We all too often hear the phrase “mind over matter” when it comes to dealing with something challenging. And the mind certainly plays a huge role in so many of our behaviors, good and bad, eating especially. What we eat affects how we feel and how we feel affects what we eat. There is mindless eating, emotional eating and much more. We have some advice on how to stay mindful during the holidays.
Recently, on HealthSource Radio, we had our guests talk to us about new ways of eating healthy and the mind/body connection. Read or listen below to our interview with Bridget Shea, a registered dietician, and Audrey Monroe, a licensed clinical social worker from the UVM Medical Center Community Health Team.
So let’s start with the science of eating. What is happening hormonally or chemically when we eat or when we want to eat?
Bridget Shea: There is so much going on chemically when we eat. It really is amazing. Certain components of food can affect our brain chemistry leaving us wanting more and pushing us to eat more than we actually physically need to. And those three primary components are fat, sugar and salt. Think about your favorite foods and I’m willing to bet that they all contain at least one of those elements if not two or all three.
First off, sugar. We are born with an innate preference for sweet, and this has been shown to be universal and evident among infants and children worldwide. It is thought that this preference helps ensure acceptance of food sources including breast milk and fruit as we evolve. This preference for sweet was viable for our survival because sugar is a necessary fuel for all the cells of our body.
In addition, humans love the taste of fat. It makes everything taste better and part of why we like it so much could be because it provides a lot of calories, which is obviously advantageous when we were evolving and food was not available. So people who were better able to recognize and seek out fats were more likely to survive.
Lastly, there’s salt. When we taste salt in the case that there is sodium present in the food, and that’s a mineral that’s essential for survival. Just like with sugar, when we eat a high-sodium diet, we tend to have heightened taste preference for salt.
So foods that contain all three, especially in large amounts, are highly palatable to most people. Think of french fries, salty and oily, dipped in salty-sweet ketchup, or peanut butter cups, which are sweet and fatty chocolate with salts and fat-filled peanut butter, so those foods hit on all three of the components. When consumed, foods like these cause the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s pleasure sector. As we grow and are exposed to foods, and have diverse food experiences, we create neurological pathways in our brain, and eventually, the brain can become wired such that even just talking about food can cause dopamine pathways to become activated in the brain.
When food is this rewarding and has such strong impacts on our brain chemistry, and at the same time we have an innate drive to seek it out due to the conditions under which we evolved, it can make it very difficult to live in the modern world with very easy access to highly caloric and palatable foods.
Is there any hope for dieting then based on all of that?
Bridget Shea: Yeah. So the key with managing these really rewarding foods is moderation and finding balance. So eating less processed foods that aren’t as engineered can help because they’re super palatable, that way we can adjust to more nuance flavor so like the natural sweetness of fruit or cinnamon or whole grains, or the saltiness of seafood versus searching out very intense flavors that we’re used to through processed foods that are more engineered to taste really good to us.
What role then do sleep and exercise play when it comes to diet and food?
Bridget Shea: We know that getting enough exercise and quality sleep are both integral to our overall health and well-being, but they also do really impact our eating. Although exercise can increase appetite for some, it does help reduce stress hormones, and it can increase the feel-good hormones, including serotonin and dopamine. Some people find that when they’re doing more exercise, they feel more motivated overall, and especially to work on other health behaviors like eating better.
Something that I think is really interesting is that research has shown that the way we think about exercise can actually impact how we eat after we exercise. So if we view exercise as work, instead of as something enjoyable, we might be more inclined to snack afterwards to reward ourselves. This is why I always encourage patients to find ways to exercise that they enjoy so it doesn’t feel like work. Also, if people enjoy exercise, they actually get more physiological benefit from doing it, and we know that exercise improves mood by reducing stress, anxiety, depression and all of those things can also impact how we eat.
As for sleep, most of us could stand to get more, and lack of sleep impacts how we choose to eat. When we are even slightly sleep-deprived, levels of the appetite hormone, leptin, drop in the body, and leptin is primarily released by fat cells around the body and tells the brain that we have enough energy stored. When leptin is low, the brain thinks that we need to eat more. So when you’re sleep-deprived, your leptin will be low, your brain thinks you need to eat more, and at the same time, sleep deprivation increases cortisol, that stress hormone, and can reduce serotonin. All of those things can increase cravings, making certain foods seem more appealing and also making it more difficult to resist them.
You end up with a situation where your brain thinks you’re hungry and you need more energy, and also, food looks better to you. It’s more difficult to resist and this is all because you’re not sleeping enough; not because you need more energy or because you’re really hungrier. That’s the main reason why sleep is so important is because of the way it affects these hormones and chemicals. And the same with exercise. All of it kind of goes hand in hand.
How do you approach working with patients who have unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors?
Audrey Monroe: The way Bridget and I usually approach things is that it’s not just the psychological component, but it’s also the nutritional component. The mind is a really powerful thing. What we think about food and how we think about it affects how we eat and how we feel. I think if eating or dieting or food is an issue that’s something that you want to address, it’s good to come at it from both sections, both sectors.
Many of us put food into categories, and so some of what I like to do is help people identify the idea of “all or nothing” thinking. The idea that certain foods are bad and certain foods are good, and looking at where does that come from, like why do we think those things about the all or nothing. Eventually, that’s going to lead to food restriction. It’s going to lead to yoyo dieting. It’s going to lead to the dieting paradox, which is basically thinking about the last time you went out to dinner and you said, “I’m going to have dessert because tomorrow I’m starting my new diet.” Okay. This thought process is eventually going to lead to food restriction because you’re thinking, “this dessert’s obviously bad, so we want to stay away from dessert and only eat good food.”
Then eventually, if we don’t restrict on the diet, we think we fail, and so it leads to a cycle of more bad choices. The whole idea of doing therapy is to really understand yourself and the more that we know about why we do what we do can help us change our patterns for the future so that we can actually make healthier choices for ourselves.
What is mindful eating and how can people utilize it?
Audrey Monroe: When we’re mindful, we carefully observe our thoughts and our feelings without judging them, and so we’re getting away from the “all or nothing” thinking. They’re not good or bad, they’re just thoughts. If applying this to eating, we are present in the moment and acknowledging responses to food, whether we like the food, dislike the food, or we don’t care. But we’re doing it without judgment.
A lot of people eat for the wrong reasons. It could be bored. You could be stressed. Some people eat when they’re not hungry, and we don’t necessarily properly chew or digest our food. We’re just shoveling food in sometimes, especially if we’re busy. Often times, we eat while we’re doing other things and we’re not paying attention. So mindful eating is this idea of being present and being mindful that can help build awareness of your physical hunger and satiety cues to guide our decisions to know when we should begin to eat and when we want to end eating.
Bridget Shea: Yeah. I think along those same lines, part of being more mindful is just understanding your own appetite and hunger. As we’ve already discussed, there are so many factors that impact our hunger and appetite that can lead them to become dysregulated, like when we were talking about all those chemicals and hormones.
Who we’re with, what we’re doing, how we feel, food advertisements, what other people are eating, our level of stress, if we’re sleep deprived; all of those things play a role. When you can just slow down a little bit the whole process of eating, it gives you time to just have increased awareness around what you’re doing, and how food tastes, and when it doesn’t taste as good anymore because we just ate a lot of it. The first two to three bites of a food are definitely when it’s the most rewarding to our brain, and then after that, it kind of goes down.
Not like we become numb to it, but it isn’t just as rewarding as the first couple. So a lot of people, when they practice mindful eating, they can find that they’re more satisfied after eating less food, because they’re just taking it slow and really enjoy it. And I think aside from that, for me, mindfulness also just means that there is an acceptance that we’re all unique and that we all experience food in different ways, and that there’s no one right way to eat.
That’s definitely when I’m working with patients on the emotional stuff, when they had issues with emotional eating and binge eating, like Audrey said, nutrition is really the complimentary therapy if it’s more severe, but a lot of times like the first step is just normalizing the eating pattern, and trying to step back and just figure out okay, when should I eat, what should I eat- just be really fundamental, so that people can work on the other stuff, like emotional stuff, and just become more aware of what’s going on with them.
For listeners who might want to get started with a change, how could they potentially start?
Bridget Shea: What I like to do first with people is just try to work on establishing healthy eating patterns for them, which could be different from someone else. This could mean maybe working on limiting night eating or not skipping meals, or planning snacks instead of grazing throughout the day. Having a solid plan that we can stick to and we know what it is, and it’s specific, helps us to work towards a healthier eating pattern.
Also, just being more aware of how food makes you feel physically, and realizing that certain foods might not be the best to have around you in your primary environment because they’re so desirable. If you have peanut butter cups at home or chips in the pantry, and you’re trying not to eat at night, and you’re sitting and watching TV, the likelihood of you not eating them is pretty low, especially if that’s kind of a habit that you’re used to doing and it’s comforting.
I talk to people about not completely avoiding those foods but having them in a safer way. So if you love ice cream, go out for ice cream, but maybe don’t have five pints of Ben & Jerry’s that you can easily access at your house. Deprivation, generally, only makes us want certain foods more, so it’s just eating it in a safe way. Also, eating a variety of foods, working on moderation, and don’t forbid a certain food or food group, unless you really feel like it’s an emotional trigger for you, and you need to take some time away from eating it.
Audrey Monroe: And don’t expect changes overnight. Change is really hard. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And it’s not helpful to beat yourself up and dwell on mistakes. We can acknowledge that we slip up and move on.
Bridget Shea: Also just remembering that everything is connected in the body like we talked about. Because of those hormones and chemicals, work on getting enough quality sleep. Try to work on some exercise that you like and manage stress in a helpful way. All of these things matter when you’re trying to make healthy changes to your diet too, because they’re so interconnected in the body.
And then try to practice mindful eating. That could mean at the table when you can, or looking at your portions, learning when you’re hungry, kind of slowing things down, taking the time to taste and enjoy food; and just remember that there’s a lot of ways to be mindful. It doesn’t mean one specific thing. I do recommend one website that I wanted to point out. It’s the Center for Mindful Eating’s website, thecenterformindfuleating.org. It’s a really good resource on mindful eating practices.