Skip to main content

Why is food so complicated for us? As a professional mountain biker, a national board-certified health and wellness coach, and my certification in plant-based nutritional studies, I know firsthand the importance of fueling our bodies with the right foods. But as Dr. Jud Brewer will reveal, our relationship with food goes beyond mere sustenance—it’s deeply intertwined with our emotions, habits, and mindset. Get ready to gain valuable insights and actionable strategies for mastering your mind and revolutionizing your approach to eating.

Understanding the Neuroscience of Food Habits

So what is the neuroscience of food habits? We learn how our brains are wired to associate food with reward and danger through reinforcement learning. This primal instinct, he explains, is rooted in our evolutionary history and plays a crucial role in shaping our eating behaviors. By understanding the neurological mechanisms at play, we can gain deeper insights into why certain food habits are so difficult to change and how we can overcome them.

Dr. Jud Brewer is a leading expert in habit change and the science of self-mastery. We delve deep into the psychological and physical impacts of food habits, exploring how our brains are wired to associate food with reward and danger. Dr. Brewer shares invaluable insights on embracing uncertainty, developing resilience, and adopting mindfulness practices to foster a healthier relationship with food.

Harnessing Self-Compassion and Kindness

One of the key themes that emerged from our conversation is the importance of embracing uncertainty and developing resilience through self-awareness and kindness. Dr. Brewer emphasizes the transformative power of self-compassion in breaking free from the cycle of overeating and cultivating a healthier relationship with food. By approaching our struggles with kindness and compassion, we can create a supportive inner environment that empowers us to make healthier choices and overcome challenges with grace.

Exploring the Impact of a Plant-Based Diet

We also delve into the impact of a plant-based diet on eating habits and body sensations, drawing on Dr. Brewer’s expertise in mindfulness-based approaches to nutrition. He highlights the profound connection between food and mood, explaining how our dietary choices can influence our mental and emotional well-being. Through mindful eating practices and meditation techniques, we can cultivate greater awareness of our hunger cues and make more conscious choices that nourish both body and mind.

One thing that seemed quite surprising in Dr. Jud’s discussion was when he described doing a group session with patients who had binge eating disorder, and realizing they had completely lost the ability to differentiate actual physical hunger from cravings. He said they were stunned into silence when simply asked what hunger feels like. This highlighted the extent to which disordered eating can disconnect someone from their internal bodily signals and sensations. It was striking how a basic question like that could be so difficult for them to answer due to how divorced they had become from truly listening to their body.

Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness emerges as a powerful tool for promoting emotional awareness and well-being, offering practical strategies for managing food cravings and cultivating a deeper connection to our bodies. Dr. Brewer shares meditation techniques that can help us tune into our hunger cues and develop greater self-awareness around our eating habits. By incorporating mindfulness into our daily lives, we can foster a more balanced and harmonious relationship with food, leading to improved overall health and vitality.

How can we get started? Dr. Jud shared a some actionable tips for changing your relationship with food:

  1. Pay attention to determine if you’re truly physically hungry before eating or if other emotions are driving you to eat.
  2. Try eating unprocessed, whole foods for 2-3 weeks and notice how your body and mood feel.
  3. Practice mindfulness techniques like noting physical hunger sensations and cravings without judgment.
  4. Develop self-compassion by catching and challenging self-critical thoughts around food.
  5. Embrace uncertainty by exploring new eating patterns with curiosity rather than rigid rules.

Transforming Habits for Life

In essence, our conversation with Dr. Jud Brewer underscores the profound impact that food habits can have on our mental and physical health. By understanding the neuroscience behind our eating behaviors, harnessing the power of self-compassion and kindness, and embracing mindfulness as a tool for self-awareness, we can transform our relationship with food and unlock our full potential for health and well-being. With these insights and practices, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment, leading to a life of greater vitality and fulfillment.

Whether you’re an athlete striving for optimal performance or simply seeking to live a healthier life, this episode offers practical strategies to transform your eating habits and enhance your overall well-being.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Neuroscience of Habits: Our brains are wired through reinforcement learning to form food habits and associate food with reward and danger for survival purposes.
  • True Hunger: Modern convenience and constant food exposure can lead to emotional eating in the absence of true hunger.
  • Hunger vs Cravings: Mindfulness techniques like noting can help differentiate physical hunger from cravings.
  • Health Food Relationships: Embracing concepts like uncertainty, kindness and curiosity.
  • Power of Plant-Based: Adopting a mostly whole foods, plant-based diet may enhance mood, gut health and overall well-being.

Listen to Dr. Jud’s episode

If you found today’s episode enlightening and want to hear more, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to share this episode!

___

Episode Chapters

  • Food habits and their psychological impact on mental and physical health. (0:02)
  • Embracing uncertainty and developing resilience through self-awareness and kindness. (9:07)
  • Kindness, compassion, and self-compassion in athletics. (13:49)
  • Using neuroscience to change habits and overcome overeating. (18:14)
  • Self-control, willpower, and neuroscience. (23:14)
  • Plant-based diet and its impact on eating habits and body sensations. (28:00)
  • Food’s impact on mood and brain health. (30:27)
  • Hunger, curiosity, and self-awareness. (35:18)
  • Hunger cues and meditation techniques. (40:52)
  • Mindfulness practices for emotional awareness and well-being. (45:09)
  • Meditation techniques and book writing. (50:02)

___

Transcript: Dr. Jud Brewer

Sonya Looney 0:02
Dr. Jud, it’s so good to have you back.

Jud Brewer 0:04
Thanks for having me.

Sonya Looney 0:05
Today we get to talk about a semi loaded topic: food. Now, why is food so complicated for us?

Jud Brewer 0:14
Well, there’s this, you know, starts out as a survival mechanism, we all need it to survive. But then it goes to the level of social engagement, you know, how many meals do we eat with other people, whether it’s family, friends, you know, banquets, etc. Then you add in celebrations, then you add in, you know, constellations, whether it’s awake at a funeral or something like that. And then you add in our poor brains that have kind of mixed some wires around survival signals and, and soothing our moods. And so this food mood relationship has gotten pretty complex. Oh, and should I also add that the food industry has done everything it can to get us to eat when we’re not hungry.

Sonya Looney 0:59
That’s something that I think about a lot. Because I’ve been eating a plant based diet since like 2012. And we’ve talked about this with some friends is that food can be something that isolates you from other people. And I didn’t actually tell anybody about how I ate for four years, because I didn’t want anybody to feel weird about it. I just wanted people to feel not judged or not that they were doing something wrong. And the tribal aspect of food, like it’s something that we do together, we eat together. So whenever somebody has a different habit, or somebody has an unhealthy habit, like say, you go home, and you visit your family over the holidays, and everybody’s drinking a ton and eating all this junk food, and you don’t want to do that, then there’s peer pressure. So like, how can people look at peer pressure, or even the isolation piece? If they’re eating differently than everybody else to feel, I guess, just more content with what they’re doing? Yeah.

Jud Brewer 1:51
Well, I think, ultimately, that comes down to being comfortable in our own skin, you know, so many things do, right. And so here, I think it can be helpful to just really start with understanding how our minds work, understanding how these habits around eating gets set up. And then that ultimately gives us a pathway for working with whatever an individual pathway is, and our individual journey. So whether it’s, you know, eating a different diet than other people, and then, you know, being comfortable in those settings, I think a lot of that comes back to just really knowing how our minds work. So let’s

Sonya Looney 2:30
get into that. How do our minds work? question to answer.

Jud Brewer 2:36
Yeah, so let’s start with the, you know, we can take the pathway of eating for survival. And so all of us share this common pathway of, you know, are having to remember where food is. And in modern day, that’s pretty easy, you know, I think I can imagine I can picture how many steps it takes to get to my refrigerator. And it takes even fewer steps to get to my phone, if I want food delivery, or, you know, all these things, you know, 24 hour diner, so food is for most of us is readily available. But if you go back to our survival brains and how they got set up around this, we didn’t have all of this convenience. And so we had to remember where food is where where it was. And we also had to remember where danger was. So we didn’t become lunch on the way to getting our lunch. And that breaks down to, you know, three, three elements for any any learning process and trigger behavior as a result. And so if you look at the survival piece, you know, we see some food, right, that’s the, that’s the trigger, then we eat the food, there’s the behavior, and then our stomach sends this dopamine signal to our brain. That’s the reward from a neuroscience standpoint. And that reward tells us one specific thing, it says, Remember where you found this, okay? So that’s how that gets set up. It’s called positive reinforcement. And then the flip side of that is negative reinforcement, where if we see danger, there’s the trigger, we run away, there’s the behavior, and then we are not eaten. There’s the reward, we learn to avoid those places. So that’s, that’s the basic premise. And then, on top of that, if we look into modern day where we’re typically you know, danger comes in different forms. Whether it’s a, an email from our boss, that, you know, that is ambiguous, and we’re not sure if we’re in trouble or not, or whether it’s, you know, social media, where we’re comparing ourselves to other people, whether it’s the food we eat, or how much we eat, or what we look like, or all all the myriad ways that we can compare ourselves to others, then we start to have these negative reinforcement processes that gets set up, not out of hunger, and not out of true physical danger, but out of this emotional danger where something feels bad, feels unpleasant feels, you know, it could be anything from boredom, to sadness, to loneliness, to anger, to frustration, and then if we happen to Eat some food. We our brand says, ooh, that that was good because that distracted me or it felt it tasted good. Or I got a little bit of a dopamine hit. And then we start to learn, oh, if I feel bad, I can eat this. And so that food mood relationship gets set up in the absence of hunger. That’s the key piece. It’s not that we’re eating because we’re hungry, right? That’s the survival mechanism. It’s that we’re eating as a distraction, or as a way to soothe our mood.

Sonya Looney 5:29
So yeah, I want to talk about the actual loop that you’ve, like, formatted for us. And that’s been in your other books. But this is just such an interesting thing is that we used to eat when we’re hungry, but now there’s so many different reasons that we eat. And there’s, I don’t know, do you think it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry?

Jud Brewer 5:51
Well, it depends on what okay means.

Sonya Looney 5:54
I mean, do you think people should, should only be eating when they’re hungry? Or do you think that eating to, you know, to feel better about something from time to time, you know, have your birthday cake on your birthday, or whatever it is, is a fine thing for our bodies.

Jud Brewer 6:11
Yeah, so I think it’s a spectrum. So let’s use the birthday birthday example, it’s probably just fine to be eating a little bit of cake and ice cream when we’re not hungry at a celebration, for example. But if we get in the habit of doing that all the time, every time we want to pick me up, or every time we’re sad, then it can scoot down the continuum of not so helpful and not so healthy. And on top of that, if we are eating to soothe our mood, we’re not actually getting at actual mechanisms that can help us deal with whatever the mood is in the first place. So we’re avoiding, you know, developing strategies to help us work with distress. And that’s, that’s a really important, emotional skill to develop.

Sonya Looney 6:59
Yeah, and on the other side of the spectrum is, you know, I think a lot of people listening might relate with this is extreme restriction. So a lot of you know, endurance athletes, they they’re thinking about body comp, or like, you know, strength athletes body composition, or strength to weight ratio. So food becomes this thing that they shouldn’t be doing. So they’re not over indulging, they’re under indulging, and then they’re not fueling their bodies properly. So they have unhealthy habit loops around food in that regard.

Jud Brewer 7:26
Yes, and so I’m not the completely I’m not an expert on this. But I think as a general principle, often when we’re looking at rules, like, Oh, here’s my strength to weight ratio that some book or some coach or some YouTuber told me about, then we’re not actually listening to the wisdom of our own bodies. And you’ve probably met athletes like this, where so many of them have said, you know, I was so divorced from my own body wasn’t listening to my body. And as soon as they started listening more to their body in terms of what they needed, they actually performed better. Huh.

Sonya Looney 8:01
And also, in your book, you talked about how we’re so addicted to measuring. These are something that with all the different wearable devices, people, again, are not no longer intuitive about how they feel. They look, they wake up, they’re like, Oh, my resting heart rate and my HRV are really good. Therefore, I should have a good workout today. And then they don’t have a good workout today. And they push through something they probably shouldn’t. Yeah,

Jud Brewer 8:23
yeah. So this goes back to being disconnected with our bodies as well. So wearables, they offer a lot of promises, but don’t always deliver on that promise. In that sense, if we look at food tracking, for example, wearables are notoriously terrible at being accurate with food tracking. And so if we look at our, our food app, instead of listening to our bodies, we’re gonna miss some really important signals. On top of that, you know, if we look at all these metrics, you know, these metrics are designed more, and they’re based on general populations. They’re not based on individuals. I think over time, they will get even better at individualizing and personalizing, but we’re not there yet. And so there’s this there’s this draw to certainty, where we’re like, Oh, I know exactly what my HRV is, or my resting heart rate, or I know exactly what my vo two Max is, or I know exactly how much I ate or I know, you know, exactly this or that. There’s, there’s this it just feels good to be certain about something as compared to be uncertain, being uncertain about something yet, life is all about uncertainty. And so two problems arise from that. One is we start depending on something outside of ourselves, too. We start getting stuck in trying to find ways to make life certain whether it’s X number of likes on Instagram or whatever, versus living and relishing the ambiguity. And then we get stuck in like always looking for that certainty and being happy thing, you know, that drive us into our comfort zone rather than living in our growth zone, which is really the most, the best place to be, in my opinion is the healthy as it’s where we grow them most. And also, it allows us to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Sonya Looney 10:16
That makes me think about, you know, uncertainty and your your last book, which I loved, and I recommend all the time is unwinding anxiety, and we’re always trying to fix the problem, we’re trying to think our way out of the problem. If I could just control this problem, then I can find certainty in my life. And this applies to food. If people feel this uneasiness, or in your book, you have a bunch of different ways people can identify their emotions, then they just want to eat something, because it makes them feel better. And I understand totally understand that. So like, how do we learn how to sit with this uncertainty and to be okay with it?

Jud Brewer 10:50
Well, the first place if especially related to food, the first thing we need to do is identify that we are reaching for food outside of hunger, right? So a lot of people, they’re, they’re so disconnected with their bodies, they’re not actually listening to their bodies to see if they’re actually hungry or not. And so they’ve got to be able to differentiate, you know, am I hungry? Or is it something else that’s driving to meet to eat, and then they can map out whatever, whatever the behavior is, you know, am I eating out of boredom, loneliness, anger, frustration, you know, sadness, whatever. And then with that, so there are two places we can explore. One is we can explore how to let go have some of those unhealthy eating habits, but more directly to your question, we can then save all that energy and direct it toward helping us learn, you know, think of this as learning distress tolerance, learning to be with uncertainty, learning to be with ambiguity, learning to be with unpleasant sensations, like emotions, and then actually leaning into them, and starting to really embrace them. You know, there’s this saying the only way out is through, or the Marcus Aurelius quote, the, what is it? What stands in the way becomes the way. And so we can actually see these these challenging emotions as not challenging as an Oh, no, but challenging us to grow, so we can learn from them. And then we can actually learn to be in uncertainty a lot more. And even lean into it like, oh, here we go, as compared to the Oh, no, you know, how am I going to deal with this, or this is unpleasant. So I’m going to, I’m going to stuffed some food down to make it go, you know, to numb myself? Yeah,

Sonya Looney 12:33
kindness and curiosity have been two major elements in your work. So can you give us examples of how to apply kindness and curiosity to changing a habit loop around food? Sure.

Jud Brewer 12:44
So let’s start with kindness. Because I think that is often the place to start. And just being able to recognize and see all the different ways that we beat ourselves up over food, whether we’re comparing ourselves to other people, whether we’re comparing ourselves to ourselves, whether it’s, you know, our past self, or our ideal self, and then just starting to see how we think we’re dealing with the issue and checking to see how well that’s actually working. So often, this comes in the form of self judgment, where we think, Oh, I’m a bad person, I need to do this, or we set up these food rules where you know, I need to eat this and not that. And all of those are ways of trying to develop certainty, trying to feel like we’re in control. But ultimately, they actually just get us stuck in feeling worse, because setting up rules, isn’t going to actually change habits. That’s not how habit change happens. And beating ourselves up just makes us feel bad. judging ourselves makes us feel bad. So here, we can just compare what it feels like to judge ourselves versus being kind to ourselves. You know, we’ve done studies on this, others have done studies on this, anybody can do their own study with themselves. And they can just ask themselves, what feels better kindness, or meanness? You know, it’s a no brainer. So that’s the place I often will encourage people to start. Does that make sense?

Sonya Looney 14:03
Yeah. And I think it’s easier said than done. Especially whenever people are comparing or they think that things need to be a certain way in order like an athlete might think I have to look a certain way or I have to weigh a certain number in order to perform. And, like people used to tell me things like this when I was a lot younger, you know, commenting. I mean, I think that I look like an athlete, but there’ll be people commenting on my body, things about that, that they didn’t think was what an athlete look like and things that were out of my control. And just that was crazy. And there’s a lot of pressure to try to like force yourself into a mole to look a certain way. And then when you have that pressure, there’s there’s even less kindness.

Jud Brewer 14:43
Yeah, that’s that’s a really good example. And it takes us away from why we’re there in the first place, which is to perform and have fun. And enjoy the sport. Yeah, so I am glad you will highlight how it sounds simple but isn’t necessarily easy. It can be tremendously challenging, especially in this day and age where everybody’s in the spotlight, thanks to social media.

Sonya Looney 15:11
Yeah, and kindness. I mean, we hear about self compassion. But compassion and kindness are two different things. So how can people practice kindness? And how can people practice self compassion? And when is it appropriate to do either one?

Jud Brewer 15:23
Yeah, great question. So I see these two is related. And with kindness, you know, we can think of, you know, for example, anytime somebody has been kind to us, or Simon, we’ve been kind to someone else as a place to start. And so we can just practice acts of kindness. And we can notice what that feels like. It’s a little more straightforward than compassion, that depending on the definition, that you look at compassion requires a certain condition for compassion to arise. So we can’t force compassion, necessarily, but we can look to see what conditions are necessary. And the condition that that is, is really necessary, that I’ve seen is, is suffering, somebody’s got to be suffering. So if somebody else’s suffering, then we might see their suffering, notice that they’re suffering. And then if we don’t run away from that suffering, compassion arises, and in that compassionate response is kindness, right, there’s a kindness element to it. This is also true for self compassion, if we can really touch into our own suffering, and not run away from it or judge ourselves or block ourselves from it, we can notice, oh, I’m suffering, and then that allows that natural compassion response to arise. The other thing that I’d find instrumental, and we’ve even done some research with physician burnout around compassion versus empathy fatigue, is that if we’re taking that suffering personally, that can because suffering is unpleasant, we can actually accidentally trigger these negative reinforcement processes, where if they’re suffering, oh, no, that’s unpleasant. So we actually wall ourselves off or block block that, because we are thinking about it, you know, it relating to us like, and then suddenly we’re suffering and that’s unpleasant. So with that, it can be very helpful just to notice that suffering is arising, as compared to, you know, take it personally, for example, even if it’s our own suffering, it’s like, oh, I am suffering. And that’s different than Oh, no, I’m suffering, which is, which is where we’re, we tend to personalize it even more than it needs to be.

Sonya Looney 17:39
Yeah. So it sounds like number one noticing, I’m suffering. And number two, it’s are you judging the suffering?

Jud Brewer 17:48
Absolutely. Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it.

Sonya Looney 17:51
And in your book, you have you map the pattern of your habit loop, you change the reward value of your eating behavior. And then you find, and you’re I think your wife says, it’s a BBO. Right, like back when the craving mind, yes, right. Yeah, fight, find the bigger better offer. So can we talk about you said, you can use a tension to change the reward value of eating behavior? So can you walk us through an example of this? Sure.

Jud Brewer 18:14
And the place I’ll start is to say that this has nothing to do with willpower. And I want to highlight that because often people just think, oh, there’s something wrong with me, I need more willpower. And if I could just apply willpower to this, I could change my eating habit. From a neuroscience standpoint, willpower is not even part of the discussion. And it’s not in the equations for behavior change. So yet, the critical ingredient, as you mentioned, is awareness. And that is part of the equation. So the way it works in we’ve even we did a study published a couple of years ago, where we had people pay attention as they overate and notice how quickly their reward value in their behavior changed. And that I mentioned that right off at the offset, because that highlights what the question is and how we address it. And so we’ve got to see how rewarding a behavior is. Because if we don’t, and it’s a habit, we’re just gonna keep doing it. By definition, habit is automatic. So we bring awareness, and we ask simple questions, like, what am I getting from this? So for example, with overeating, it, it happens pretty quickly for somebody to note as well, overeating doesn’t feel very good. Nobody. None of my patients have come back and thanked me for helping them pay attention as they overeat as they overeat, so they can overeat more, you know, because, you know, no one’s like, Oh, this is so great. How did they not notice that before, they noticed pretty quickly to that their body is telling them, Hey, this is not very comfortable. And I’m trying to give you some signals that this is not good for you. And that’s different than saying, Oh, I shouldn’t overeat. It’s really feeling into the wisdom of the body that saying, Hey, this is not so good. And what that eyes. This is called a negative prediction error in neuroscience, which is just a fancy term for helping our brain see that this is worse than expected. And if we pay attention, we see that something’s worse than expected, we’re going to not actually become disenchanted with it. And so it’s a very simple equation. And we’ve, we’ve seen this in several studies now, where as we pay attention, and something is not rewarding, we’re going to naturally become disenchanted. And that boils down to a simple question, what am I getting from this? But important, feeling into the answer? Not thinking, Oh, I shouldn’t eat this. But asking what happens when I do eat this or this amount of food?

Sonya Looney 20:43
I really liked that. And that’s helped me a lot. The What am I getting from this question? Your work has really impacted how I’ve been able to change some of my habit loops, especially around overthinking with, with what am I getting from this and reward value? What if somebody isn’t overeating? Maybe they’re just eating a little bit too much. Maybe they’re indulging just a little bit too much. And it actually feels good. Like there isn’t in the moment, a negative reward value, but maybe the next day, they’re thinking like, wow, that that went against my values are whatever, like, how can people have enough prospection? Even if in the moment, it still feels good?

Jud Brewer 21:20
Well, this gets a nuance of how these equation works, these equations work. And the way that that boils down is if something doesn’t have a negative enough value, we’re not going to become disenchanted with it. Yet, on the flip side, we can also find there two ways to increase the differential, let’s say, where you know where we’re going to change your behavior. So we can either see how unrewarding a certain behavior is, and or we can ask, well, what’s more rewarding? And as you mentioned earlier, what’s that bigger, better offer? So we can look at this during we can also look at this after the eating behavior. And we can ask, okay, was that optimal? Did that feel good? And that includes both the physical but also the emotional components, right? And so like you mentioned, there might be emotional components that come out later, where it’s like, oh, well, I didn’t need that, you know, I didn’t sleep well. Boy that went against, you know, my values. If we’re eating, for example, a lot of people eat plant based diets just to help the planet, you know, regardless of their personal health. So there could be a lot of things that go into the equation. And so here, we can ask, well, what’s it feel like, when I, when I do this other behavior? Does it feel better, and then we can compare the two and that can actually help to make that differential big enough. So that these small things where we might overeat a little bit, or we might, you know, indulge in, you know, something not all the time, but doesn’t, you know, give us this huge negative reward value. That actually helps to open up the space where we can see oh, well, it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t as good as when I don’t do it. Or when I do this other thing instead. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 23:06
you talk about your disenchantment databank versus your enchantment databank. And it seems like you know, if there’s a bit more nuance, it might take a little bit longer to fill the bank. Whereas if you’re doing something excessively, the bank fills up quicker.

Jud Brewer 23:17
Absolutely, yeah. Something else,

Sonya Looney 23:20
we kind of already touched on it. But I just want to emphasize this, because there’s a lot of things that people have a hard time with, whenever they’re thinking way out into the future. So like, maybe it’s saving money for retirement, or maybe, you know, our daily habits impact, who we’re going to be 2030 years from now, but it’s really hard for a lot of people to look that far into the future and change their habits because they aren’t getting an immediate reward value for it.

Jud Brewer 23:45
Yes, there’s a well known phenomenon in science called delay discounting that describes what you’re talking about. Yeah, we can all feel this in our own experience, you know, it’s hard, it’s hard to even think six months down the road, you know, if you were thinking, well, I want to, I want to eat more protein, and therefore, you know, it might help me build X amount of muscle mass, or I want to do this or I want to, you know, save for retirement, you know, and the way that works is that our brains, you know, again, going back to this uncertainty principle, our brains are going to look at what’s right in front of them, because that’s more certain. And it’s the farther out in the future we look, the more uncertainty there is. So the more our brains discount the potential rewards that we might get in the future, versus today, and some of the economic studies that have proven this and I, I use this as an example because most people can relate to this. If somebody came up to me and and I said, Hey, you know, I’m gonna give you $10 Today, or if you come back in a week, I’ll give you $11. Now the return that it’s like, what 10% return, if you put that in the bank, no banks can give you 10% In a week. So It’s actually a pretty good economic decision to say, well, a week works yet. I don’t know anybody that would be like, oh, yeah, I’ll come back. And we can, you know, give me $11. Because they’re not sure what’s going to be happening next week, they’re not sure if I’m going to change my mind or something like that. Whereas $10 is the sure thing. And that applies to eating that applies to staying up late at night watching television when we know, you know, we should just go to sleep. There’s so many things that fall into this delay discounting principle, where we think, Oh, I’ll feel I’ll even feel better tomorrow. Yet, we just can’t seem to turn off the television.

Sonya Looney 25:41
Which is also meant to be addicting like food, certain food items are made and engineered. So you said this isn’t willpower? But I don’t know. I agree with that. But self regulation seems like this is part of it. So can you differentiate for us like rules versus self regulation versus willpower? Sure,

Jud Brewer 25:58
so rules fall into the willpower camp, or I should say, willpower, and rules tend to go together. So for example, if we set rules, we often think, well, I need to follow the rules. And you know, I need some willpower to do that. self regulation. Again, as a neuroscientist, I think of this from neuroscientific standpoint, self regulation actually has a lot to do with how rewarding a behavior is. And so we set up these reward hierarchies in our brains, that actually help us make decisions. And so often we think, Oh, I made that decision. But running in the background is our brain doing all these simulations, that that say, oh, you know, this is going to be more preferable to the to that. So for example, an easy example would be, and I talked about this in the hunger habit, you know, broccoli versus chocolate or chocolate cake, from a caloric standpoint, you know, chocolate cake packs a lot more calories per, you know, per pound, so to speak. And so, our brains gonna set up these reward hierarchies that say, Hey, when given a choice between two things, pick this. Now, it’s going to simulate eating both of those, and it might even do this really, really quickly, where we’re not even that aware of it or aware of it at all. And that simulation is going to be based on past experience. So even with broccoli and cake, we can check to see oh, if I’m really hungry, what was it like the last time I ate a bunch of cake when I was hungry, versus when I ate a well balanced meal. Right. And so we can, we can actually pause and give our brains that that space to run this simulation and even make that simulation conscious, so that we can, you know, so that that decision making that self control, the self regulation actually comes from, from the simulations that our brain that our brains are very good at doing. That’s in contrast to willpower, which I’ll just say is more myth than muscle. That’s

Sonya Looney 28:00
so interesting to hear about. In my past, I had, I would say, just disordered patterns of eating, you know, trying to be a certain way. And it was really challenging. And, and I’m not, I’m not saying this will work for everybody at all. But for me, it was, it was interesting, when I changed my diet to plant based all that kind of went away, and it hasn’t come back. And it was really bizarre, that my entire, you know, teenage and 20s Like, I changed my diet when I was whatever at the end of my 20s that that went away. And it kind of sounds like it’s because I wasn’t making rule like I guess there are, quote, rules around, you know, eating plant based, but they weren’t rules to me, it was just that was just the way that I was doing things now and I didn’t have to assess, you know, am I eating this? Or am I eating that? It’s just this is what I’m doing. And it’s hard for me to put words into that. I’m wondering if you can help me.

Jud Brewer 28:50
Yeah, I’m curious. Now, when you start eating plant based, were you listening to your body more in terms of how much you needed in terms of calorie versus, you know, in protein, and cetera, et cetera? Like just listening to that wisdom of your body? Or what was different?

Sonya Looney 29:06
It wasn’t that I was really paying attention to that stuff, per se. I think it’s just that I didn’t feel like I had to restrict myself. It’s like, well, I’m eating a whole foods plant based diet, so I can eat as much as I want, and I don’t have to track my calories.

Jud Brewer 29:19
Okay, so you named a key concept here, which is I didn’t have to restrict myself. So when, you know, deprivation leads to wanting, right whenever we you say you can’t have this than we wanted even more. And so that tends to cause you. I’ll just say problems for us. That whenever we say can’t have then our brain says want more. And so if you said hey, all right, you can have all you want go for it. Then you actually you open that door, you leave it wide open and there’s no there’s no pressure behind it because there’s nobody banging on the door saying I I want to in, is that fit? Does that fit with your experience?

Sonya Looney 30:03
It does. And then over time, I did start to notice how my body would feel. I wouldn’t feel like a heaviness or I wouldn’t feel like I should be like what we were just talking about, I should be doing this a certain way the thinking that the guilting but I would notice, like, lightness, I guess or like, if I just eat handfuls of arugula, like I feel different immediately after I eat it. And I don’t know if it’s like, oh, is this confirmation bias? Because I know that you know, it increases blood flow, like after you eat a high, like nitric oxide food? Or is it actually, you know, how I am feeling? So there’s sometimes I wonder that, but I think I truly feel that way.

Jud Brewer 30:43
You’re probably not alone in that, you know, I’ve been eating mostly plant based for for a number of years now. And so, you know, I’m a little biased there. But certainly, you know, just trying to remember back to last time I had, you know, like some meat or something. And it’s just like that literally, you say lightness, there’s a heaviness because my body’s just like trying to digest this thing. And, you know, then you add in like ultra processed, you know, carbohydrate based foods. And for me, I used to get a sugar rush and crash. And that’s very different than eating like a whole food, you know, meal, for example. And so I think there’s a, you know, I think these, we’ve kind of CO evolved with food sources, where we’re going to, we’re going to feel optimal and perform optimally, when we are when we’re minimally manipulating our food environment.

Sonya Looney 31:41
Yeah. And I think it’s interesting too, because once you stop eating the ultra processed foods, like I don’t think everybody has to eat exactly like me, but I think getting away from ultra processed foods is key. Once you stop doing that, then you start noticing, actually, if you do eat something like that, how bad it feels, because you just aren’t used to it anymore. Yeah,

Jud Brewer 31:59
yeah, for sure. And the, you know, people, I’ve noticed this, and people have commented on it, it’s just, you know, the the mood swings, you know, it’s amazing how we think, Oh, this is my mood just swings all the time. Well, food equals mood, mood equals food. And so if we’re, we’ve got a mood swing, and we’re eating some comfort food, that could actually just make a swing even more. And then that starts when it starts to balance itself out, simply by eating a clean, you know, clean meals for, you know, month or so. It’s amazing how we’re like, oh, yeah, my moods still shift. But I’m not on this crazy roller coaster. And I actually have some control over this, it’s, it’s pretty crazy. I’m

Sonya Looney 32:41
kind of going down the rabbit hole a little bit, but how you eat impacts your gut flora and your gut flora impacts your brain. So that’s another kind of loop. Can you can you talk about how that applies to our hunger habits?

Jud Brewer 32:53
Sure. And this is, you know, their books and books that have been written about gut flora. And I’ll also say it’s still an evolving science. So I’m really curious to see what else we discovered in the next five, you know, five to 10 years. But in short, I think you’ve summarized it pretty nicely. Where, you know, if we eat a bunch of processed food or a bunch of sugar, that’s actually going to check that’s going to affect the microflora. And that, you know, which basically, which bacteria outcompete other bacteria in our gut. And then if you add into that, you know, food coloring, and preservatives and things like that, there are all sorts of things that can affect our, our gut flora in all sorts of different ways. And what we’re what scientists are learning more and more is that, you know, that is really critical for how we what our moods are, and how we feel on a day to day basis. So there’s this gut brain interaction, that is, again, you know, just starting to be explored. We’re scratching the surface of this, but the bottom line is there, there’s a lot there. And I think we can discover pretty quickly how we can affect our own you know, gut brain, you know, mood food relationship just by experimenting a little bit, you know, like, what I loved one of my favorite movies. I was, Supersize Me This is years and years ago, where this guy goes and eats a he’s like, I’m gonna eat McDonald’s every day, three meals all day, you know, all my meals for a month. And then he tracked what happened to him. And so, you know, it’s won’t be a spoiler, but, you know, it’s not surprising that not only did his you know, he basically made his liver into a pate. But the really apart from the part that was really interesting to me as a psychiatrist was how his mood change so his libido changed. I think its girlfriend dumped him or almost dumped him because he was such a, you know, he was such a moody, he can turn into a moody teenager basically. And, you know, he was just like, I feel awful all the time, you know, and so that’s An extreme, I wouldn’t recommend people go that far to try it out. But a lot of people are actually about halfway there with their normal diets. And so I would say go halfway the other way. And try just like eating unprocessed, non fast food meals, you know, for most of your days for for two or three weeks and see what happens. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 35:18
that’s actually we kind of got off track. This brings us back to curiosity, like, what would happen if I ate just a little bit differently and didn’t make all these rules? Like I have to eat this way forever? But what would happen if I just tried this? Yeah,

Jud Brewer 35:31
I love that. And I think that really encapsulates curiosity in a nutshell. So often, when we set up these food rules, it’s the Oh, no, I can’t eat this, or Oh, no, I better eat more more of this. And that Oh, no, tends to make us feel closed down and constricted. And anytime we’re in a confined space, it doesn’t feel very good, in our mind can be a confined space, and we can we’re creating that confined space with those food rules. Oh, no, you know, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat this. And I talked about some extreme examples of people having crazy food rules in the hunger habit. But I’m sure people have seen examples of this, if not in their own lives and others. And so that’s the opposite of curiosity. So instead of, oh, no, I can’t do this. We go, oh, what happens when I do this. And so it opens us up for new possibilities, but also opens that door where we don’t, we don’t feel nearly as confined. And it makes it a much more pleasant journey, as we’re discovering what actually happens when we you know, try this, versus this as compared to saying I can’t have this. And

Sonya Looney 36:39
it this comes right back to what we’re talking about. Self awareness and non mindfulness, non judgmental self awareness, because judgment kills curiosity immediately. Total. So you know, for people who, like, I know, a lot of people listening to this podcast have heard of, you know, mindfulness, they’ve probably tried some meditation. But what about maybe somebody who’s listening in, they’re thinking about a family member that is completely, you know, not in tune with their body? They’ve never even thought about self awareness of any kind, like, how do you even start having those conversations to help other people?

Jud Brewer 37:13
Well, it’s hard to it’s just nobody likes somebody else to come in and tell them to change their life. So the first thing I would say is, and I’ve certainly noticed this, in my own experience, I remember when I first got into mindfulness practice, I lost several girlfriends this way. And he was like, oh, you should try mindfulness. And they’re like, oh, you should try dating somebody else. Since. So, anytime, what’s the saying of profits, not welcome in their own town. So here, it’s really about living the practices. And so living, you know, the principles behind mindfulness are relatively simple, not always easy, but they’re simple. It’s about kindness and curiosity. And so if we live that, somebody then will come to us and say, Man, what do you smoke, and I want some of that. And then they’re open to learning. And then we just talk about our own experience, as compared to saying, oh, you should do this, you know, this shoulds. That’s like the food rules. And so imagine somebody imposing their rules on us. We’re gonna resist those, we’re gonna run away as fast as possible. So it really it’s about creating that inviting environment through our own, you know, through living it and through demonstrating it.

Sonya Looney 38:28
Can you talk about what hunger actually feels like? Because I thought that that was you had this chart in your book, I thought it was fantastic.

Jud Brewer 38:35
Yeah, so. And this came from me, being blown away by a basic assumption that I had when I was in this is early in my psychiatric career when I was working in a clinic and doing a group medical visit with a bunch of people with binge eating disorder. And these I just assumed, Oops, hold on one second. Sorry, my. My cat stepped on my demurrer keyboard, and suddenly the thing that’s

Sonya Looney 39:07
very funny, I saw you had Cat Cat on your mug, too. So I was gonna ask you about cats.

Jud Brewer 39:10
Oh, yes, yes, I have a little sidekick right here named Samson, who looks very much like the the Black Cat on my mug. And also, I love this mug, because it has one of the one of the bullet

Sonya Looney 39:24
points. All right. I love it.

Jud Brewer 39:28
So Samson is a model of curiosity. But just back to this, this group that I was working with, with binge eating disorder. So, you know, I was just talking to them asking questions, you know, like, Okay, well, you know, what, why don’t you you know, what’s it like when you’re hungry? And they’re like, you know, there’s like stunned silence in the room. And, you know, it’s kind of thinking, you know, what did I say and, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. And finally somebody said this, they said, Oh, well, I have an urge and I eat. And that opened the door for me to realize that they had completely lost all ability to differentiate actual hunger, from cravings. And in fact, there’s a scientific term. It’s a misnomer, in fact, because it’s not, you know, the description is not accurate, in the sense that the it’s called hedonic hunger. And I say it’s a misnomer, because people are eating in the absence of hunger, not when they’re actually hungry. So that’s why it’s a misnomer, but it’s you scientifically so we can study all the ways that people eat in the absence of hunger. And so these folks had lost the ability to differentiate hedonic, from homeostatic hunger, homeostatic hungers, like, you know, what’s it like when we’re actually hungry? And so the the most telltale sign that that isn’t, that doesn’t have other causes, is just our stomach rumbling right. So when, when our stomachs empty, and we feel like it rumbling, you know, there’s just that distinct feeling that people describe as hunger. Oh, yes. So we’re laughing because I’ve got, you know, my cat is decided that he needs to join the podcast right at this

Sonya Looney 41:21
moment, Samsung is welcome to the podcast,

Jud Brewer 41:23
Samsung, say a few words. Tell

Sonya Looney 41:27
us about curiosity and how you cultivate it.

Jud Brewer 41:30
Yes, exactly. So here, we can be curious. And we can start asking, you know, I start with a question like, how, how recently did I eat? And how much did I eat? And so, you know, if we, if we just ate recently, and we’re starting to get cues of hunger or quote, unquote, hunger, we can start to ask, well, are these specific to actual physiologic hunger? Or can they be signs of other things. So for example, distracted pneus, irritability, restlessness, those can be signs of a bunch of different things. So we could be bored. For example, we could just be frustrated with something. And so we could be these could be linked with eating and the absence of hunger, because they are, you know, we’re like, oh, I’m restless. And that restlessness has overlap with a craving for food, or if we’ve learned to eat when we’re frustrated, then it triggers us to eat in the absence of hunger. So the, you know, there there, there are very few specific physical symptoms, let’s say or feelings of hunger. But there are a lot that overlap. And so we can certainly look for the stomach rumbling. But then we can also look, and I have this whole checklist in the book where there’s, you know, they’re overlapping categories. And they’re non overlapping categories, where we can start to just kind of go through that checklist and see what the greatest likelihood is in and factoring in how recently we ate. And what that helps us start to do is to just get back in touch with our body, so that we can eventually we don’t need this checklist, we can start to really intuitively feel oh, yeah, that’s true hunger, or that isn’t.

Sonya Looney 43:17
I also think that people can get afraid to feel hungry, like, I know that I’ve been in that boat, like I’m traveling somewhere. And I have to bring all this food because well, what happens if I’m stuck on the plane? And I don’t want to eat the food on the plane? So what if I get hungry? So I actually have been practicing not not starving myself, but just noticing if I’m hungry, and if I’m hungry for a little bit just being like, that’s okay to be hungry for a little bit.

Jud Brewer 43:39
Yeah, yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that I used to eat that way, you know, out of out of fear, just because, you know, it was like, Oh, I’ve got a packed day. And I would notice, you know, especially in the hospital or something, you know, when I’m totally starving, my brain does not work as well as when I when I’ve got proper calories. And so it could actually affect my clinical decision making. And so I would, I would do that, just like you’re talking about kind of try to pre load as compared to checking to see like, okay, is a little bit of hunger, okay, and where is it where I’m getting in the danger zone where I’m in kind of in starvation mode. And, you know, it’s amazing how, you know, fear. If we just lean into fear a little bit, it’s not so bad. It’s not, you know, fear is not so scary.

Sonya Looney 44:34
So, I’m looking at the time, I can’t believe how fast it’s gone, because I thought, Oh, we have tons of time. I’m going to save this. Something that I really loved in your book as you came up. Well, you had a list of different meditation techniques that people can try. And I liked it because I think a lot of people are familiar with headspace, which I actually am not a big fan of that meditation app. To me it feels too basic, and it doesn’t offer a lot of room. for advancement in your practice, so some of the things in your book, you had some more, in my mind like intermediate to almost advanced things that people can try. Can you tell us about one or two of your favorites? Sure.

Jud Brewer 45:12
And I was also curious which ones you saw as intermediate to advanced. So one that we’ve found a lot of this is based on, you know, we have this app called D right now. And so we did a lot of studies to see you know, what practices are really helpful for people. One that we found early on even back as far as our smoking studies was this rain practice. That is, you know, the the acronym stands for recognize, allow or accept, and then investigate. And then we, we use note, often people might have learned it as non identification, or Tara brach often uses nurture, which I think is really helpful. But for our purposes, it was this noting practice, that they can be seen as a more advanced practice as well. Although it can also be seen as a beginner practice, you know, just depends on how somebody uses it. And so, you know, that that rain acronym encapsulates one of the practices that I found extremely helpful this noting practice, which actually gets us this basic principle of what we think of as the observer effect, you know, by observing you can’t be identified with your motion, your thought, or your body sensation. So simply noting it, we can note it out loud, or we can note it silently to ourselves, you know, we start have people start with just basic categories of experience, like they’re seeing, hearing, feeling, you know, feeling body sensations, smelling, tasting, that type of thing, they can just note that, and then they as they get proficient with it, they can start to start to note very, very subtle body sensations. And this is extremely helpful, especially when it comes to eating, where we can start to start to notice tingling or tightness, or burning or things like that. And that helps us differentiate things like a craving, you know, in the absence of hunger versus true body signals of hunger, for example. So the rain acronym is a good one, the noting practice that’s part of rain can be done as part of it or just alone. Those are two that we find are extremely helpful for people. The

Sonya Looney 47:20
mental noting, one, that one I learned that from a meditation are a couple of meditations, I did through like some Joseph Goldstein, meditations. Yeah. And I found that to be so incredibly helpful. And then also with noting how people can get judgmental about their noting. Yeah, sort of be gentle with your noting. But that has helped me a lot with rumination, if I start thinking, and I’m overthinking, and then I just say thinking, and it kind of, it kind of takes away its power. And the same thing can happen with a food craving.

Jud Brewer 47:48
Totally, totally. So we can no judging, for example, if we’re judging ourselves, or we can simply note craving, and we can get specific with the craving, which helps, you know, if you think of a craving like a thunderstorm, where it’s made up of a bunch of elements, it can seem pretty scary at first, but then when we break it down, we’re like, Well, okay, there’s, there’s lightning, okay, there’s wind, there’s water, there’s, you know, there’s this or that, when we break it down, it’s like all these elements by themselves are just elements. And this concept is what’s scary. And so the noting, for example, with a craving, if we can note this physical sensations of a craving, we can start to see oh, this is just made up of physical sensations that come and go. And in fact, I can ride these out by simply noting them. It’s tremendously empowering.

Sonya Looney 48:36
Ya know? So think about noting emotions, like I think you had name it to tame it or or I don’t know, did you have that phrase in your book?

Jud Brewer 48:44
That I think I give a nod to that. I think Dan Siegel first was the person that first came up with it, I love it name entertainment, because that’s what note is all about. Yeah.

Sonya Looney 48:53
And I think that, you know, learning this emotional granularity, like what is the difference between feeling frustrated and feeling angry and trying to learn those things, and I have a one and a three year old, so I’m trying to teach the kids what they’re feeling I see them and I’m trying to note their feelings for them. So it’s been a really fun practice of really, you know, learning more granularity here.

Jud Brewer 49:15
Well, what a gift you’re giving your kids not only helping them kind of name their emotions, but help you know your well. Kids are really good at curiosity, but helping foster and support I know exactly, foster and support that so that they can stay curious their whole lives instead of growing up into adults that feel like they have to act like they know even when they don’t.

Sonya Looney 49:43
Yeah, and even in just basic conversations, being able to if you’re if you’re having a conversation with somebody that’s getting heated, like just naming an emotion out loud, instead of blaming can be such a powerful thing.

Jud Brewer 49:54
Totally, totally. It’s like oh, wow, I’m noticing that I am getting really heated right Now, you know, give me a second, take a breath. Nobody’s gonna say no.

Sonya Looney 50:03
Yeah, let’s keep going. What are some meditation techniques that did not make it into the book? Or got cut out of the book?

Jud Brewer 50:12
That’s a great question. The I was trying to include everything that has been helpful. So what got cut, I mean, really, you know, the more the more I do this work. And you know, we’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, now, the simpler things get. So, I’m not sure that I actually cut anything. That was a specific practice, you know, kindness practices, one thing we added, that is different than than my other books is, you know, talked about loving kindness in my other books. But we found that sometimes that can be a little inaccessible for people. And so Jackie, who’s actually one of the heroes of the book, we talk, she’s landed her story to the book to give some voice to it, she actually came up with this, this beautiful kind of self compassion slash kindness practice, that we added in as a as an alternative for people that are just starting, or haven’t had a lot of experience with loving kindness, or people who have struggled with loving kindness for years. So I would say we’ve actually added a few things. And, you know, I think that we, that it’s helped, you know, the longer we do things that the more we can cut stuff that’s not actually that helpful, or not even included in the first place, so that the book isn’t overly long. But I think everything has been there that’s needed to be there. And I’m proud to say I’ve nobody’s asked me this question before. But I’m proud to say there’s nothing that I can think of that actually got cut that I wish, you know, stayed in, because, you know, because the book needed to be shorter.

Sonya Looney 51:54
That’s fantastic. Because I hear so many authors say that, like, there’s all these chapters that got cut, and something that we’re learning a lot like Marty Seligman was one of our professors last semester, and one of the rules of writing these papers was write forcefully and be concise. And the word counts on these papers would just feel impossible to write about something so complex, and so few words. But it’s been such a great practice in learning how to, to not ramble on forever, which, when you have no boundaries, it’s easy to do that.

Jud Brewer 52:26
You know, and it highlights a good point, something that I learned way back in residency was that the less you know, the more you say. And so, you know, it’s a good signal to us if we’re going on and on to actually stop and ask, Do I know what I’m talking about? Because often, you know, especially with a paper deadline, for example, we can get in this mode of like, I have to write this paper, as compared to asking, have I properly researched this paper enough to write it? And so often, we think, Well, I just need to get started writing it. But I actually like to ask the question, Have I researched it enough so that the writing will happen effortlessly, and just flow? And that also helps with the brevity thing? Right? Because if we know exactly what we’re talking about, it takes many fewer words to describe it.

Sonya Looney 53:23
Unless you overcomplicate it,

Jud Brewer 53:27
yeah. And over complication is often a sign that something is you know, might be a little off. And I say that, yeah. Because, you know, again, the more we have done work, the more we’re we’re simplifying things, you know. And so when something is really, really seems really, really, really complex, you know, we might be missing something, you know, if you look at, I don’t know, even to physics, you know, Einstein’s theory of relativity was a pretty simple equation. Anybody can remember it, you know. And so I think there’s a there’s a lot to be said about, you know, what is it that comes razor? The simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Sonya Looney 54:09
Yeah. And that’s why after a couple decades of doing this, you didn’t have to cut anything from your book.

Jud Brewer 54:13
Maybe So yeah, that’s a good point. Well,

Sonya Looney 54:17
Dr. Jenner was a pleasure to get to chat with you again, I hope someday we get to meet in person. Your books have been so helpful for me and for my clients and in my life. And I’m just really grateful for all the work that you’ve been doing. Oh, it was my pleasure. And where’s the best people hours of work? And everybody find you find not only the hunger habit, but the craving mind and also unwinding anxiety?

Jud Brewer 54:38
Oh, my website is probably the easiest. So it’s just Dr. judd.com, Dr. J. ud.com.

Sonya Looney 54:45
And then you have apps as well that people can if they want to take part in some of these behavior changing techniques, right?

Jud Brewer 54:51
Oh, yes. There’s the eating app that a lot of the book is based on the research from is called E right now. The unwinding anxiety app is a is the same name as the book and then our smoking app is called craving to quit but all of those resources are also mentioned on the Dr Jud website.

Sonya Looney 55:07
well thanks so much

Jud Brewer 55:09
great thank you

Leave a Reply