The trick to treating obesity may simply be teaching people how to eat their way to enlightenment, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Researchers from Brown University discovered that an inability to eat mindfully might be at the core of the obesity epidemic. They made this discovery after tracking 394 obese people between the years 1959 and 1974, all the while comparing how earlier experiences impacted the lives of participants as they years passed. Participants were also asked to fill out a 15-item questionnaire that measured for mindfulness, including questions like, "I find it difficult to stay focused on what's happening in the present," "I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else," and "I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later."

What do we mean when we say mindfulness, exactly? According to the University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, mindfulness is maintaining constant awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environments. By practicing mindfulness, a person can learn to stay in tune with what they're sensing in the present moment, rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

When researchers reviewed the questionnaires, they compared the answers to each participant's weight and abdominal fat — the results showed the less mindful a person was, the more likely they were to be both obese and have higher levels of abdominal fat.

Why Eating Meditation Works

The Cornell Food Lab has dubbed "mindless eating" as the opposite of mindfulness. Unlike more mindful eating habits, mindlessness leads people to overeat based on surrounding environmental cues. Without self-awareness, people eat without regards to the quality and quantity of food that passing their lips. But if people can take control of their mindless habits with ritualistic mindfulness, they may be able to improve their overall health. Practicing an eating meditation is one of the tricks to help get the mind focused on the present, instead of the past or future.

Meditative eating is aimed at creating a greater appreciation for food, which creates a more conscious relationship with food. Here's how it works: First, choose a food item, like an apple, and find a comfortable and quiet place to eat it. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Use all of the senses to focus on the apple's smell, color, texture, and then think about how the food was brought to your hands, whether it was grown on a farm or in a factory. Think of the farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, storekeepers, and the dozens of steps the food took to reach you.

The meditator should then recognize if the apple is connected with any feelings, associations, or memories. After thinking about the negative or positive relationship you have with the food, begin to lick or eat the food slowly and resist the urge to swallow. Think about how the food will nourish your body and provide you with energy as it is digested. In doing so, it builds respect for the food and makes a person pause before taking another bite, as opposed to eating without thinking.

There are 78.6 million obese adults in America today, and researchers believe practicing meditation could be the answer to training a person to be healthier in the long run. However, it'll take more than just 20 minutes of nibbling on an apple to make a permanent change. Being mindful of every aspect of your day, not just your meals, is the foundation of a healthier lifestyle. And for more on those types of meditation, click here.

Source: Loucks EB, Britton WB, Howe CJ, et al. Associations of Dispositional Mindfulness with Obesity and Central Adiposity: the New England Family Study. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2015.