Make Like the Marines (and Meditate)

Learn how meditation may improve your health and aid weight loss.
Maybe you’re one of those guys who thinks meditation is fine for crunchy-granola hippies, but for a busy, hard-charging dude like yourself, it’s a waste of time.
Well, try explaining that to the 31 United States Marines who prepared for a 2008 deployment to Iraq by learning to meditate.

The Marines were part of a study finding that participating in an eight-week pre-deployment mindfulness-meditation course led to better sleep, more resiliency and less stress during that period, compared to the 17 Marines in the same unit who did not take the course. The study, published in the peer-reviewed journals Emotion and Cognitive and Behavioral Practice in January 2010 and November 2011 respectively, is one of many suggesting that meditation promotes general psychological health and mitigates depression and anxiety. Studies have also found that meditation can decrease blood pressure, alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses, and help maintain a healthy weight.

The meditating Marines are the latest in a long line of service members, firefighters, athletes, coaches and other decidedly testosteroned types to tout the benefits of meditation. Other proponents include champion boxer Vijender Singh, winner of a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Jackson, who has won 11 NBA championships — more than any other coach in history — famously led his players through pregame meditations.

Still skeptical?
So was Luis Camacho, a noncommissioned officer who was part of the study at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia.

“Initially, we all thought it was kind of strange,” Camacho recalls. But opinions changed when the Marines learned that meditation doesn’t necessarily entail chanting in an incense-scented room full of bearded bohemians. The Marines learned to practice mindfulness, or the act of consciously focusing your attention on the present moment without judging it or trying to change it. That can mean anything from spending a few minutes noticing your breath to paying extremely close attention to every bite of a meal.

Researchers instructed Camacho and the other Marines to listen to a guided meditation recording that had them slowly focus on each part of their bodies, “from our feet planted on the floor to how the tops of our heads were feeling at that moment,” Camacho says.
Camacho says he and a small group of other Marines would often gather in a van — one of the only places they had access to a CD player — and listen to the recording together during breaks in their training, wearing their camouflage gear, eyes closed. “You’d get back to your day feeling mentally refreshed,” Camacho says.

Researchers also led the Marines through other mindfulness-meditation exercises, including one in which they ate a single raisin over a period of several minutes, appreciating its texture, taste and feel before finally swallowing it.

“My comment was that I felt bad for the raisin when I finally swallowed it,” Camacho says. “But that’s the whole point of mindfulness training — to build a connection with your surroundings, and to be aware of what you’re experiencing in any given moment.”

Camacho kept meditating through his six-month deployment, and noticed that it not only helped him “focus on a million things at once” during intense operations but also made it easier to stay alert during long periods without sleep.

Other Marines reported similar benefits, which is noteworthy considering they meditated an average of just 12 minutes per day.

Retrain your brain
The idea of training the brain to focus on every aspect of an eating experience is central to a series of studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that found a connection between mindfulness and weight management.

The studies, most of which were led by Jean Kristeller, professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana State University, and coauthored by Ruth Q. Wolever, director of research at Duke Integrative Medicine, found that applying mindfulness to mealtimes led to a slow, sustained weight loss among participants. Researchers also found that mindful-eating practices helped participants who had lost 10 percent or more of their body weight keep the weight off.

“People say, ‘I’m already aware that I eat french fries,’” Wolever says. “That’s not the issue. The issue is that there are dozens of microsteps leading up to those french fries, and during the meal, that you may not be aware of.”

Wolever suggests eating at least one meal per day alone, silently, letting go of distractions such as books, electronic devices and even conversation, so you can focus only on the experience of eating.

“In particular, it’s important to take the first five or six bites with great attention, and then to pause about 10 minutes into the meal to assess how hungry or full you are,” Wolever says.

She says that when participants start paying close attention to texture and flavor, along with subtle hunger and fullness signals, they often find that they need much less food than they would normally eat. Sometimes, they even discover food preferences they weren’t aware of.

That was the case for one study participant, an accountant who had long approached his weight-loss efforts solely by focusing on calories-in versus calories-out. Once the guy, who was initially skeptical of the mindful-eating concept, started using the mindfulness-meditation techniques he learned in the study, “he became the most enthusiastic participant, and ended up losing the largest amount of weight,” says Kristeller, president and cofounder of The Center for Mindful Eating.

Similarly, Camacho said he and other Marines found that practicing mindfulness in one part of their lives led them to feel sharper and more aware in other areas, too.

“Quite a few of us could tell the difference in our own self-awareness pretty quickly, including when we ate meals,” Camacho says. “Pretty soon, you’re more conscious of everything.”

How to Get Started

Stop and think. Start by asking yourself if you’re hungry, and how hungry you are, before making the decision to eat. Sports psychologist Stephen Walker, who has counseled numerous athletes, including Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher, says even something as simple as a 20-second grace prior to eating can trigger the kind of mindfulness that helps people eat in a more controlled fashion.
Cultivate your inner gourmand. If the whole mindful-eating thing seems a little tedious to you, Kristeller suggests comparing it to the difference between attending a high-quality wine tasting and chugging as much wine as possible to get drunk. She says mindful eating is about getting more enjoyment out of your meals by cultivating a greater awareness and appreciation for their taste.

Check in. Megrette Fletcher, a registered dietitian and co-founder of The Mindful Eating Center, suggests creating “little speed bumps” in a meal by pausing to gauge your current hunger or fullness level. She compares the first sign of fullness to crossing the boundary line of a town. “You know that you can get off on any of the next five exits, and which one you choose depends on your desired destination,” Fletcher says. “In this case, it’s: How full do I want to be?”

Practice makes perfect. It’s not important to meditate for a long time, or to be 100-percent mindful of every bite of every meal. But it is important to be consistent. “Like any other skill, you have to practice it over and over for it to be natural and easy in use,” Wolever says.

Take a seat. Wolever recommends supplementing mealtime mindfulness with an actual sitting practice, starting with 10-minute sessions. She recommends listening to a guided meditation to get started. Many universities offer free guided mindfulness recordings, such as the ones on the University of Missouri’s Mindfulness Practice Center website, or on the University of California Los Angeles’ Mindful Awareness Research Center website .

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