Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Eating disorders are very common nowadays, sometimes causing extreme consequences on our health. We tend to overeat unhealthy snacks whenever we feel down, stressed, tired, or nervous. With mindfulness practice, we can rewire our eating habits.
Currently, there are lots of reasons why we tend to develop eating disorders.
It can partly be due to constant overload of information and fast-paced lives that we are living today. These factors have a tendency to make us feel stressed, down or anxious, which leaves us craving certain snacks.
And the varieties of snacks available everywhere and anytime really contribute to the fact that we give in to our cravings very often. In the long term, this can make us overweight.
It can also partly be due to social media, often showing us an unrealistic image of how our bodies should be, based on the people we look up to and follow. We therefore want to live up to the expectations, without knowing our own bodies' capabilities and not being aware of the fact that everyone is different.
This often results in the opposite effect - we restrict ourselves from food and sometimes even develop eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or orthorexia.
Oftentimes, it is the combination of the two:
We crave to eat all our snacks in front of TV and after a long day at work. And some nights we might just do that. Other nights we might feel bad about it and exercise extra hard on an empty stomach, thinking that we'll make up for it. Either case, we don't get enough nutrients that our bodies need, or reach the body goals that we strive for.
As you can probably guess, this is not good for our mental OR physical health. It is however very tricky to get out of such habits and develop healthy relationship with food, where we would feel hungry and eat nutritious meals only when we actually are physically hungry.
It would be amazing to get rid of the emotional eating and not crave junk food when we clearly don't need it. If it was easy, weight-loss industry wouldn't be blooming this much.
Is there a way to effectively rewire our brain into developing a healthy relationship with food?
The answer is YES! A recent study found an effective way that could really help solving the riddle of how to gain a real motivation to eat healthy and have a positive relationship with food. And the key factor in the study was (of course) mindfulness training (1).
Interestingly, but probably unsurprisingly, the standard treatment for obesity by dietary restrictions don't work in the long-term. It is estimated that 60% of people who have lost weight trough dieting, regain all or more of it (2).
While before, it was commonly thought that willpower is the key to improving eating behaviors, the researchers identified a number of pitfalls associated with the typical way of losing weight through improving willpower, where self-regulation becomes vulnerable (1):
- The brain tends to struggle in controlling the impulses after having performed a demanding task,
- Attention becomes diverted to something else, especially that has emotional element to it, weakening the willpower,
- Psychological stress makes us neglect our willpower,
- The individual is hungry, angry, lonely and/or tired.
Thus, the traditional way of changing eating habits through willpower may not be as effective and easily accomplishable as we have thought (1). It surely explains why we don't even think twice before we indulge in high calorie snacks whilst studying for an exam, or order large fries with our friends on Friday night after an intensive week at work.
There are clearly other, more powerful factors playing large roll in this, which are more connected to our emotional processing.
What the study found was that eating habits can be altered in a similar way to that of smoking cessation programs (1). We know that smoking addiction is not only purely physiological, but also includes emotional and social aspects, where people smoke in groups, as well as develop the habit of hand-to-mouth movement just to mention a few. That’s why it is so difficult to quit smoking and cessation programs seem to be effective.
Unhealthy eating habits, as mentioned before, should also be viewed from a more diverse perspective than just lack of willpower.
Smoking cessation programs are often done through mindfulness practices, such as RAIN = Recognize the craving, Allow it to exist, Investigate what it feels like in the body, Note the associated physical sensations from moment-to-moment. Now, the researchers found that eating habits could be effectively altered in a similar way (1).
Imagine that you have an important presentation to prepare for tomorrow. You are feeling so stessed and tired that your brain and body are craving something sweet RIGHT NOW. Without thinking twice, you find some chocolate and eat half of the bar, keeping in mind your goal to eat less sugar, but excusing your behavior since you really need the energy for that presentation. You manage to save the rest for about another hour. But as soon as you feel the sugar dip, you eat up the rest of the bar. This leaves you feeling even more stressed since now, not only are you nervous about the presentation, but also about the fact that you’ve failed your goals and have consumed an extra or at least 600 calories tonight. Surely I’ve been here more times than I’d like to admit...
What you could do in situations like this, is not to ignore your cravings by diverting your attention to work. Instead, it would be more helpful to take a little break and allow your body to fully feel the craving, in an observant way. You should not think about it or judge it, but rather observe what’s happening in your thoughts and how your body is feeling.
Such mindfulness training can therefore target the real issues and the reward systems in your brain, possibly updating your deep-wired reward values of the eating habits. This will result in a better and updated relationship with food and a long-term change in behavior (1).
This means that if you have lost weight, it is less likely to come back if you have practiced mindfulness during your weight-loss. If your aim was to gain weight and you have succeeded, you are also likely to stay at a constant weight by developing long lasting healthy eating habits.
Mindfulness helps you to establish a clear understanding of your eating habits, by just being aware of your cravings and the trigger points (1). For example, if you eat when you're stressed, next time you are stressed and are craving chocolate, chips or ice cream (or all of them at the same time), just try to embrace the feelings that you have and feel them without judgement or interpretation. Just allow yourself to feel and be in the moment.
This practice in the long term has the power to disrupt your habit loops and change them forever. As you face your problems inward, rather than trying to run away from them, you become empowered to make a real change on your life.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence on mindfulness and some techniques that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Brewer, J. A., Ruf, A., Beccia, A. L., Essien, G. I., Finn, L. M., van Lutterveld, R., & Mason, A. E. (2018). Can Mindfulness Address Maladaptive Eating Behaviors? Why Traditional Diet Plans Fail and How New Mechanistic Insights May Lead to Novel Interventions. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1418. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01418
2. Mann T., Tomiyama A. J., Westling E., Lew A.-M., Samuels B., Chatman J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. Am. Psychol. 62 220–233. 10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220