Not all body fat is equal when it comes to the dangers posed by excess weight. Belly fat -- especially the accumulation of fatty tissue around the organs in the abdominal cavity -- is of particular concern. Rather than sitting there innocently, padding your midsection in midlife, belly or visceral fat produces inflammatory molecules that promote insulin resistance and contribute to metabolic syndrome, which is linked to a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
Chronic stress has been associated with greater concentration of fat in the abdomen, primarily through overproduction of cortisol, which has also been linked to higher mortality. A team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, set out to determine whether reducing stress through mindfulness meditation could actually lead to a loss of belly fat -- even without a change in overall body weight. (Meditation has already been found to be associated with greater longevity.)
Published in 2011 in the Journal of Obesity, the study took a small group of 47 overweight or obese women (with an average body mass index of 31.2), and gave half of the subjects a series of classes on mindfulness meditation techniques. These sessions included coaching on paying attention to sensations of hunger, food cravings, identifying emotional eating triggers, becoming aware of negative emotions, as well as advice on self-acceptance and forgiveness of others. Guided meditations were offered to introduce new mindful eating skills, like paying closer attention to sense of taste and eating much more slowly than usual.
In total, the study group got nine 2½-hour classes, and a silent retreat day in which they were encouraged to practice their new meditations and mindful eating skills. They were also encouraged to use the mindful skills at home in assignments of up to 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week, as well as before and during meals, and to log their mindfulness activity.
Both the study and control groups were given a 2-hour nutrition and exercise information session. By the end of the study period, all participants were measured for abdominal fat distribution, as well as blood cortisol levels.
What they found: Two main outcomes were examined: first, did the mindful eating and stress reduction program reduce emotional eating? And second, did it affect the amount of belly fat in the participants?
Emotional eating improved: Overall, the participants experienced less anxiety, less eating in response to emotions and external food cues, as well as a greater awareness of bodily sensations.
Cortisol levels and belly fat: Blood levels of cortisol were lower in the treatment group overall when compared with the control group, though not significantly so. When only the obese subjects were analyzed, however, the lower levels were significant; that is, cortisol levels were significantly lower than the control group when only obese participants were examined. In addition, the participants who had the greatest improvements in mindful eating, who were more aware of their hunger sensations and more successful at lowering chronic stress, had the largest reductions in abdominal fat -- up to more than 500 grams, or just under one pound, during the 4-month intervention. This loss of fat in the belly region happened even without a change in body weight. The obese subjects in the control group, by contrast, gained weight on average during the study period.
Can mindfulness reduce belly fat? This is a small study, but it offers an intriguing look at how meditation practices for stress reduction may help reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, with a corresponding drop in abdominal fat -- without traditional dieting. Past animal studies have found a link between stress eating and where fat is deposited: Food preferences (even in rats) shift under stress to consuming more fat and sugar, with energy stores as fat moving to the body’s midsection. The researchers say their study suggests that mindfulness training in humans may help them cope better with stress and other negative emotions, which could in turn lead to a healthier distribution of body fat. Further research will be required to determine whether meditation instruction has this beneficial effect.Video: What is Cortisol, and What Does It Do?
Jennifer Daubenmier, Jean Kristeller, Frederick M. Hecht, Nicole Maninger, Margaret Kuwata, Kinnari Jhaveri, Robert H. Lustig, Margaret Kemeny, Lori Karan,and Elissa Epel. “Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study.” J Obes. 2011; 2011: 651936.
Nicole Vogelzangs, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, Yuri Milaneschi, Stefania Bandinelli, Luigi Ferrucci, and Brenda W. J. H. Penninx. “Urinary Cortisol and Six-Year Risk of All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 95: 4959–4964, 2010.