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The findings may be explained at least in part by a drop in the participants' cortisol (the stress hormone) over the course of the training. Fat cells in the abdomen have four times as many cortisol receptors as fat cells elsewhere; when you're under stress, cortisol binds to those cells and triggers them to store more fat. "This effect evolved because it's useful in the short term," says researcher Elissa Epel, PhD—allowing you to quickly store energy to face a coming danger. "But it's bad, of course, in the long term."

Victoria Sheehan*, 46, was well aware of the dangers associated with her "apple shape" when she joined the UCSF study. Her weight and family history put her at risk for heart disease. But by the time the experiment ended, she had lost 25 ounces of belly fat. Sheehan recalls her turning point clearly: "One night I opened an e-mail that made me furious, and I found myself in front of the fridge. Then, all of a sudden, the mindfulness kicked in and I thought, What am I doing?" So she closed the door and walked away.

*Name has been changed.

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As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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