Help is at hand for those who cannot but reach out for that extra helping of festive treats and then suffer the holiday blues.

In a new study, professionals from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have urged women to be cautious of what they eat and also combat their stress levels as a proactive means to prevent them piling on the pounds during the festive season. The research, published online in the October issue of the Journal of Obesity, explained that managing stress and mindful eating can actually help in weight loss even in the absence of hardcore diet regimes.

The current investigation is part of ongoing UCSF research into how stress and the stress hormone - cortisol - are linked to eating behavior, fat and health.

You're training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns, to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example, said lead UCSF researcher, Jennifer Daubenmier, from UCSF's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.

The study investigated individual capabilities in recognizing hunger pangs, feelings of satiation and also taste. The researchers looked for changes in the amount of deep abdominal fat and overall weight. They also measured the levels of secretion of cortisol shortly after awakening, a time when cortisol peaks in those under chronic stress.

Cortisol secretion runs in a daily cycle and normally ramps up when we wake from sleep. However, it is also triggered by both real and perceived threats. Daubenmier explained that when we wake up and anticipate the day's events, experiencing them as stressful, cortisol secretion may spike even higher.

Among women in the treatment group, there were clear links between changes in body awareness, chronic stress, cortisol secretion and abdominal fat. Those who had greater improvements in listening to their bodies' cues, or greater reductions in stress or cortisol, experienced the greatest reductions in abdominal fat.

Among the subset of obese women in the study, those who received mindfulness training had significant reductions in cortisol after awakening and also maintained their total body weight, as compared to women in the control group who had stable cortisol levels and continued to gain weight. Also, women whose cortisol levels dropped were apparently able to sustain their overall body weight, without any further gain of body mass.

Participants included 47 severely stressed and obese women who were not on calorie-counting diets. No specific diets were allotted to the groups but they were educated on healthy eating habits and the importance of exercise.

Twenty-four of the 47 women were randomly assigned to mindfulness training and practice and the other 23 served as a control group.

The researchers used a scientifically tested survey to gauge psychological stress before and after the four-month study and recorded the women's fat and cortisol levels.

Daubenmier and her colleagues are teaching similar mindful eating techniques, through a separate study, for overweight pregnant women in low-income groups.

Pregnancy is a time when heavy women tend to gain an excessive amount of weight and later find it hard to lose the extra pounds. Furthermore, excessive weight gain during pregnancy can harm the baby's health, noted the researchers.

In this study we were trying to cultivate people's ability to pay attention to their sensations of hunger, fullness and taste satisfaction as a guide for limiting how much they eat, Daubenmier said, We tried to reduce eating in response to emotions or external cues that typically drive overeating behavior.

Daubenmier said the small study in pregnant women was in its preliminary stages and must be confirmed in ongoing, follow-up research.