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Mindfulness-based weight loss programs questioned

Weight loss programs that stress mindfulness -- self-awareness achieved by meditation and self-acceptance, paying attention to a body's hunger cues and learning to enjoy food at a slower pace -- are enjoying a surge in popularity.

But the latest research suggests this diet trend doesn't necessarily work. Or, at least, there isn't enough evidence to prove such techniques are effective, according to a retrospective analysis of 19 previous studies on mindfulness-based weight loss programs that was published Thursday in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

"There are many reasons to think mindfulness would be relevant for weight loss because people may have a range of behavioral and psychological responses to eating that mindfulness can address, including helping them slow down and focus on enjoying a meal," Charles Emery, professor of psychology at Ohio State and senior author of the study, said in a press statement."But our review of the research shows we still have a long way to go to provide convincing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness for weight loss and, especially, how it may work."

Thirteen of the studies examined weight loss among people who used meditative practices to help trim down. However, the researchers found these studies did not sufficiently track the cause-and-effect of mindfulness techniques and weight loss. The results of two studies set up to measure this connection were generally inconclusive. One of the studies was based on a program that lasted for only one session, while another used the approach with other unrelated techniques.

None of the papers -- 12 published in peer-reviewed journals and seven unpublished dissertations -- met the requirements of a randomized controlled trial that tracked mindfulness and weight loss from the beginning to the completion of the program.

However, Emery said that while the evidence doesn't necessarily back up the effectiveness of such programs, the findings indicate that mindfulness-based weight loss programs are worth further research. Nearly every diet and weight loss program involves a certain level of behavior modification, whether it's eating fewer carbs, getting regular exercise, drinking more water or stopping for a moment to savor the food in your mouth, so there's reason to believe mindfulness could make a difference.

In one mindfulness diet program, for example, an exercise involves eating a few raisins to become more fully aware of their flavor and how they change in the mouth over time.

The newly mindful Anderson Cooper

The goal of mindfulness -- to achieve a high level of self-awareness through certain meditation and behavioral practices -- is an inspired concept but one that is hard to reach in our relentlessly plugged in modern world. However, the popularity of these practices continues to soar.

This Sunday on "60 Minutes" Anderson Cooper gave mindfulness training a serious try -- putting down his mobile devices to focus on communication within himself rather than with the world at large. Cooper attended a meditation retreat where he learned meditation practices, and then visited with Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts to examine the impact meditation has had on his brain.

"I'm on mobile devices all day long," said Cooper. "I feel like I could go through an entire day and not be present. It's exhausting."

The benefits of finding techniques to be more 'present' in one's life seem apparent, but it will take more research to know what impact mindfulness can have on eating habits and Americans' constant quest for easy weight loss.

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