The Habit Loop: How it Can Lead to Mindless Eating

The Habit Loop: How it Can Lead to Mindless Eating

Mindful eaters don’t eat mindfully all of the time.

Cereal has always been a favorite food of mine.  Somewhere along the way, I created a habit of eating a small bowl of dry cereal with my morning coffee. I would brew coffee, pour cereal then munch and drink while watching the morning news.  I enjoyed the combination of bitter coffee and sweet and crunchy cereal. Many times, I asked myself if there was any harm in my habit?   I was aware I  wasn’t being that mindful, yet  I didn’t see any significant consequences.  Over time though as I continued to explore this habit I realized  I did not like its mindless nature and yet I continued to do it.

Then I moved to a new house. That change in my environment and my desire to interrupt the habit decreased the frequency. Most mornings, I could still feel the craving when I brewed my morning cup of java.  Now on rare occasions I more thoughtfully choose to have some cereal with my morning coffee.  And yes, while watching the morning news.  Mindful eaters don’t eat mindfully all of the time.

Habits Begin with Anything that Brings Pleasure and/or Lessens Pain

It goes like this: We see some food that looks good, our brain says, “Calories! Survival!” We eat the food: We taste it, it tastes good. Especially with sugar, our bodies send the signal to our brain that says: “Remember what you’re eating and where you found it.” We adapt by laying down a memory and learn to repeat the process: see food, eat food, feel good. Repeat. Once laid down, this path becomes what we call the Habit Loop. 

As neurons keep firing in a particular pattern a path is created and it’s just easier to go down that well-worn pathway.   Neurons that “fire together wire together”.  This reward-based learning process is how we develop many habits.  It’s how we learn to talk, play an instrument, smoke, and even eat mindlessly.

Trigger, Behavior, Reward.

This habit loop can be used for more than just remembering where food is. Next time you feel bad, you eat something pleasurable, and you feel better.  We thank our brains for the great idea, try this, and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better. Same process, just a different trigger. Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach this emotional signal—feeling sad—triggers that urge to eat.  Each time we do this, we learn to repeat the process and it becomes a habitual path. 

Training in Mindful & Intuitive Eating Can Break the Cycle

Instead of fighting our cravings, we can become more aware of sensations in the body, thoughts, and feelings. Curiosity and awareness give us the ability to choose how to best care for ourselves rather than engage in mindless habitual behaviors.   

That is not to say we magically can stop mindless eating. Over time we learn to see more clearly the results of our actions; we let go of old habits and form new ones. When we can compassionately turn toward our experience, rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away, it is naturally rewarding. Curiosity feels good!  What you may begin to notice is,  cravings are simply made up of body sensations: there’s tightness, there’s tension, there’s restlessness, and these body sensations come and go. And that can set you free.

The next time you experience a craving when you are stressed,  bored, or trying to distract yourself, get curious. Tune in to what’s happening in your body and mind in that moment.  Notice the urge.  Feel the joy of letting go, and repeat.

If you are curious, please join me for the 5 Week Mindful & Intuitive Eating Class that starts November 3, Wednesday evenings from 6:30-8:30 pm. I would love to share these practices with you!

Adapted from The Craving Mind, from Cigarettes to Smart-Phones to Love – Why We Get Hooked & How We Can Break Bad Habits by Judson Brewer