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Study links 'mindfulness' to lower body weight

Getting in touch with your feelings may help you lose a few.

A study from Brown University researchers suggests that a heightened, but nonjudgmental, awareness of one's thoughts, feelings, sensations and actions is correlated with lower weight and a lower risk of obesity.

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Researchers led by Brown epidemiologist Eric Loucks assessed 400 participants of different ages, ethnicities and walks of life, from a larger study called the New England Family Study. The team asked participants a series of questions about their level of or "dispositional mindfulness," which they defined as "ability to attend in a non-judgmental way to one's physical and mental processes during ordinary, everyday tasks."

To gauge levels of this inherent everyday awareness in study participants, the researchers gave them a commonly used 15-item questionnaire called the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale.

The MAAS asks test-takers questions, such as "I find it difficult to stay focused on what's happening in the present" and "I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention or thinking of something else." Test-takers respond by picking a number from 1 (almost always) to 6 (almost never), and then their total score is tabulated.

People who score the highest on the scale thus reported higher levels of everyday awareness. People who scored lower on that scale reported lower levels of mindfulness. The lower scorers were 34 percent more likely to be obese and had an extra pound of belly fat, on average.

The team published its findings Tuesday in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Other research on MAAS suggests higher scorers also tend to be less socially anxious and less self-conscious than those on the other end of the spectrum. That suggests that the lower weights are not driven by low self-esteem or fear of disapproval.

The effect is not huge — Loucks calls it a "small to medium" effect — but it is significant. Loucks also said it may be possible to increase the effect through mindfulness training.

"A big piece of mindfulness is getting to know ourselves," Loucks told CNBC. "What are our thoughts and physical sensations and emotions, and what are they as we change our environment? Bit by bit, it seems as people's awareness increases in a nonjudgmental, curious way, we start to get data in about what allows our bodies to thrive, and what doesn't."

The study has limitations. First, it only shows correlation between thinness and mindfulness, not necessarily a causal relationship. The study is also somewhat limited by the varying reliability of the answers participants gave to the questions — people often say they exercise more than they actually do, for example.

Other studies of mindfulness treatments have indicated that encouraging such thinking can reduce weight and help with eating disorders, such as binge eating.

Loucks' study is one of the first of its kind. He said there needs to be more research before he is completely convinced of a cause-and-effect between mindfulness and healthy eating.

But the evidence is encouraging.

"When we start to see evidence in two different types of study designs," Loucks said, "each with their own advantages and disadvantages, that makes me a little more optimistic that there is something going on."

Correction:
This story has been updated to reflect the proper name of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.