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More people turning to hypnosis for weight loss
Updated: 2005-09-06 09:22

Imagine a world where chocolate cake holds no temptation, where celery is an indulgence and food cravings float away in a balloon.

Dr. Brian Alman, right, has helped Cynthia Lewis, left, with weight loss through self hypnosis.
Now open your eyes to the trancelike world of Americans who are turning to hypnosis to drop extra poundage.

In a nation where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, some dieters are hoping hypnosis will finally break food's spell over them.

It's working for Cynthia Lewis, a San Diego resident who is no longer tempted to polish off a plate of cookies when she smells them baking.

"Now just smelling (the cookies) is enough," she said.

Despite its hokey, magic-show aura, hypnosis is used as an alternative treatment in medical institutions to manage everything from pain to smoking to weight loss.

And as waistlines continue to bulge, hypnotherapists say they're seeing more patients desperate for a way to control their eating.

"The country is getting fatter and fatter, so different weight-loss methods are getting more attention," said Jean Fain, a psychologist who uses hypnosis at Harvard Medical School's Cambridge Hospital.

In the past five years, Fain said, the number of patients she treats for weight loss has doubled. For many of those patients, hypnosis is a last resort.

That was the case for Lewis, who grew tired of dropping and gaining the same 30 pounds on various liquid diets.

Three months ago, she began seeing Brian Alman, who teaches self-hypnosis for Kaiser Permanente, the Oakland, California-based health insurer. So far, Lewis said the therapy has helped her change her lifestyle.

Generally, the hypnotic state is defined as a state of focused concentration -- a condition akin to being so absorbed in a good book that the outside world seems to fade away, said Guy Montgomery, president of the Society of Psychological Hypnosis, a division of American Psychological Association.

It's during this state that patients become more open to suggestion.

For a stress eater, Montgomery might tell patients to picture themselves in a relaxing place whenever they feel the impulse to overeat.

Whether hypnosis will bring results varies from person to person as in any other treatment, Montgomery said. "We don't view (hypnosis) as a stand-alone therapy, but as an additional technique," he said.

Kevin Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale, said it's probably the range of therapies that aids weight loss, not the hypnosis alone.

"The prevailing thought is that there's really not much to hypnosis for weight loss on its own," Brownell said. But people become so frustrated trying to lose weight that they give anything a try -- especially something that seems as simple as hypnosis, he said.

But for those who dreamed hypnosis might be the long-awaited magic weight-loss bullet, practitioners and patients alike caution that it's not that easy.

Patients often come to Fain hoping she'll snap her fingers and knock out their impulse to overeat. In fact, she said it can take months -- sometimes years -- to help patients get a handle on the underlying causes of their overeating.

For Lee Hubbard of Orange County, California, who learned how to go into a hypnotic state through Alman's tapes, hypnosis came easily.

Now whenever she feels like overeating, she takes a deep breath instead of reaching for the bowl of Hershey's Kisses. She closes her eyes for a moment and pictures herself walking toward the candy bowl. As she is about to grab a fistful, she instead pictures herself walking right past the bowl.

Hubbard remains fully awake -- she is simply calmer, focused and more relaxed.

"It's like a movie screen where you observe yourself in the situation. It lets you control the arena of your thought," she said.

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