Can we really train our brains to eat healthily?

Mindful eating - broccoli brain

Use your brain to help with healthy eating

The UK is the third fattest nation in Western Europe, and the problem is getting worse. But when it comes to healthy eating, it could just be a case of mind over matter; using our brains to help create healthy bodies

From the legion of Instagram accounts dedicated to vegetarian and vegan cooking, and blogs proclaiming the delights of  “clean” and “raw” food, one would assume the UK population had got the memo on healthy eating. 

Yet Great Britain remains one the fattest countries in Europe, with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation stating it has the third highest rate of excessive weight behind Iceland and Malta.

According to a 2014 report from the McKinsey Global Institute The National Health Service is spending £47 billion per year dealing with the health and social costs of obesity, but the numbers are growing, just like the nation’s waistline.

New research by psychologists at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, into how a Cogitative Behaviour Therapy (CBT) based app can help people to drop the doughnuts is just one of several schemes taking place that look to the brain to help with healthy eating.

And “mindfulness” is now the buzzword to use around nutrition and diet, with an acceleration of interest in techniques that help people to think about the food on their plates before they take a bite to eat.

Professor Anne Rolfs is one of the psychologists on the Maastricht project, which has just finished research on the CBT-based app for weight loss tailored to participants’ individual over-eating situations, such as when home alone or feeling sad. She says that although the six-week programme led to significant weight loss, it was no larger than if the group had not used the app. What the research did show, however is that CBT could have an impact on perceptions of eating behaviour.

“We did find specific effects of our intervention on the degree of belief in so-called dysfunctional cognitions about eating behaviour, [for example] ‘I’ve worked so hard, I deserve to eat this ice cream,’ emotional eating, and external eating. These all reduced.

 “We are waiting for the long-term follow-up results, to see if these psychological changes prevent weight regain in the longer term. We [will] further continue our work on CBT, and, if we are able to show that mindset plays a crucial role in how the brain represents food, we will focus on interventions targeting mindset; that is aiming for a health-mindset instead of an enjoyment-mindset.

“So, we would attempt to change how people look at food, how the brain represents food, and therefore the eating behaviour. Or, we could aim for people to learn how to cope with tempting foods when in an enjoyment mindset. For example, how to divert their attention away from those foods.”

Mindful eating - healthy vs junk
​Mindfulness: do you really want to eat certain foods?

Mind the food gap

The Centre for Mindful Eating, based in Nottingham, offers courses and guidance in using mindful techniques to help people overcome their relationships with unhealthy food. One of the guiding principles is that people learn to pay attention to what the body actually needs rather than simply acting on impulses or influences.

Nutritionist Julie Silver uses mindfulness techniques to help her clients decide whether they want to eat certain foods, rather than trying to force themselves to give them up. "I don’t recommend anyone giving anything up unless you’ve gone off it. Otherwise you will probably want it even more,” she explains.

“The conflict will create stress, and it could cause such strong cravings that they will overtake you. You may then end up eating or drinking more of it and feeling guilty as a result. [However], eating with awareness in a conscious state will help guide you towards what is right for you now.”

Silver suggests focus on how you want to feel, be it energised, calm, light, healthy or clear headed. Then, when eating or drinking anything, mentally ask your body questions such as “Is this good for me?” or “Is this what you want?” The answer popping into the mind is a good indication of what relationship someone has with certain foods.

“Breathing consciously into your abdomen before eating will help exercise your digestive system, increase your energy, oxygenate your organs and help you get into a more relaxed state,” says Silver. “This will help you digest your food more efficiently, which your body will love you for.

“Amazingly, it will get you ‘into the now’ so you are ‘present’, a place where there is no stress as you can’t be dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. As you start to eat intuitively, you will develop your intuition even more – whether it is for what you are eating and drinking or how you are living your life. You will be less inclined to overeat too.

“One client asked her body if she wanted cake when out with her daughter and she did want it. She enjoyed it and then didn't want any cake for several months afterwards. If she had resisted it then she would have had more cravings and probably more servings of cake.

“Another client, who constantly craved and ate chocolate, did this mindfulness technique when she was buying a chocolate bar. She put the chocolate bar back, and walked out of the shop. She had never done this in her life and was shocked."

Mindful eating - hynotherapy
Hypnosis can help people alter their appetites

Deep thought

Hypnosis, usually associated with quitting smoking or to help ease phobias, is also a technique that is increasingly being deployed to help people adjust their appetites. 

Celebrity fitness trainer Pola Pospieszalska is developing a mind programming audio series in conjunction with the therapists that helped her to get her own food issues under control through hypnosis and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).

“I used hypnosis to fix my relationship with food and to improve my discipline when it comes to work and fitness. I was either over or under eating and my weight was never stable,” she claims.

“Hypnosis isn't what people think it is - you remain in control throughout the session, they can't make you do things you don't want to do. If you're clear with the therapist about the purpose of your session, then it makes it easier and more effective. I knew I wanted to start perceiving food as fuel for performance, not as the quick fix or something I would always do whenever bored or in need of comfort. 

“It is true that thoughts shape our reality so in order to change our reality we must harness our mind and control the thoughts; 90% of what we do physically begins in our mind. So if we tap into the subconscious mind and create new beliefs this will literally create a new reality. This is where NLP and hypnosis become so useful – new thought patterns are created, which will replace the old negative ones.”

With this growing interest in mind over matter, hopefully more of the nation will think twice before ploughing through portions of junk food. 

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