I’ve been a dietitian for almost twenty years. But a couple years ago, I found myself moving into a different arena – yoga and meditation. I became a certified yoga instructor not because I necessarily wanted to teach yoga, but because I felt there was something in the teachings that would help my patients succeed at weight loss; time and time again, I would watch intelligent, dedicated individuals who were achieving their weight loss goals suddenly come undone by a minor bump in the road on their weight loss journey. What was going on?
Usually the derailment would come at a time of stress, such as a family illness, difficulty at work, or even something like a hectic holiday schedule. Then temptation would present itself:
“Wow, that (insert tempting food here) looks really amazing. But I shouldn’t, it’ll ruin my diet, and I’ve been so good. But I deserve it – things have been so crazy lately. Oh, what the heck, just this once.”
Inevitably, guilt would then ensue, fueling the drive to eat more (previously described in my discussion on all or nothing thinking). If left unchecked, the person would end up back at square one, right where they started – or even weighing more.
Obviously, this was not a problem of knowledge or ability. After all, the individual successfully lost weight initially. In fact, we read about people regaining weight all the time after dieting and often hear that maintaining weight loss can be more difficult than losing.
So what’s the solution? It all goes back to the mind. There is a saying in yoga that “we have a thousand thoughts in the wink of an eye.” But if that many thoughts are coming at us constantly, and we’re tired and run down and those tempting foods look so good, then how do we decide in the moment which thoughts to listen to, and which to ignore?
Around the time I was pondering this question, I came across an article about decision-making. Researchers say that we either make decisions in a “hot state” (impulsively) or “cold state” (logically). If I’m in a hot state my food choices might be affected by emotions, taste, smell, and convenience (i.e., I’ll eat the food I’m craving). If I’m in a cold state my choices will be largely guided by nutrition (i.e., I’ll be able to resist temptation). I thought of my patients who “fall off the wagon.” It’s clear they’re making choices in a hot state. But how did they get there and how do I get them out? Turns out, stress is a factor that causes you to move into a hot state, which is exactly what I was witnessing. And the ability to move out of that state is directly related to a person’s ability to handle stress, or their “available cognitive resources.”
That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation is known for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. But how does it do it? It’s not the meditation itself but the changes in the brain resulting from the meditation that cause the stress reduction. Studies show that meditators’ brains have increased size and functioning in the area responsible for cognition (more “available cognitive resources”) and the area of the brain relating to stress management actually becomes smaller because the brain can handle more, feeling that there is less stress to manage. Those two changes alone will allow a person to consciously move from a hot state decision-making process to a cold one. The end result? When you’re faced with temptation, you’ll be able to more easily resist.
Every day we ask our brains to do so much for us – every little task, every thought, every memory is amazingly executed or recalled in an instant. Yet we never take the time to give back. Meditation gives back – I think of it like exercise for the brain; yet whereas our bodies crave movement in a sedentary world, our minds crave stillness in a world where they’re constantly bombarded by sensory stimuli.
How do you start? First, download my free “Top 10 Tips for Meditation” (if you haven’t already). Next, pick a simple meditation to begin with, like the “First Meditation” described below, and don’t get discouraged if you find even that challenging; meditation is just extended concentration, but often our focus is scattered initially. Whatever your practice, though, the most important thing above all is consistency – do it daily. Even just five minutes a day can make a difference.
First Meditation: sit with your spine straight and eyes closed. Bring your awareness to the breath, but do not try to exaggerate the breath. Just be with it. Notice where the inhale ends, and the exhale begins; likewise, notice where the exhale ends, and the inhale begins. In this space between the inhale and exhale is stillness. Focus on this space. If your mind wanders, bring it back. Continue for your allotted meditation time.