How to Change Eating Habits with Brain Training Exercises

The more science progresses, the more the medical community realizes the strong connection between our minds and our stomachs. 

In recent years, researchers have learned a lot about the vagus nerve, which carries information between the brain and stomach (among other internal organs). Studies in the last decade have shown that stimulating this "brain-gut axis" can help with conditions like anxiety, and conversely, stimulating areas of our brain can influence gut-related ailments like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Empirically, you don't have to be a scientist to know that your mindset can influence your eating habits. Think of the typical rom-com, in which the main character cries into a pint of ice cream post-breakup. Sometimes when we experience anxiety and stress, it's hard to eat anything — whereas for others, stress makes it hard to not eat everything.

Breaking bad eating habits to become a healthier eater is, first and foremost, a mindset issue. In this post, we've identified five common causes of unhealthy eating habits related to mindset, and how you can train the brain to control eating habits — in a way that is doable and beneficial for the long-term

Bad eating habit #1: Setting yourself up

Ever since some wellness gurus and lifestyle companies realized how much money they could make off fad diets, Western culture has been sucked into "The Diet Mindset," which revolves around rules and restrictions. This is a recipe for failure, which is why so many fad dieters end up weighing more than they did when they started their diets. The next popular diet comes along and so does a new set of restrictions, creating a loop of unhealthy eating behaviors.

While healthy eating habits for losing weight can reduce the rate of disease like diabetes and heart disease, eating healthy should also be about quality of life — not just how you look in a bathing suit. This is where a "growth mindset" comes in.

Developing a growth mindset and living a healthy lifestyle is like that familiar mantra, "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey." Focus on the process of getting to your goals (mistakes and all), rather than focusing solely on results (which is what fad diets capitalize on). Studies have shown that those who adopt a growth mindset about living a healthy lifestyle are more likely to be successful in their quest than those with a fixed mindset. Instead of following the next wave of food rules based in pseudo-science, leverage proven neuroscience to literally rethink how to create healthy eating habits.

Brain training exercise: Changing eating habits using positive affirmations for health is a great place to start. Total Brains' Positive Affirmations exercise lets users write in their own healthy eating affirmations to repeat each day. Whether it's specific ("I will eat two fruits today") or more general ("I feel better when I eat healthy foods"), you'll continuously set your intentions around food. Need ideas for affirmations? Check out this list of ideas.

Bad eating habit #2: Giving in

On the opposite end of the diet mindset, where one must constantly say "no," is the mindset where we make excuses to give in to every craving. There are plenty of memes that touch on how many of us let our fresh produce rot in the fridge while we opt for takeout instead — succumbing to our unhealthy food habits rather than preparing the healthy meal we had intended to make. 

Most of us experience cravings on a regular basis (women more so than men), and while sometimes those cravings are our body's way of asking for a nutrient it needs, a majority of the time it's because our brains' pleasure centers light up when we indulge in sugary, salty, and fatty foods. In other words, plenty of us are addicted to unhealthy foods — which makes it very hard to get past our cravings vs. healthy alternatives.

The key is to change your mindset around your cravings. Instead of thinking about how to stop craving food when you're not hungry, understand that you can't prevent the yearnings — but can manage them as they inevitably arise. Rewiring your brain to overcome addictive tendencies requires positivity, which is something you can develop with practice.

Brain training exercise: Lacking positivity about your health transformation makes it harder to gather the strength to opt for healthier snack alternatives ("I won't be happy until I have that piece of cake...for breakfast"). Train your brain to eliminate those negative thoughts with Total Brain's Thought Tamer, which helps users identify and reframe their negative thoughts into positive ones. By redirecting your thoughts, you take away addiction's ability to hijack your brain.

Bad eating habit #3: Stress eating/emotional eating.

If you've ever ground your teeth on crunchy snacks to get through a tense moment, or dove into a bag of chocolate to feel less sad, you are certainly not alone. It is human nature for the brain to seek relief anywhere it can.

In one survey, more than a third of adults said they had overeaten, or had eaten unhealthy foods, because of stress in the past month. 27% said they regularly use eating to relieve stress. In another poll, 67% of Americans reported eating comfort foods when they felt down. This increases the likelihood of obesity, which can lead to irreversible health problems.

The thing is, doing this tends to perpetuate our bad feelings. Aside from lines drawn between junk food and depression, eating "bad foods" increases our emotional distress (via feelings of guilt or shame). Exacerbating our negative mental state makes it harder to break out of this destructive cycle

If you're wondering how to reduce stress eating, consider how to change your thinking about food — view emotional and stress eating as an inappropriate (and short-lived) crutch rather than a helpful outlet. Breaking the ties between stress and eating behavior means finding other ways to manage stress.

Brain training exercise: Changing your relationship with food — and specifically stress and food — is as simple as breathing. Total Brain's stress-reducing brain training exercise, Resonant Breathing, is a great start to establishing proper eating habits. Users can set the amount of time they need for their stress management "time out" and customize their breathing exercises in other ways: select from different nature backgrounds, get breathing cues, and determine breaths per minute. Measured breathing has absolutely proven effective in managing stress, and is a healthier tool for managing difficult feelings.

Bad eating habit #4: Mindless eating

Mindless eating is when we eat without thinking about it, either not realizing that we aren't actually hungry or that we've passed the point of satiation. This is more likely to happen when we are in situations associated with eating — for example, eating a box of buttered popcorn at the movie theater (because that's what you do at the movies!), or grabbing lunch simply because it's noon. 

Other culprits that prompt mindless eating include plate size — according to research, we tend to want to finish what's on our plate, and as American restaurant portions get bigger, we are less likely to stop ourselves. (Or, we do so too late; it takes 20 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain that it's full.)

Change eating habits with a powerful opponent to mindless eating: mindful eating (or, really, mindfulness for overeating). Mindful eating is the practice of being completely present while you eat — you are focused on your food and the act of eating, devoid of distractions like TV or a dinner party. Not only does this promote more intentional eating and prevents you from eating too quickly, it also enhances the sensory experience of meal time (tastes, scents, textures).

Brain training exercise: If you're a mindless eater, changing your relationship with food can start with meditation. If you've never meditated before, try it separate from meal time so you can get accustomed to switching your mindset from distracted to present. When you're ready to use it as a tool for better eating habits, try meditation beforehand using Total Brain's meditation library, which has exercises as brief as five-minutes long. A mindful eating meditation during a mealtime doesn't require anything but your focus — and if you need to sharpen your ability to avoid distractions, play Think Focus on the Total Brain app. Over time, that constant reinforcement via repeated behavior patterns will help you to develop mindful eating practices without having to consciously work on slowing down.

Bad eating habit #5: Forgetting food's purpose

Food has taken on multiple purposes during humanity's time on Earth — beyond just keeping us alive. We gather for celebratory meals, we give food when someone is in need of sympathy or support, and we offer sweets as rewards. Making an effort to remember that food is ultimately fuel for the body can certainly lead to healthier eating habits.

Develop your "food as fuel mindset" by reading up on which foods deliver which nutrients, and what those do for your body. Instead of succumbing to the "carbs are bad" mindset, consider that marathon runners make sure to load up on pasta before a big race. If you need to summon better focus for an upcoming meeting or exam, be sure to consume "brain foods" like Omega-3, which is found in foods like salmon and nuts. (And remember that, alternatively, eating unhealthy foods can do a number on your brain.) Reframing what defines a healthy eating mindset — keeping food's main purpose at front of mind — will make it easier to adopt healthy eating practices because you're connecting your actions directly to a result.

Brain training exercise: If you're just starting to learn which foods serve what purpose, how to change the way you think about food will require memorization skills. Improving your ability to retain information will make it easier to store mental lists of the go-to foods for different goals (better sleep, a tough workout, avoiding headaches, etc.) as well as which foods to avoid. Watch your ability to do this expand with three of Total Brain's training exercises: Memory Maze, Memory Sequence, and Think Memory, all of which address both individual aspects and general strength of the brain's memory-making processes.

Changing your eating habits — for good

Whether you're wondering how to get in the mindset to lose weight or just want to start eating a healthier diet, your lifestyle change requires that you form new habits — often easier said than done. A mental foundation of habit forming is focus; when we are used to behaving or thinking a certain way, we default to it and sometimes forget what we were trying to do. Luckily, Total Brain also has a digital tool for that. Along with utilizing the brain training exercises mentioned above, consider building your Focus Pathway to more smoothly adopt your new eating habits. 

Total Brain's quick 15-minute assessment generates personalized brain training programs based on your responses, which individualizes your Focus Pathway plan into five parts: assessing your commitment to change; identifying exactly what your goals are; gauge which of your brain functions are strong and which need improvement; train for ten minute a day on Total Brain's customized recommendations; and then re-assess after a month to track your improvement.

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