Regular yoga practice may help middle−aged people maintain a normal weight and help overweight people shed pounds. A recent study suggests that yoga’s beneficial effect on weight is the result of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. And when it comes to eating, mindless eating — eating when already full, eating out of habit or eating just because the food is there — can really put on the pounds. The study indicates that yoga helps keep weight off because it teaches mindfulness, and yoga practitioners apply this to their eating habits, being more aware of why they are eating and stopping when they are full.

Yoga seems to keep pounds off by making you not want to eat more in the first place.

Diets are about forcing yourself to stop eating when you want to eat more. Yoga seems to keep pounds off by making you not want to eat more in the first place. This awareness could be very useful to dieters. Yoga programs might work well hand in hand with conventional dieting programs.

The 2009 study, by Alan Kristal, associate head of the cancer prevention program in the Public Health Sciences Division in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, looked at information from questionnaires filled out by over 300 people at various Seattle venues. These included yoga clinics, fitness centers and weight−loss programs. The questionnaire asked for basic physical information, as well as types and amounts of exercise performed and whether or not the participants practiced yoga. But its heart was a 28−item section on mindful eating. This scored respondents on various aspects of how they ate: did they eat when they were already full, how aware were they of how their food looked, smelled and tasted, did they eat in response to sadness and stress, etc.

Yoga practice was associated with mindful eating. No such association was found for other forms of physical activity. Those who practiced yoga had a lower BMI (23.1 to 25.8). And those who ate the most mindfully, according to the questionnaire, also had a lower BMI. This suggests that yoga lowers BMI or helps keep it low by encouraging mindful eating, a process that most likely also affects what sorts of foods people choose to eat, when they eat.

The study group consisted of people more physically active than the general U.S. population. More than 80% of them were Caucasian women with a higher than average education level. Their average age was 42. Even though this wasn't a particularly representative group, there's no reason to suspect that the results wouldn't apply to the population as a whole.

Yoga keeps the pounds off by changing how you view food. Viewed mindfully, that brownie no longer seems so attractive.

The results of the study were published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.