By Judson Brewer
“I gained insight today relating to the correlation between my exercise routine and my eating patterns,” she posted on our online community.
What correlations is she talking about?
Our brains are set up to learn. From an evolutionary perspective, when we come upon a good source of food or water, it is helpful to remember where it is. When we see something dangerous, remembering that is helpful too. And this reward-based learning system in its most basic form has three elements: trigger, behavior, reward. We see berries, we eat them, and if they taste good, we lay down a memory to come back for more (see figure below).
Stress and emotional eating habit loopCOPYRIGHT 2015 JUDSON BREWER. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Fast forward to modern day where food is everywhere -our brains still have this same reward-based learning system. Called positive and negative reinforcement in modern psychology, a lot more is known about how this system works. This is the good news. The bad news is that over time, when we learn to pair triggers that aren’t hunger-based with the same reward we get from eating sugar, we are in for trouble. For example, if we like chocolate, yet are feeling lonely or stressed, our brain might say to us, “hey, why don’t you eat some chocolate, you’ll feel better.” We eat the sweet, and learn that if we’re sad or stressed out, we just need to eat some chocolate (or whatever our sugar fix is) and we’ll feel better. No wonder obesity is one of the leading causes of morbidity in the US.
Interestingly, mindfulness training seems to be emerging as a possible way to specifically target this habit loop. Mindfulness helps us see more clearly so we can be on the lookout for how we might be literally feeding these stress eating habit loops. Each time we do, they get stronger. Each time we notice that we’re about to indulge, and step out of the loop, it gets weaker. For example, someone in our program wrote, “I am really seeing how the habit loop has driven my life with food.”
How can mindfulness help us step out of this loop? When we pay careful attention to our cravings, we can start to see really clearly what they are made up of – simply thoughts and body sensations. Importantly, with this awareness, we can notice cravings as they arise, see how they change from moment to moment (instead of lasting “forever” as some of my patients have described). As a result, we can stay with them and ride them out instead of getting sucked into them, and feed our habit loops. As an example, one of our participants commented, “[I] was again able to ride out my mid-morning craving for soda.”
Is there science behind this? We have designed and now studied our app-based program called Eat Right Now (www.goeatrightnow.com), to specifically give daily bite-sized mindfulness training that help us get out of our unhealthy habits of stress and emotional eating. Through videos, animations, and in the moment exercises, people learn the difference between stress and hunger, and also learn how to not feed the habit loop of stress eating. We also pair this with an online community and a weekly live web-based check in. These elements are important because unlike traditional diet programs, we don’t encourage people to force themselves to restrict their food intake. We simply help them see what rewards they’ve learned to associate with emotional eating, and change their relationship to it. We can support people as they go through their journey of changing their relationship to eating to make sure they really are understanding the mindfulness practices, instead of trying to “think” there way to changing their eating habits. And the results are promising: in our first study, led by Ashley Mason, PhD at UCSF, we’ve found that mindfulness training delivered via Eat Right Now shows significant reductions in craving-related eating. Individuals who used the program still had cravings, yet they learned how to relate to them differently than indulging in stress-eating behavior by using mindfulness tools learned in the program to ride them out.
So, these early studies suggest that with a bit of training in mindfulness, we can first recognize and then learn to step out of our old habit loops of eating. One bite at a time.