OWN
10/10/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2015

Shape Your Body... With Your Mind?

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By Thea Singer

Buddhist Megumi Okumura learned to meditate as a child, but the 38-year-old physician never connected meditation with her waistline until she heard about an intriguing study at the hospital where she worked: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, were examining the link between mindfulness and abdominal fat (the most dangerous kind) in overweight and obese women. Okumura, who was still carrying the 30 pounds she'd gained during her medical training, signed up.

At the end of the four-month study, she had lost 14 ounces of belly fat. Within a year, she'd shed 25 pounds and two inches from her waist -- all without a single day of dieting. Instead, she says, "I changed how I thought about eating."

Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, lead author of the study (which was published in the Journal of Obesity), says the idea was to help participants "tune in to physical sensations of hunger, fullness, and taste satisfaction, and to eat based on that awareness," rather than on stress. Subjects attended a series of classes in mindfulness practices, where they learned to recognize negative feelings (like anger and anxiety) and resist the urge to seek comfort in food.

The women who reported the greatest improvement in mindfulness and stress levels lost the largest amount of belly fat -- 4.2 ounces on average. With just 47 subjects, the study was small, Daubenmier says, "but it was proof of concept."

The findings may be explained at least in part by a drop in the participants' cortisol (the stress hormone) over the course of the training. Fat cells in the abdomen have four times as many cortisol receptors as fat cells elsewhere; when you're under stress, cortisol binds to those cells and triggers them to store more fat. "This effect evolved because it's useful in the short term," says researcher Elissa Epel, PhD -- allowing you to quickly store energy to face a coming danger. "But it's bad, of course, in the long term."

Victoria Sheehan*, 46, was well aware of the dangers associated with her "apple shape" when she joined the UCSF study. Her weight and family history put her at risk for heart disease. But by the time the experiment ended, she had lost 25 ounces of belly fat. Sheehan recalls her turning point clearly: "One night I opened an email that made me furious, and I found myself in front of the fridge. Then, all of a sudden, the mindfulness kicked in and I thought, What am I doing?" So she closed the door and walked away.

*Name has been changed.

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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