Xavier Magazine

Mindful Health

Judi Godsey did not have to look far to see the devastating effects of extreme poverty.

Most of the people in her home in McCreary County, Ky.—a beautiful part of the country in the rolling Appalachian foothills near Lake Cumberland—were extremely poor, and it showed in their health.

A lot of the adults smoked and had poor eating habits, which led to excessive cases of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. By high school, a lot of her friends had picked up the deadly habits as well.

She even saw it at home. They weren’t poor—her father had a good job working with machinery—but he was a smoker and died of a heart attack at age 47.

Now the assistant professor in the School of Nursing is working to do something about it. Godsey recently published a research article on using a therapy known as “mindfulness” to help people with obesity control their weight. It’s part of her research into solutions to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and improving health overall—especially in her part of Kentucky, where childhood obesity is third in the nation and adult obesity is seventh.

In spite of its beauty, she says, “It’s a very sick county.”

Wanting to improve her own life and help change the outcome for the people of Kentucky, she became the first in her family to graduate from college, earning a nursing degree at Northern Kentucky University while raising two children. She continued on, eventually earning her master’s in nursing and is now working on her doctorate. As she studied for her degrees, she developed an interest in researching population health issues, including how more than a third of adults in the U.S. are classified as obese and how it’s one of the largest health care threats facing American children today. 

“I wanted to understand the growing epidemic of obesity both locally and nationally.”

Her research ultimately led to her discovery of “mindfulness-based interventions” as a common-sense means of treating obesity and eating disorders. Her report, published in July in the
medical journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, finds that despite mounting evidence the therapy is an effective tool in treating eating disorders, there has been very little research into its use in treating obesity.

Mindfulness is a psychological term for being aware of one’s actions in the present moment, paying attention without judging yourself. It’s typically used to help a person change behaviors that are destructive or unhealthy, like stress or smoking. In weight management, Godsey says it can augment more typical strategies like changing one’s diet or adding regular exercise.

But that’s not what’s happening in most cases. Despite some pocket studies that have had promising results, the therapy is rarely used as a method of weight management. It’s time for that to change, she says.

“The literature supports its use,” she says. “While obesity rates are skyrocketing, this study suggests we need to incorporate alternative methods into current weight loss strategies and find a new way of thinking about an old problem.”

She recommends starting with children, who can be taught healthy behaviors like the importance of brushing teeth. Mindfulness intervention would teach them to think about what they choose to eat and why. What are the triggers? Feeling sad or happy, depressed or anxious?

“It’s about the difference between eating the way we’ve always done it and changing that behavior. It’s about eating with purpose and intention, and thoughtful decisions that become engrained as mindful behaviors.”

The article drew a lot of attention from health professionals and is the journal’s eighth-most downloaded piece this year. “The paper draws attention to the fact there is a gaping hole to the way we approach the problem of obesity. It needs to be included in our national dialogue.”

It’s one that can also be applied to Godsey’s home in McCreary County. “It’s why I became a nurse,” she says, “to use what I’ve learned to help the people of my beloved Kentucky.” 

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