A Benson-Henry Institute study finds combining mind-body techniques and telephone coaching helps people lose weight and eat healthier.

One of the best tools for weight loss could be your mind. Mind-body techniques combined with regular phone calls with a nutritionist can help people reduce their stress levels, lower their blood pressure and shed pounds, according to a study by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. The mind-body techniques involved included controlled breathing and meditation.

“We suspect that stress contributes to poor eating habits.”

The study followed 20 people receiving nutrition services at the Mass General Revere HealthCare Center for six months. About 80 percent of the participants were women. The average age was 58. Many reported busy lives as primary caregivers for children or grandchildren.

“It was definitely a stressed population,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, the BHI researcher who led the study. “We suspect that stress contributes to poor eating habits. So we wanted to study whether addressing that underlying stress would have an effect on weight.”

Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH
Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH

Weight Loss Impact

The study attempted to reduce stress by having a nutritionist check in with patients by phone to discuss individual weight-loss challenges and by training the nutritionist in mind-body techniques, which she could share with patients.

At the end of the study, participants noted a decrease in perceived stress. The average weight loss was about 8 pounds, although one person lost 39 pounds. Participants also had changes in systolic blood pressure (the top number) from an average of 131 to 123, Dr. Dossett says.

The findings were “pleasantly surprising,” she says, adding that improving health indicators like weight and blood pressure can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Participants also consumed less sugary food and drinks as well as red and processed meats. They ate more fruits and vegetables.

Connecting with Patients

Melanie Pearsall, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE, a senior clinical nutritionist at Revere HealthCare Center, typically meets her patients face-to-face to offer weight-loss support. For the study, she had an initial in-person meeting with patients and then contacted them by phone.

“The first step is developing awareness. And, then, realizing you have the freedom to make a choice.”

At first, Ms. Pearsall was concerned that the phone would not offer patients the connection they needed. But she found that 20-minute phone calls once or twice a month worked. Participants were comfortable discussing changes to their food choices and exercise with her by phone, especially during the snowy winter when travel was difficult. For the study, Ms. Pearsall also received BHI training in mind-body awareness. She shared a CD of guided meditations and handouts with patients and directed them to phone apps.

But what was most helpful, she says, was talking about the mind-body connection with patients during phone calls. She recommended breathing and visualization techniques and emphasized the importance of getting enough sleep to improve weight loss and mood. She also covered traditional weight-loss methods such as healthy eating and exercise.

Using Mind-Body Techniques

Try this Mini Mind-Body Exercise:

  • Count slowly from 10 to zero, using one number for each out breath.
  • If you start feeling light-headed or dizzy, slow the counting.
  • When you get to zero, see how you are feeling.
  • If you are feeling better, great! If not, try it again.

For most, learning about the mind-body connection to weight loss was a new experience. “The first step is developing awareness,” Dr. Dossett says. “And, then, realizing you have the freedom to make a choice. You may be feeling the desire to have a snack, but realize you are really not that hungry. So what is that about? Can you calm that feeling with mindfulness, meditation or exercise?”

Researchers are still analyzing their results and cannot point to one factor as the reason participants lost weight.

Dr. Dossett says the study may have been successful because it offered participants many avenues to weight loss including support from a nutritionist in the convenient form of telephone calls; an introduction to mind-body techniques; and the benefit of having the nutritionist trained in mind-body medicine which may have improved her nutrition coaching.

Philanthropy Can Help

Dr. Dossett’s research into using the phone to connect with patients could pave the way for changes that make healthcare more convenient and easier to engage in mind-body practices.

The Bernadette T. Rehnert Charitable Trust and the Taff Family Fund supported this study. With additional funds, more nutritionists could be trained in mind-body skills and the effects on patient care, including weight loss, could be studied. The team could also explore whether adding a group session in mind-body techniques would result in more weight loss and healthy changes.

To support the research of Dr. Dossett and the BHI, please contact us.