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Mindful Eating is a Skill – Lessons Inspired by Neuroscience

By Rebecca Johnson

I recently wrote an article about an inspiring talk titled “Well-being is a Skill” by well-known neuroscientist Richard Davidson. In this talk, Davidson summarizes the latest research on what he calls the Four Constituents of Well-being: resilience, positive outlook, attention, and generosity. There were several things about this talk that resonated with me, including the refreshing emphasis on mental, emotional, and spiritual components of well-being instead of just the physical. If you’re interested in neuroscience, mindfulness, or what makes people “well”, this 13-minute talk will be well worth your time.

As you might guess from the title, the main point of Davidson’s talk is that well-being is a skill. Or maybe, more accurately, a set of skills. Like all skills, the components of well-being can be cultivated through training and practice. Whether you’re learning to play the cello (Davidson’s analogy), shifting from a sedentary life to an active one, or developing more effective ways to handle emotional triggers, the same type of neural circuitry is at play. One of the most inspiring advancements in recent neuroscience is that the neural pathways in our brains are “plastic,” meaning they change in response to training and experience. This is good news for all of us because it means we’re never stuck with any set of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors if we don’t want to be. If we’re willing to commit to learning, training, and practice, we can change what is not beneficial to us.

One of the reasons I so enjoy learning and teaching the Am I Hungry? model is because it’s really about changing neural circuity. Instead of focusing on rules about when, what, and how much people “should” eat, we guide them through a process of rewiring themselves from the inside out. Through this rewiring process, people begin to think differently, address emotions and other triggers more effectively, and make choices that support greater well-being.

Because this change in neural pathways is founded on awareness and intentional decision making, it’s has wide application in many other areas of life outside eating and activity. For example, Am I Hungry? guides people to identify thoughts and feelings that might be driving the desire to eat when they’re not hungry, and then pause to intentionally decide if they’ll eat anyway, redirect attention, or meet their true needs. If they choose to eat anyway instead of doing so automatically out of habit, they’re fully aware of the likely outcome and can then enjoy eating mindfully and without guilt. If they choose to redirect their attention until they get hungry or meet their true underlying needs, they have a different experience that propels them one step closer to their desired future patterns. Whichever choice they make, they’re re-training their brain to pause in the face of an impulse or urge, weigh their options, and then consciously decide what to do next.

You can probably see how applicable this process is to virtually everything else in life – and most Am I Hungry? participants quickly see that connection too. For example, let’s say you notice that you feel irritated because your child’s room is a disaster (again). Instead of automatically reacting with a disciplinary yell (which doesn’t feel good and doesn’t seem to help in the long term), you pause, weigh your options, and decide whether and how to respond. Or perhaps you receive another email from your boss with a tight deadline on more work than you can reasonably do. Before complaining to your co-worker or sending off a return email you’ll later regret, you pause, weigh your options, and decide whether and how to respond. It’s hard to think of a situation where this process of identifying, pausing, and intentionally choosing wouldn’t be valuable.

As Davidson notes in his talk, this type of rewiring takes training and practice. Caring for ourselves and making decisions that support our greatest interests are skills – skills that can undoubtedly be developed if we’re committed to doing the work. And like most worthwhile life changes, the outcome is well worth the effort!

As you work on sharpening your mindful eating skills, in what other areas of your life have you started to see a shift? Please share by commenting below!

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

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