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Mindful Eating, Resilient Living, and Peak Performance: What’s the Common Thread?

By Rebecca Johnson

neuroplasticity-behavior-changeIn the last two decades, there’s been an explosion of science and understanding around the human brain, the conclusions of which I find so intriguing and powerful. I’ve heard a few variations on this statistic, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of what we know about the brain we’ve learned in the last decade or so. Much of what scientists thought they knew about the brain before this uptick in inquiry and research has since been proven inaccurate or altogether wrong.

We now have much greater insight on things like:

  • Which functions the different areas of the brain are responsible for and how each area interacts with the others.
  • How emotions and cognitive processes work in conjunction with and are affected by each other.
  • How the brain changes in responses to our thoughts and experiences.
  • How mindfulness and other forms of mental training can help us “rewire our brain” in ways that positively impact our well-being, daily life experience, and quality of life.

As a health promotion professional in the business of behavior change and well-being, having interest and basic knowledge about brain science has come in handy. I now understand that virtually all forms of successful long-term behavior change have a common thread at their core: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the process whereby the brain literally reorganizes itself in response to our environment, thoughts, feelings, and experiences: frequently used synapses are strengthened, while less frequently used ones are weakened. This restructuring is happening all the time – either unwittingly or, in the case of purposeful behavior change, intentionally.

What does this all have to do with balanced eating, resilience, and peak performance?

The Miracle of Neuroplasticity

Here’s the thing. When we have successfully and lastingly changed some component of our well-being, we have effectively changed our brain through the miracle of neuroplasticity. This applies to pretty much any habit or set of behaviors, whether it’s transforming the way we eat, developing more resilience, or performing more robustly at work (hence the title). But those examples are just arbitrary – I could have used any set of well-being outcomes in the title. And that’s the point. Changing behaviors and habits of any sort is first and foremost about changing our brains.

I’ve come to believe that anyone who wishes to be highly effective at changing themselves or guiding others through the change process will have a higher likelihood of doing so with at least a fundamental understanding of brain science. I would posit that one of the reasons the conventional approach to health and well-being has often had less than ideal results is because it doesn’t involve enough of the new scientific understanding of the brain, mental training, and behavior change. This is understandable given the relative newness of this work, but it’s time to collectively turn the page and bring this new knowledge into everyday life.

If you’re looking for a place to start or enhance your learning, here’s one of my favorite options: https://www.thefoundationsofwellbeing.com/science

Mindfulness: Training for the Brain

Mindfulness has been the focal point for an immense amount of research in recent years, too much to summarize well here. The Cliff Notes version is that it appears to be a very promising way to positively affect myriad components of well-being, everything from lowering levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and blood pressure to reducing emotional and being eating to increasing resilience and generosity. While there are many scholars studying the effects of mindfulness on the brain and well-being, I have been particularly drawn to Richie Davidson’s work.

There are lots of ways to define mindfulness, but we often describe it with four key points:

  1. Developing in-the-moment awareness of your inner experience and environment
  2. Observing what you become aware of with minimal judgment and attachment
  3. Making space between what you observe and your potential reaction
  4. Intentionally choosing whether and how to respond

While mindfulness often conjures up images of seated, closed-eye meditation, it’s important to know that mindfulness training does not have to include a regular meditation practice in order to be beneficial. Although mindfulness meditation can be incredibly beneficial at laying the foundations for accessing more calm, clarity, and focus (and I highly recommend it), there are also ways to apply mindfulness to re-train the brain right in the middle of the action of your daily life. It’s mindful to simply pause in the moment to bring awareness to your experience. It’s mindful to take a few breaths to make space between what you noticed and a potential automatic reaction. It’s mindful to decide purposefully what you’ll do (or not do) next.

Each time you become aware, pause, and intentionally decide to make a choice that is in your best interest when you might previously have not, you have weakened an old synapse and strengthened a new one.  You have used mindfulness to further the rewiring process.

Rewiring in Action

Let me give you an example of how we use our new knowledge of mindfulness training and the brain in a common challenge to one’s well-being: overeating.

The conventional approach to “healthy eating” in the health promotion industry has been to teach individuals a set of guidelines about when, what, and how much to eat and, possibly, suggest they identify specific behaviors that will help them follow these guidelines. (For example, log your food intake daily, remove “bad” foods from the house, weigh yourself regularly for accountability, etc.) One of the many reasons this approach often fails to sustainably help people who struggle with overeating is because it completely misses the complexities of eating that are driven by thinking patterns, emotions, and habitual decisions, all of which are the result of processes happening within the brain and the body.

Compare that to our approach to mindful eating, in which we get to the root causes of overeating instead of focusing solely on behaviors. Through practical, mindfulness-based strategies, we help participants develop greater awareness of unexamined or unresolved triggers, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that may lead them to eat when they’re not hungry or overeat once they start. When they develop awareness of these triggers, they then learn to observe the triggers with less judgment and attachment than they previously would have; they create space between those triggers and a potential mindless, habitual reaction to eat or overeat. This space provides an opportunity to envision other options and intentionally choose whether to eat (or continue eating) or do something that might more effectively meet their true needs. With practice, this process results in a changes in neural synapses: old, automatic overeating patterns incrementally diminish as new, more effective, “just right” eating patterns strengthen.

I could give you more examples related to other components of well-being, but you can probably see how this process could be applied to virtually any personal or professional behavior or habit we want to change. The important components of mindfulness—awareness, non-judgment, pausing, and intentional decision-making—are universally valuable.

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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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