Mindfulness: the end to diets and restrictive eating? My chat with Dr. Jud Brewer

Picture of Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

I have been participating for more than 2 years now in an app-based mindfulness eating and habit change program called Eat Right Now, spearheaded by Dr. Jud Brewer, whom I’ve written about many times before. He, and it, were featured in the New York Times around the New Year in a piece talking about why diets and restrictive eating don’t work, and that mindfulness may be a better way of changing your eating habits.
Interestingly, I myself didn’t have any weight loss success with Eat Right Now for the first 6 months that I practiced it. No matter how many times I felt like crap and slept horribly after overeating sweets or other highly palatable foods, and really noticing that bad feeling deep down in my gut in an effort to retrain my brain by resetting the reward value of said sweets, the old habit of overeating sweets would return the next afternoon or evening like clockwork. And I never really managed to move from second gear (noticing the results of my habit loop of overeating) into third gear (making a free choice to not overeat based on the embodied disenchantment I’d felt earlier – a natural “not eating” rather than a forced, willpower-based “not eating”). Somehow the anticipation of the treat would always outweigh the knowledge that it made me feel bad yesterday, and I’d keep doing it. It wasn’t until February 1, 2021 — after about 3 months of overeating tons of sweets and a significant weight gain, that I just felt so horrible and sick and tired of feeling sick and tired that I chose to give up sugar and flour entirely again. That was the very first time in more than a year of working through Eat Right Now that I made the choice to not eat sugar because it felt GOOD instead of trying to willpower my way through abstaining. No amount of intellectual knowledge about how sugar and flour hijack my brain’s reward systems, no amount of desire to reach my goal weight, could keep me from repeating my habit of overeating sweets, but that complete and utter gut-level disenchantment with how my body and mind felt at the end of January 2021 was enough to trigger a change in me. It lasted into early March, and I remember the profound sense of peace that I felt in my body and mind during the month of February when I just kept noticing how much better I felt when I avoided sugar. It moved me, it was so profound. (Then, in early March, I did one of my periodic DIY Fasting Mimicking Diets in an effort to trigger autophagy, and the hunger and restriction led me to eat sugar again when I broke the fast, and then I was right back to my old habits… and basically haven’t stopped since.) Now, I’m working through some of the same disenchantment that I felt after the holidays a year ago, and making the switch to eating mostly whole foods without added sugar because I feel so much better when I do.

I say, to those of you who read my blog and think you could never give up sugar and flour, that it’s too restrictive — just start being mindful. Really pay attention to the sensations in your body before you eat, as you take each bite, after you stop eating, hours later, and in the morning when you awake. Notice how your body and mind feel after eating a healthy meal and going to bed on an emptier stomach. Compare the differences. You, like I, may require months and months of practice and pretty profound dissatisfaction before it makes a difference for you. Also, the rewards of certain behaviors can also be subtle: I spoke personally with Dr. Brewer during one of our weekly Zoom meetings for Eat Right Now participants and asked him how I can stop the habit of eating a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter and jelly in the evenings. (At the time, that was the only sugar I had in the house, so it was my go-to.) I told him that I wanted intellectually to stop doing it because it was putting extra unneeded calories and sugar into my body and moving away from my goal of eating for a healthy brain and Alzheimer’s prevention, but I wasn’t eating enough of it to actually make me feel ill or have real immediate negative results in my body for me to be aware of. He suggested that I try to notice the higher reward value that I might feel when I make the choice not to eat it; that being mindful and allowing urges or cravings to be there without answering them with peanut butter and jelly may give me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that may be a bigger better offer, a higher reward, than the feeling I actually get from eating the peanut butter and jelly. Interesting. So sometimes the results you get can hit you like a Mack truck and immediately make you want to stop a behavior, and other times it can take a lot of more subtle mindfulness to really compare how you feel when you make certain choices. Food for thought.

Meanwhile, I’m chugging along with my goal of getting back down to a healthier weight. I ate some graham crackers yesterday and some candy the day prior, so I’m not 100% sugar-free at the moment, but eating way less than I was before Jan 1! And the scale reflects the change. My sleep has significantly improved, too, which makes me feel better in general! Hope you all are feeling well these days, too! Stay safe!

xo Jen

Project 135 (resurrected) stats:

week 0 (Jan 1, 2022): 164.4 lbs
week 1: 162.2
week 2: 160.8
Total weight loss: 3.6 lbs (2.2%)




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