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Eating This Way Can Improve Heart Health

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Danny Kim for TIME

More mindful meals are linked to better measures of heart health

Scientific evidence continues to mount that mindfulness is a fount of health and wellbeing. Recent research finds that mindfulness meditation—a relaxation exercise of sitting still, bringing attention to the breath and noticing passing thoughts without judgment—can reduce physical and emotional pain, ease symptoms of migraines and help calm aggression in kids.

But even when you’re not sitting in meditation, living mindfully can have real health effects, suggests a new study published in the journal Obesity. The researchers found that learning how to eat mindfully was linked to better measures of heart health.

The researchers put 194 obese people on a five-month diet and exercise program, which was geared towards weight loss. In addition, some were given training in mindfulness, which took place during a 2.5-hour classes held about every week. In addition to meditation and yoga, this group acquired mindful eating skills, like learning to recognize the body’s hunger and fullness cues and differentiating physical cravings for food from emotional ones. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between being stressed and hungry,” says Jennifer Daubenmier, assistant professor at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the study. The mindfulness group sometimes ate meals during class as an exercise, stopping every so often to assess how hungry or full they were.

Another exercise was to eat a raisin using all of the body’s senses: looking at it, holding it, smelling it, tasting it, chewing it. “It’s not our usual eating behavior, which often can be very automatic,” says Daubenmier. Critical, too, was helping people be kinder to and more accepting of themselves. “Many people who are overweight feel shame or guilt if they do overeat,” Daubenmier says. “We recognize that that’s part of the process and it’s an opportunity to learn about one’s patterns, not to blame oneself.”

To compensate for all this extra learning time, the researchers gave the control group additional information on nutrition and exercise.

After the program, the researchers waited a year. “Prior research has shown that mindful eating programs can improve eating behaviors, but we don’t really know about the longer term impact after the program ends,” says Daubenmier. “When people are left on their own, do they just resume their own habits?”

The results suggest that many stick with it. People in the mindfulness group lost an average of 3.7 pounds more than people in the control group. That effect wasn’t statistically significantly different from those in the control group. But when they looked at certain risk factors for type-2 diabetes and heart disease—including fasting glucose levels a year after the program ended and triglyceride levels a year after the program began—they did find a significant difference. Those improvements were likely due to lower stress, weight loss or better food choices, the authors speculate. “We felt that perhaps this mindfulness program was preventing an increased risk of diabetes,” Daubenmier says.

Intriguing as the finding is, more research in larger groups of people is needed. And while meditating on your next meal may not be the secret to major weight loss, there’s initial evidence that it could indeed have some real benefits.

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