment.

Mindful eating. The research.

The research around mindfulness is robust, giving us plenty of reasons to praise mindfulness and practice it.

A recent study found people who are more mindful have less belly fat and are less likely to be obese than those than those who aren’t as attentive to their present thoughts and feelings.

This type of mindfulness (dispositional mindfulness) is different to mindfulness meditation. As explained by lead author of the study, Eric Loucks, dispositional mindfulness involves, ‘Being aware of each and every moment and how that’s related to what we do and how we feel.’ It’s more about an everyday awareness of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations rather than a period of meditation. Interestingly, the vast majority of the people in the study were not meditating 

The researchers assessed the levels of mindfulness of 394 participants using questions such as, ‘I find it difficult to stay focussed on what’s happening in the present’, or ‘I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.’ The participants were all a part of the New England Family Study, a long-term study that had been following them since before they were born.

The study found that people who had lower levels of mindfulness had a 34% higher prevalence of obesity than those who were more mindful. Those who were less mindful also wore on average about a pound of extra belly fat. Those participants who weren’t obese as children, but become obese adults were also more likely to be lower on mindfulness.

The relationship between mindfulness and weight control.

Further research is needed to understand more about the relationship between mindfulness and weight but the authors of the study have a number of theories to explain their findings.

It may be that people who have higher levels of mindfulness are more aware of what they are thinking and feeling. As well as this, they would also be more attentive to certain cues in their body and mind, such as whether or not they need to eat and the positive way their bodies respond to exercise.

The findings can also be understood in evolutionary terms. We are wired to store calories when there is food available and rest when we can. Our circumstances have changed – the availability of food isn’t so sporadic and unreliable that we have to stock up – but our wiring hasn’t. What this means is that we may tend towards storing too many calories and not moving enough.

People who are more mindful are more likely to act deliberately rather than be rolled along by instinctive tendencies. This would see them resisting the temptation to eat whenever there is food available and to exercise, rather than rest.

Mindfulness has previously been shown to be useful in helping people beat cravings and be generally healthier with their diet, but according to this research, it may also be useful in helping to overcome our instincts around the way we store or use food.

So how do I practice mindful eating?

Mindfulness is all about paying attention. So much of what we do is done through habit without a lot of deliberate thought given to what we’re doing. Here are some ways to turn that around:

  1. Start small.

    Just start by being mindful for one meal or snack a day. It might feel awkward at first, but the more you do it, the more automatic it will become.

  2. Tune in to what your body is telling you.

    Before you reach for something to eat, pay attention to what’s happening in your body and your mind. Are you eating because you’re hungry? Because you’re bored, tired or stressed? Or because the food is there in front of you? This is one way to interrupt the automatic nature of reaching for something delicious or available that you might not really need.

  3. Enjoy the experience.

    Pay full attention to the food and your experience with it. Before you start eating, notice the smell, the texture and the appearance of the food. As you eat, move your attention to that. What does the food feel like in your mouth? Against your tongue? What can you taste? What happens as you chew? Don’t judge or analyse, just observe. The more you engage with the experience of eating, the less you’ll need to eat to feel satisfied.

  4. Pay attention to your emotions, thoughts and physical sensations after you eat.

    Are you able to enjoy the experience without guilt or regret? Are you able to stop there? Or do you want more? What would happen if you stopped? Wait for two minutes before a second helping or a second handful and see if things change.

  5. Do one thing at a time.

    Rather than eating while you’re reading or watching tv, try just eating. It will be easier to focus and will expand your capacity to be mindful. You’ll be more likely to get the full experience, and will start to realise the things you might have been missing.

Food is meant to be fun, but too often it becomes something done automatically, without a lot of thought or engagement. The more present and attentive we can be to the actual experience of eating – the more mindful we can be – the less likely it is that food will be called on unnecessarily. That doesn’t mean that we don’t eat for the fun of it – of course we do! What it means is that we will have a greater capacity to act more deliberately and exercise choices that are more nurturing of our needs, our health and our own well-being.

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2 Comments

MC

Thank you – love your article, because food and me have a difficult, if not toxic relationship. It started when I was unhappy in a job which became routine but was stressful at the same time.
Then I was diagnosed with depression, that was after one abusive relationship, an earlier one with a flaky partner, and a relationship where all seemed fantastic, until I found out that I was that “other woman”. When I broke up with that last man, whose “only fault” was that he had a wife, he died two weeks later, and I was grief stricken for years and blamed myself for his death which was while he was arguing with his partner, and being ill already, his body gave up the fight.

Meanwhile, I was always within an inch of my mother, who was never able to install in me confidence in my body when I was slim, but was quick to criticise when I put on weight.

Stress and depression are still here, my relationship with food as bad as ever. I am able to diet successfully, but never able to stop eating, because I always feel hungry. Drink water and herbal tea, try to feel myself with omega-3, nuts and grapefruit before my main meal at midday. But at 6 or 7 I hit such an emotional low that I cannot stop eating chocolate. If not for chocolate, I would drink alcohol, I have such cravings to kill my all feelings.

Yes, I am now in the middle of an emotional battle trying to save/wean myself of/I don’t really know what – of another relationship. Which I thought was the perfect. And perfect for me. It is not going well, but I don’t know what to do. When I am with him (it is long distance) in the same city, I cannot feel more loved or cared for, whether we are close or apart, safe and secure. But when we communicate online – it’s another story. He never makes plans for the future chats, and now stopped calling me, and does not have time for me when I call ( admittedly I only called a couple of times, I get discouraged very easily).
This now came to the point that I said that he is hurting me by his behaviour. He said that he wants to stay close to me and that he is busy with a number of thing at work (he has his own business, with no other help) and family (two children, 10,12) and he always things of me. That was two days ago. I replied to let me know when he will have time for me next and we will take it from there. But there is nothing from him since, despite him being online.
The problem is, I am overeating again, and very very unhappy. This is on top of my stress and depression and still very unhealthy relationship with my mother, 81 and with signs of depression and dementia, but refusing to be seen by the doctor.
I’m 55, he is 51 and apart from this one fault – not communicating the time of the next chat, I have no real issues with him. He is with his ex wife – for the sake of the children and “trying to do the right thing”. Apparently he is in a platonic relationship with his wife – and there is absolutely no clues that would make me doubt his claim (I had been in enough triangles to feel the other woman’s presence in man’s life, men lie very clumsily).
From early childhood I have abandonment issues, and this makes me feel very unhappy when I don’t know when we will be in contact next.

And food was was something that wasn’t available when I was waiting for my parents when I was young (4-7 yo – after that I was able to make a simple meal for myself). So now, when I’m alone, food availability became something which I can control.

Is there a way to break this association with food? And how to control my emotions when the expected (although not promised) contact with my lover does not materialise at the time that I want it?

It is true that he started to let me know when he will be online for longer periods, but it seems that I want to know it even if he is offline for a couple of days. It could be unreasonable of me, and stifling for him. At this age none of us is free of the issues that might affect us.

I definitely want to make this relationship work. I feel fantastic with him, for the first time in my life am treated like a woman, respected and loved. He says that I make him feel happy and special, and confident. I am not in a hurry – his children must take precedence, and although not absolutely happy on my own, still, when we are in frequent contact, I go to sleep and wake up with a smile on my face, and stress is negligible.

Is there a way to stop my negative responses to this situation? I do take into account that it might not work out in the long run, but don’t want to give up as long there is a chance for us.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Food and eating are nurturing things to do, so it makes sense that when you are in need of nurturing, or disappointed because of a lack of contact and certainty from the person you turn to for nurturing, that you would look to nurture yourself with food. Look at the need the food is meeting – possibly a need for nurturing, but that is something for you to explore. When you find the need, the key is to find other, healthier ways to meet that need. My question is, is your presence in this man’s life secretive, or is it out in the open. My other question is what is his reason for leaving you without a response for days at a time? It is understandable that if this doesn’t make sense to you, that it will leave your need for nurturing ‘unfed’, and that you will look to fulfil this in other ways, particularly through food. The key for you is understanding the need that is being met by food, finding a healthier way to meet that need (social groups, a pet, a hobby that makes you feel good), and removing anything those in your life which cuts across that need.

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