Stress-eating, eating when you’re bored—it’s like scratching an itch. “We get a momentary distraction because our brain gets a spritz of dopamine,” says cravings expert Dr. Judson Brewer. For some, that chemical surge trumps the stress they were feeling and gives them a sense of control over the situation, creating a habit. And once you do this a few times, the brain says “Hey, remember that,” or “Get me some more of that!” creating a habit of eating when you’re stressed.
Brewer is developer of a new app, Eat Right: Now! ($19.99/month, IOS and Android) that trains users to differentiate between stress-related hunger and actual physiological hunger. Participants learn mindfulness practices to ride out cravings and they can find support from the online community.
People are using the online community in part to talk about one major experience: constant cravings. Once a pattern of eating is established, hunger caused by stress and hunger that comes from needing nourishment get conflated. “We stop knowing—we can’t tell if we’re actually hungry or not.” Brewer had one person in his outpatient psychiatric clinic who couldn’t resist a particular brand of pre-made coffee cakes.
“She would eat an entire one in one sitting. Sometimes more than one, which I don’t know how that’s physically possible, but she did it,” says Brewer. “She loved them, all she could do was think about them, she’d even stop at the store on the way home from work because she’d have a craving for one and buy one.”
During his clinic, Brewer told her to keep indulging—with one major caveat.
“I said great, go for it. But pay attention to what it’s like when you do and what you feel like afterwards so you can really see what the rewards are.”
She reported back: Her stomach felt like a rock. She felt guilty for eating a whole cake. And it didn’t really taste that good—from what she could remember, she didn’t even really taste that much.
Brewer has a word for this moment of realization: disenchantment. And he thinks it’s a more powerful tool than trying to practice restraint at the outset because it cuts into the habitual cycle of eating-to-distract.
“If you’re disenchanted, you don’t need self control, because you’re not excited to do it in the first place,” says Brewer. “That’s a radical shift, and that’s a sustainable shift. The food doesn’t give you the rewards you previously thought you were getting.”
Jumping right to limiting food intake can problematic for most people, says Brewer, because “the brain unfortunately goes offline when we’re stressed out.” It’s better to introduce self control when we become familiar with our eating habits. That’s where mindfulness comes in: It helps us see why we might be reaching for food in the first place.
“Mindfulness helps us see for instance: Oh, I’m eating chocolate when my boss is antagonizing me. This doesn’t actually fix the problem. Then, we can actually start to deal with the problem more head-on,” says Brewer. “And the other part is that we see how we’re driven by the eating of the chocolate, how we’re habitually driven to eating even though we’re not hungry.”
The app consists of five to ten minutes of daily mindfulness practice, with goals that users can tailor to their own needs. A “stress test” helps users learn about feelings associated with stress-related hunger and suggests practices, and a “want-o-meter” offers techniques to work with craving triggers. An online community has blossomed since the app launched in April that Brewer has been moderating—one user has noticed how the majority of her food exists for her entertainment and how that needs to change.
A Mindfulness Practice To Break the Snack Habit
Below is a mindfulness technique from the app that can be practiced before and during a meal. The technique gets you to focus on the experience of eating, and you can use it anytime you have an urge to eat.
The app is currently undergoing a pilot study with The University of California, San Francisco evaluating the feasibility of the app and investigating participants’ relationship to cravings, in particular, can they have a craving and not act on it. Brewer’s lab will also begin clinical trials on the app in the near future.