June 22, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team
In This Article
June 21 was International Yoga Day. All of this week, we are celebrating the positive impact of yoga on mental health. All our research articles and features will bring you these scientific insights.
Regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating, and people who eat mindfully are less likely to be obese, according to a new study.
Initial research findings published four years ago by Alan Kristal, Dr.P.H., and colleagues that regular yoga practice may help prevent middle-age spread in people of normal weight and may promote weight loss in those who are overweight motivated researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre. At the time, the researchers hypothesized that the weight-loss impact had less to do with the physical activity of yoga practice itself and more to do with heightened body awareness, notably a sensitivity to hunger and satiety.
Their original suspicion is supported by the follow-up study, which was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Mindfulness – a skill learned through Yoga
“In our earlier study, we found that middle-aged people who practice yoga gained less weight over a 10-year period than those who did not. This was independent of physical activity and dietary patterns. We hypothesized that mindfulness – a skill learned either directly or indirectly through yoga – could affect eating behaviour,” said Kristal, associate head of the Cancer Prevention Program in the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.
The study’s findings revealed that persons who ate mindfully—that is, those who were conscious of their eating and stopped when they were satisfied—weighed less than those who consumed food mindlessly when they weren’t hungry, or as a reaction to anxiety or despair. The researchers also discovered a substantial correlation between practicing yoga and mindful eating, although they found no connection between other forms of exercise, including jogging or walking.
Mindfulness in eating leads to less weight gain over time
“These findings fit with our hypothesis that yoga increases mindfulness in eating and leads to less weight gain over time, independent of the physical activity aspect of yoga practice,” said Kristal, who is also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
Yoga, according to Kristal, who has been a devotee of the practice for the past 15 years, cultivates mindfulness in a variety of ways, including holding a physically demanding pose while observing the discomfort in a non-judgmental manner, with an accepting, peaceful mind, and a concentration on the breath. “This ability to be calm and observant during physical discomfort teaches how to maintain calm in other challenging situations, such as not eating more even when the food tastes good and not eating when you’re not hungry,” he said.
Kristal and colleagues created a 28-item survey called the Mindful Eating Questionnaire to evaluate whether yoga enhances awareness and mindful eating.
- disinhibition – eating even when full;
- awareness – being aware of how food looks, tastes, and smells;
- external cues – eating in response to environmental cues, such as advertising;
- emotional response – eating in response to sadness or stress; and
- distraction – focusing on other things while eating.
A scale from 1 to 4 was used to rate each question, with higher scores denoting more attentive eating. More than 300 people were given the questionnaire at various locations in the Seattle area, including yoga studios, gyms, and weight-loss programs. Most study participants—more than 80%—were female, educated, and Caucasian, with an average age of 42. Weight, height, yoga practice, walking for exercise or transportation, and other forms of moderate and vigorous activity were all self-reported by participants.
Over 40% of the individuals practiced yoga for more than an hour each week, 46% walked for exercise or transit at least 90 minutes each week, and over 50% participated in more than 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week.
Yoga practice keeps body mass indices low
Given that the study sample was purposely made up of individuals who were physically more active than the overall U.S. population, the average weight of the study participants was within the normal range. Participants who practiced yoga had lower body mass indices on average (23.1 vs. 25.8, respectively) than those who did not.
Higher overall scores on the mindfulness questionnaire (as well as in each of the questionnaire’s categories) were linked to lower BMIs, which shows that mindful eating may be crucial for maintaining weight over the long term, according to Kristal.
“Mindful eating is a skill that augments the usual approaches to weight loss, such as dieting, counting calories, and limiting portion sizes. Adding yoga practice to a standard weight-loss program may make it more effective,” said Kristal, whom himself scored high on the mindful-eating survey and has a BMI within the normal range.
Mindful eating can empower individuals to build positive relationships with food
As time goes on, Kristal and colleagues propose that their Mindful Eating Questionnaire, the first instrument of its kind to characterize and quantify mindful eating, may be helpful in clinical practice and research to understand and promote healthy dietary behaviour.
“Beyond calories and diets, mindful eating takes a more holistic approach that can empower individuals to build positive relationships with food and eating, said first author Celia Framson, M.P.H., R.D., C.D., a former graduate student of Kristal’s – and former yoga teacher – who now works with adolescents with eating disorders at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “The Mindful Eating Questionnaire offers a new and relevant dimension for measuring the effectiveness of dietary behaviour interventions. It also encourages nutrition and medical practitioners to consider the broad scope of behaviour involved in healthy eating,” she said.
Other authors on the paper included Denise Benitez, owner of Seattle Yoga Arts; Alyson Littman, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the UW School of Public Health and Department of Veterans Affairs; Steve Zeliadt, Ph.D., of VA Puget Sound Healthcare; and Jeanette Schenk, R.D., a research dietitian in the Hutchinson Center’s Cancer Prevention Program.
June 22, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team June 21 was International Yoga Day. All of this week, we are celebrating the positive impact of yoga
Materials provided by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Framson et al. Development and Validation of the Mindful Eating Questionnaire. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009; 109 (8): 1439 DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.006
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre. “Regular Yoga Practice Is Associated With Mindful Eating.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 August 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090803185712.htm>.
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