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How a Mindfulness-Based Approach to Eating Can Change Your Brain

Do you ever feel like thoughts about food are ‘hijaking’ your brain, even when you’ve already eaten? Does it seem like you can’t totally figure out why you’re eating sometimes-or that you can’t figure out the difference between true hunger and cravings? If so, you’re not alone.

A term that’s often thrown around in public health is ‘obesogenic environment’, which is defined as an environment that ‘overwhelms the physiological controls that normally maintain energy balance and body weight’ (source). An ‘obesogenic’ food environment is characterized by the “widespread availability of low cost, energy-dense, highly-palatable, foods and beverages, and an abundance of external cues that keep thoughts of these foods and beverages almost constantly in mind”. In other words, much of the food in most of our grocery stores and our overall food environment creates lots and lots of ‘external’ cues for eating that don’t really have to do with hunger or nutritional needs (source).

Part of what makes eating so confusing are the number of ‘external cues’ around us. Think of ‘external cues’ as factors that influence eating behavior that don’t have to do with actual hunger or need for nutrients. There are lots of external cues in environments where food is overly available, where external cues seem to override and/or undermine internal signals. There are PLENTY of these ‘external cues (source), which include: 

  • Food habits
  • Seeing food
  • Portion sizes & the type of plate that we use to eat with
  • Distractions which can make it more difficult to pay attention to the act of eating
  • Eating in response to stress 
  • Social norms (what others are doing)
  • How much others eat around us

Even seeing a food picture or a food word can be enough to trigger the brain’s core eating network, including brain areas that process information such as taste and reward (source). This is not a ‘bad’ thing- we are conditioned to eat because eating is essential to survival! The trouble is when triggers to eat become dysregulated (which can apply to either under OR overeating).

Keesman et al., 2017 (source) shares a common experience:  “As an example, consider having just come home from a long day of work, sitting on the couch, and watching TV. If you often eat chips in such a situation, this may trigger simulations of consumption, for instance consisting of the taste of chips, grabbing them, and the hedonic enjoyment of eating. This process may then induce all sorts of reactivity, such as thoughts of consumption and cravings to eat chips.  Being immersed in these experiences and continuing to elaborate on them, such as on the potentially good feeling of eating the chips, further increases this reactivity, such that you may find yourself wandering to the kitchen in search of a bag of chips.”

This is why I often talk about how ‘self-control’ is overrated. Fighting against a desire to eat or cravings often does not address the reasons for eating and can sometimes just lead to more cravings and compulsive eating, instead of less. In order to successfully navigate a challenging food environment, mindfulness and self-regulation are critical skill sets. 

What happens to your brain with a mindfulness based approach? Areas of the brain associated with craving and pleasure circuitry can be targeted to help you ‘separate’ yourself from the food triggers that might otherwise lead to binge or overeating. Among a review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), 86% of the reviewed studies reported improvements in binge eating, emotional eating, external eating & dietary intake. How does mindfulness help? Imagine if, instead of feeling overwhelmed with cravings or compulsive eating, you could understand triggers for eating that are not related to hunger as passing mental events that can be assessed and understood before you make a decision to eat. 

We all eat for many reasons-adapting a mindfulness based approach to food and eating with plenty of practice, over time, can help change your approach to food, strengthen your ‘internal’ appetite control system & reduce reactivity to external food cues. If you do consciously choose to eat for a reason other than hunger (enjoyment, social circumstances), approaching the experience mindfully, without negative judgement, can prevent ‘overcompensation’ (like ‘I already blew it, so so what’) later. According to a summary by O’Reilly et al (2014) from a review of mindfulness-based interventions for eating behavior, mindfulness practices improve awareness of emotional and sensory cues, which may be important for altering one’s relationship with food. (source)

Some of the brain areas proposed to be involved in one model of mindfulness (Mindfulness-Based Relapse prevention) are (source): 

  • Increased self-awareness (including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula)
  • Increased present moment awareness (dorsolateral PFC, anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum, insula, amygdala)
  • Develop and implement new ways to approach discomfort (ventromedial PFC, dorsal striatum, amygdala)
  • Reduced reactivity to substance cues (anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum)

Practicing mindfulness can take different forms, but is generally accepted as containing two main components (source):

  • regulation of attention to focus and maintain awareness on a stimulus 
  • meta-cognitive insight that all experiences are impermanent (i.e. that thoughts will pass and can be examined)   

Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. in Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life states:  “We are in the early stages of a Brain Plasticity Revolution. That revolution begins with a clearer understanding that the brain’s machinery is being continually rewired and functionally revised , substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life. You have a remarkable built-in ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are, at any age.”

My perspective is that, to be intelligent and empowered eaters, understanding and balancing response both internal and external triggers for eating allows for choices that are ‘in sync’ with our own personal health-supportive balance between nutritional needs, pleasure from food & our short- and long-term health goals.

About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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