Engage your mind: Mindfulness and eating

March 29, 2022

The science of paying attention

Have you heard of ‘mindfulness’ and thought ‘what exactly is this’? Over the last 10 years or so, this buzzword has become more widely used in society and its practice more widely known. But to answer the question, simply put, mindfulness is paying attention.

The practice of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and has actually been around for more than 2,600 years. However, as Mindfulness UK puts it, “whilst we acknowledge its roots, it is also helpful to know that this is really where the connection to Buddhism ends.” The modern mindfulness we refer to was established in the late 1970s and is nonreligious.

Changing the mindset

Mindfulness-based interventions use the practice of mindfulness to ‘rewire’ the brain. This is a field of research which has exploded over the last decade! It is often used in studies that look at stress and other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Neuroimaging studies tend to be most in the spotlight. These studies involve scanning the brain mainly using MRI techniques. Results from these studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can noticeably alter the structure and activity of the brain in a way that can alter how we relate to the world around us.

For example, we can scientifically see that people who are expert meditators have better cognitive control than those who don’t meditate, which also means they are better at coping with difficult emotions. This has been evident when looking at the differences in the prefrontal cortex and in areas associated with processing of emotions of expert meditators’ brains, vs their non-meditator counterparts.

That’s pretty powerful stuff for just “paying more attention!”

Mindfulness and Healthy Eating

Studies have also shown that mindfulness-based interventions can be useful for improving eating behaviour and our relationship to food.

As babies, we’re very aware of our signals of hunger and fullness. We eat what we need - and then stop when we are full. As adults, how many of us really pay attention to our mind and our bodies while we are eating? These days, many of us eat while watching TV, working on our desks, or scrolling through our phones.

Mindful eating is about paying attention to the way we eat (environment, eating with cutlery or hands, etc), how we feel when we eat and the impact of eating on our minds and bodies. For instance, we’ve all experienced emotional eating, where our urge to eat isn’t necessarily linked to being hungry, but is based around external factors like stress or boredom. Studies suggest that mindfulness can reduce emotional eating, binge eating, and other common problematic eating behaviours.

How we do things at Holly Health: Using mindfulness for behaviour change

Applying mindfulness-based interventions in the context of health is essentially about bringing awareness into our everyday actions to break the automaticity of unhelpful habits, and to replace them with more conscious actions that contribute towards our wellbeing. At Holly Health, we understand that creating new healthy habits is a process and not a one-size-fits-all approach. For this reason, we help you identify the conscious actions that are most useful to you, and we guide you through regular reflection exercises and check-ins to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. The key is having a sense of curiosity and non-judgement towards our actions so we can keep learning and growing.

An integrated approach to health

There's a tendency in modern society and within health apps to try and separate nutrition from general health, mental health and physical health - but it really all comes together under health. These are all intertwined and have a linked effect on each other. One thing is affected by many factors. For example, nutrition is not just about the food that we eat but how, where and when we eat, as well as how we relate to food. Humans are social beings and we all have psychological needs and psychological patterns that need to be taken into consideration when thinking about health and wellbeing.

There is no denying that life is hard and practicing mindfulness isn’t easy. This is why Holly Health focuses on improving and preventing health problems from a holistic point of view, guiding people to unlock life’s potential through conscious behaviour change, one small action at a time.

Find out more about mindfulness and mindful eating from our Content & Research Manager Dr. Daniela Mercado Beivide. Daniela has a background in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, a Master's in neuroscience, and a PhD in psychological medicine.