Yoga Practice Is Associated With Mindful Eating
Regular yoga practice is
associated with mindful eating, and people who eat mindfully are less
likely to be obese, according to a study led by researchers at Fred
Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The study was prompted by
initial findings reported four years ago by Alan Kristal, Dr.P.H., and
colleagues, who found that regular yoga practice may help prevent
middle-age spread in normal-weight people and may promote weight loss
in those who are overweight. At the time, the researchers suspected
that the weight-loss effect had more to do with increased body
awareness, specifically a sensitivity to hunger and satiety than the
physical activity of yoga practice itself.
The follow-up study,
published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic
Association, confirms their initial hunch.
"In our earlier study, we
found that middle-age 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 behavior," said Kristal,
associate head of the Cancer Prevention Program in the Public Health
Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.
The researchers found that
people who ate mindfully – those were aware of why they ate
and stopped eating when full – weighed less than those who
ate mindlessly, who ate when not hungry or in response to anxiety or
depression. The researchers also found a strong association between
yoga practice and mindful eating but found no association between other
types of physical activity, such as walking or running, and mindful
"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.
Kristal, a yoga enthusiast
for the past 15 years, said that yoga cultivates mindfulness in a
number of ways, such as being able to hold a challenging physical pose
by observing the discomfort in a non-judgmental way, with an accepting,
calm mind and focus 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
To test whether yoga in fact
increases mindfulness and mindful eating, Kristal and colleagues
developed a Mindful Eating Questionnaire, a 28-item survey that
measured a variety of factors:
- 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.
Each question was graded on
a scale of 1 to 4, in which higher scores signified more mindful
eating. The questionnaire was administered to more than 300 people at
Seattle-area yoga studios, fitness facilities and weight-loss programs,
among other venues. More than 80 percent of the study participants were
women, well-educated and Caucasian, with an average age of 42.
Participants provided self-reported information on a number of factors,
including weight, height, yoga practice, walking for exercise or
transportation and other forms of moderate and strenuous exercise.
More than 40 percent of the
participants practiced yoga more than an hour per week, 46 percent
walked for exercise or transportation for at least 90 minutes per week
and more than 50 percent engaged in more than 90 minutes of moderate
and/or strenuous physical activity per week.
The average weight of the
study participants was within the normal range – not
surprising considering that the study sample intentionally consisted of
people more physically active than the U.S. population in general.
Body-mass index was lower among participants who practiced yoga as
compared to those who did not (an average of 23.1 vs. 25.8,
Higher scores on the
mindfulness questionnaire overall (and on each of the categories within
the questionnaire) was associated with a lower BMI, which suggests that
mindful eating may play an important role in long-term weight
maintenance, Kristal said.
"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,
who himself scored high on the mindful-eating survey and has a BMI
within the normal range.
Moving forward, Kristal and
colleagues suggest that their Mindful Eating Questionnaire, the first
tool of its kind to characterize and measure mindful eating, may be
useful both in clinical practice and research to understand and promote
healthy dietary behavior.
"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 masuring the effectiveness of dietary behavior
interventions. It also encourages nutrition and medical practitioners
to consider the broad scope of behavior involved in healthy eating,"
For more information on the
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, visit www.fhcrc.org