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How does Mindfulness Achieve Weight Loss?

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Mindfulness and Weightloss, How does Mindfulness Achieve Weight Loss?

The personal training industry has the idea of meal-planning all wrong. At least, it has an unrealistic idea.

Nutrition Coaching vs. Meal Planning

The ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer course discusses nutritional coaching which is about personal trainers listening to their clients to find out the needs and goals; learning the client’s current lifestyle; discovering what’s important to them; and working alongside each client to create an approach that’s unique -- a plan that fits into their lifestyle and helps them achieve their results.

Yet many trainers will still make meal plans that look like this:

Meal 1:  ½ cup oatmeal, ½ cup strawberries, 6 egg whites

Meal 2:  1 cup green vegetables, 6 oz. baked chicken breast

Meal 3:  1 cup brown rice, 1 cup green vegetables, 8 oz. baked salmon

Meal 4:  Whey protein shake

Meal 5:  1 large baked sweet potato, 1 cup steamed broccoli, 8 oz. steak

There’s nothing wrong with this meal plan except it’s unreasonable for the average client.

Clients will stick to a meal plan for a short period of time because they’re motivated at the prospect of losing weight and ‘getting in shape.’ But extrinsic motivation won’t push clients through the hard times -- like work stress or family emergencies. We have to keep in mind, will power is a limited commodity and if the goal is to help clients make a lifestyle shift, then we need to help them make better choices and create healthier habits.

A necessary history lesson

In the early 1960s, Dr. Aaron T. Beck started researching depression. He found his patients were experiencing regular, consistent streams of negative thoughts that contributed to their overall depressed condition.

Where did those negative thoughts come from?

Pessimism is a learned behavior, it can also occur if the brain’s right hemisphere is more active or attentive than then left 4, or it can be a character trait.

Beck helped patients identify and evaluate negative thoughts. Eventually, they began to feel better. This was the start of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

Many clients will have a habit of emotional eating because often food is viewed as a source of comfort -- ice cream with besties after breaking up with a boyfriend (social facilitation), cake to celebrate a birthday or retirement (social comparison), buttered popcorn at the movies (distraction). Emotional eating is a very difficult habit to break but cognitive behavior therapy is successful in treating emotional eating.

So, the problem isn’t the meal plan. It’s the psychology behind adhering to a meal plan. One way to combat this is to help clients deal with the triggers and emotions that cause them to make bad choices.

This is where CBT comes in. Whenever an individual feels a strong craving for a food, they are advised to stop and consider the thought processes going on at that moment.

  • What emotions am I feeling?
  • When was the last time I ate?
  • What was the last thing I ate?

After identifying thoughts, feelings and current circumstances, the individual then evaluates them.

  • Is the emotion positive or negative?
  • Will food satisfy this craving or could I do something else to satisfy myself?
  • Am I craving food because I’m actually hungry?
  • At my last meal, did I eat a healthy balance of foods to prevent a craving so soon after eating?

Over a period of practice, patients were able to reduce emotional eating and lose weight.3

Should you pay attention to the ‘Mindfulness’ trend?

The buzzword, mindfulness, is a mash-up of CBT and meditation. We know the value of CBT to help control emotional triggers that lead to stress eating. And meditation is also a useful tool for combating stress with a well-known, positive influence on human behavior. Daily meditation improves resiliency, increases feelings of well-being, and reduces stress. All of these lead to improved quality of life and improved health markers.

But meditation has undergone a Western make-over, popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn and known as “mindfulness”. In Kabat-Zinn’s own words, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” We should all pay attention to this trend.

The key to using mindfulness to treat emotional eating is that you pay attention in a ‘nonjudgmental’ way. When you teach a client how to control judgmental tendencies about their thoughts, emotions, and actions they can evaluate them and learn to make better goal-related decisions.

Here’s a practical way to put it into action for your clients.

A Case Study

You have a 32-year-old female client who wants to lose 30 pounds for her wedding and she’s got 10 months to do so.

Step One:

Rather than put her on a restrictive, time- and preparation-intensive meal plan like the one previously demonstrated, offer alternatives to the macronutrient-dense foods like pasta, cupcakes, and bacon, which she loves. Suggest she reduce the portion-size of pasta, add a serving of sautéed vegetables, and opt for tomato vs. cream sauce. When it comes to cupcakes, make sure she purchases only one -- not the 6- or 12-pack -- and that she scrape off most of the frosting before she takes her first bite. What about the bacon? Have her balance her intake with whole foods -- like greens, berries or fruit -- to make the meal more nutritionally dense.

These substitutions will help her get more balanced nutrition, which means more energy for fitness-related activities. But more importantly, with each substitution she makes, she’ll feel empowered to make healthier decisions to support her weight-loss goals.

Step Two:

It is inevitable that your client will have a moment of weakness and eat a cupcake (440 kcal) with her frappuccino (430 kcal) and chopped salad (>500 kcal).

Don’t ignore or downplay the issue. Face it together and have your client evaluate the situation -- non-judgmentally. Figure out what caused her to make the decision. Maybe she didn’t realize the caloric value of each item. This is fine and presents an opportunity for her to learn about calories and macronutrients, using them to her advantage. Also, recommend she research her food choices or keep a more detailed food log to track her choices.

Maybe it was distraction: she ordered her ‘usual’ without thinking. This is normal but she can avoid this in the future with your help. Discuss ways to bring her awareness to the menu and her choices while in similar situations.

Maybe it was stress: like financial or feeling “fat”.  Emotional eating is a powerful habit and difficult -- but not impossible -- to break. Help her identify the trigger emotions and diffuse them so she can gain control.

Continue educating your client to substitute poor choices for better and celebrate the progress they make. As the big day gets closer,  work together to determine if she would benefit from a more structured meal plan. Perhaps she’s lost the weight, but wants to see more tone. Then a ‘traditional’ meal plan may be appropriate to maximize her time in the gym and she’ll be ready to follow your recommendations because:

You helped her build self-efficacy by creating a program where she could set and achieve small successes along the way.

You taught her how to identify and overcome negative self-talk through self-awareness and questioning.

She understands the benefits of a healthier lifestyle so she will see your meal plan for what it is -- a temporary means to an end; looking perfect on her big day.


Christina Estrada


1. To Message or Browse? Exploring the Impact of Phone Use Patterns on Male Adolescents’ Consumption of Palatable Snacks, Ethan Teo, Daniel Goh, Kamalakannan M. Vijayakumar and Jean C. J. Liu. Frontiers in Psychology. 08 January 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02298

2. Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Health Publishing. February, 2012.

3. An exploratory study of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for emotional eating. Emily Levoy, Asimina Lazaridou, Judson Brewer, Carl Fulwiler. Appetite. 109 (2017) 124-130.

4. The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism. David Hecht. Experimental Neurobiology. September 2013. 22(3). 173-199. Doi: 10.5607/en.2013.22.3.173.


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