Dr. Jud Brewer of Sharecare: “Healthy eating is key to promoting overall wellbeing”

Healthy eating is key to promoting overall wellbeing. And you’re right, eating right isn’t just about knowing the right steps, but about being able to put and keep them in practice. We know from research on the world’s longest-lived communities that putting a “plant slant” in your diet and eating until you’re 80% full, for […]

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Healthy eating is key to promoting overall wellbeing. And you’re right, eating right isn’t just about knowing the right steps, but about being able to put and keep them in practice. We know from research on the world’s longest-lived communities that putting a “plant slant” in your diet and eating until you’re 80% full, for instance, are great ways to stay on the right track.

But we’ve got to make healthy eating choices easy — both in terms of access as well as appeal. Communities and organizations around the U.S. are doing great work on the first front. For instance, just last year Sharecare worked with Taylor Farms in Monterey County, Calif., to ensure its 4,000-plus employees had access to the leafy greens they grow.

Many ancient traditions around the world believe ‘wellbeing’ or ‘bienestar’ is a state of harmony within ourselves and our world, where we are in balance mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

As a part of our series about “How We Can Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jud Brewer.

He is the executive medical director of behavioral health at digital health company Sharecare and director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. As an addiction psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for treating addictions, Dr. Jud has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Indiana, where my mom raised four kids by herself. To stay out of trouble, around the age of 10, I started working as a paperboy, first delivering the afternoon paper and then being “promoted” to deliver the morning paper.

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in helping others? We’d love to hear the story.

I went to a Jesuit high school, not because I was Catholic, but because the public schools in Indianapolis weren’t great at the time and my mom wanted us to get a good education. The motto was “Men and women for others,” and I think that rubbed off on me a bit while I was there.

In college, I was studying chemistry and wanted to get a PhD in chemistry, but wanted to figure out how to more directly help people. I decided to pursue a joint MD/PhD where I could conduct research but also direct that research in a way that improved people’s lives. During my studies, in part because of the stress I experienced like any other medical student, I started meditating and exploring the deep suffering that comes from not knowing how our minds work.

We spend so much time running around pursuing pleasures and trying to get ahead at the expense of others. As I started to see how all of these things connected, I further refined my career toward specializing in psychiatry and studying addiction. Seeing how few treatments there were for habits and addictions, I started developing treatments for these “conditions” — which are really part of the human condition — based on what I had been learning from my own meditation and mindfulness practice. Last year, I joined Sharecare to expand these behavioral solutions and integrate them with Sharecare’s larger suite of health and wellness solutions.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My mom was my biggest influence here. She encouraged me to get a good education, work hard, live authentically and honestly and to pursue whatever interested me. She also fostered my curiosity about the natural world and encouraged me to explore.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of pursuing your passion? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Wow, well there have been so many it is hard to choose one. Looking at them in aggregate, I will say that I’ve learned something really interesting — that each time I look (or run) away from things that happen, it just prolongs the suffering. But when I turn toward the situation and bow to it as a teacher, asking, “What can I learn from this?”, I actually learn from it. This turning-toward helps me open to the learning opportunity. When I approach “mistakes” with this mindset, they hardly seem like mistakes — I learn the most when things don’t go as planned. This changed the whole notion of “two steps forward, one step backward” for me. Nothing seems like a step backward anymore as long as I learn from it.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” (James Stephens). This is a reminder of how much we are driven by fear, and how much fear holds us back. It also points out how a brute force approach to life isn’t as strong as tapping into our natural capacity of curiosity. I think of curiosity as a superpower.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am finishing up a new book called Unwinding Anxiety, which is part explainer and part self-help book about how our minds work, why we develop addictions, how anxiety and addiction are actually closely related in the wiring of our brains and how to apply a mindfulness-based approach to overcome them. At a time when mental health has been buffeted by a global pandemic, I hope this book will help people struggling with anxiety and addiction to better understand the way their brains work and to leverage that knowledge to live happier and healthier lives.

I’m also excited about new digital therapeutics my team will be launching this year to help people put the lessons learned from decades of anxiety and addiction management research into practice in their own lives. It’s called Unwinding from Sharecare, and unlike other apps already in existence, this one will be a one-stop shop for overcoming our biggest behavioral setbacks. Along with the other behavioral health solutions my team has developed, it will also be integrated into Sharecare’s existing health and wellness engagement platform that provides people with personalized resources to help them live their healthiest lives.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In my writing, I talk about cultivating wellbeing habits in our lives, in order to be strong, vibrant and powerful co-creators of a better society. What we create is a reflection of how we think and feel. When we get back to a state of wellbeing and begin to create from that place, the outside world will reflect this state of wellbeing. Let’s dive deeper into this together. Based on your experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

Curiosity is key. Using mindfulness to achieve better mental wellbeing is all about applying an inquisitive approach to understand our thought patterns and cravings for what they really are: temporary body sensations that can be ridden out. I’ve seen patients overcome addictions they had thought were unconquerable by zeroing in on the exact sensations of their cravings or worry. For instance, one woman was able to quit smoking when she slowed down and described to herself how a lit cigarette smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals.

Staying socially connected is also critical. Even before the pandemic, Americans really struggled with this. Research shows that the world’s healthiest people have about six hours of social interaction every day, but many Americans were getting less than one. The pandemic has only compounded that. We’re not cut out for long-term isolation. Whether the solution looks like frequent Zoom calls or regular in-person interactions once the pandemic is over, we have to prioritize time with others.

Finally, recognize that your mental wellbeing is tied to wellbeing in other areas of your life. The healthiest people thrive in all areas. Staying physically active, eating well, prioritizing your relationships — all of these are critical parts of maintaining mental wellbeing.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about tapping into negative feelings like worry, stress and anxiety as they come on. These emotions are self-perpetuating because they trick us into thinking we are doing something about the problem that triggered them in the first place. Through mindfulness, instead of letting them consume you, you relax into them, asking yourself, “What’s going on in my body right now?” You ride the feeling until it’s completely gone and then take a moment to reflect on your experience afterward. Over time, you’ll begin to see how the worry loop breaks down when it’s no longer comforting to resort to worry, stress or anxiety as a solution to our problems.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

  • Set aside time for vigorous physical exercise …

Walk fast for an hour every day. Ride, run or swim for 30 minutes every other day. All of these things can keep your weight down and key health indicators in check.

  • … But try to move at least once every 20 minutes.

In the more than 50 communities where Sharecare’s Blue Zones Project has operated to improve community health outcomes, we have built in nudges to keep moving people throughout the day. It may sound surprising, but residents of the world’s longest-lived communities aren’t characterized by the amount of time they spend at the gym. Instead, they’re constantly in motion, at least once every 20 minutes or so — whether it’s walking to or from the market, meeting up with friends for a walk, working in their garden or anything else that helps them get their day’s activities done.

What to take from this? Closely audit how much of your life you spend sedentary or with minimal movement. Ask yourself — could I walk to the grocery store instead of driving? Can I walk with friends instead of watching a movie? For those of us currently working at home, can we get in our daily steps by installing a treadmill in the office or purposefully scheduling movement breaks throughout the day?

  • Make physical activity social.

The world’s longest-lived communities intuitively understand the positive influence strong social relationships can have. Each resident averages about six hours per day of social interaction. In our Blue Zones Project communities, we strongly encourage the formation of walking groups of people with similar interests who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. It allows people to stay both physically and socially active at the same time. During the pandemic, the Blue Zones Project helped College Walk, an assisted living community in Brevard, N.C., to establish a walking group. The team had to take extra precautions because of the pandemic and the risk factors associated with age, but participation exceeded initial interest by more than three times.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are some great ways to begin to integrate it into our lives?

Healthy eating is key to promoting overall wellbeing. And you’re right, eating right isn’t just about knowing the right steps, but about being able to put and keep them in practice. We know from research on the world’s longest-lived communities that putting a “plant slant” in your diet and eating until you’re 80% full, for instance, are great ways to stay on the right track.

But we’ve got to make healthy eating choices easy — both in terms of access as well as appeal. Communities and organizations around the U.S. are doing great work on the first front. For instance, just last year Sharecare worked with Taylor Farms in Monterey County, Calif., to ensure its 4,000-plus employees had access to the leafy greens they grow.

The reason we struggle with eating unhealthy foods to excess is that they hijack our brain’s reward systems. Each time we eat something sweet or salty or crunchy, our brains release “feel good” chemicals — the same chemicals that drive other addictions like smoking, alcohol and even cocaine. My Eat Right Now program teaches people to differentiate between real hunger and emotional craving and to identify the triggers that drive the cravings. By mindfully tapping into these sensations, people can more successfully break the habit loops that keep them binge eating.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

  • Unflatten the curve on kindness.

For nearly the past year, we have heard messages about flattening the COVID-19 curve. The one place you should unflatten the curve is on kindness. It spreads rapidly and is mutually beneficial — helping us and the people around us. During the pandemic, Sharecare’s Blue Zones Project worked with residents of Pottawatomie County, Okla., to develop special interest groups, called moais, which allowed them to bond with people — in socially distant and safe ways — with similar life experiences in safe ways — in one case, it was a domestic violence and addiction group that met at a local church. In another case, it was a Zumba group meeting prior to their workout. Over Christmas, both of these groups got together to sing carols at a nursing home. What a great way to pay their experience forward.

  • Practice self-care.

Research by the CDC during the pandemic found that 41% of people had experienced adverse mental health events and 31% were in the grip of anxiety. As much as you extend kindness to others, don’t forget to prioritize yourself. Our Blue Zones Project work in Oklahoma included the establishment of two local moais — support groups that share and nurture social, financial, health or spiritual interests — that allowed survivors of domestic violence and alcoholism to continue to meet and heal.

  • Make time for friends.

As a species, we are not meant to be isolated for long periods of time. As hard as it may be during a pandemic, set aside time to enjoy the company of friends. It doesn’t have to be in person — a simple FaceTime or Zoom call will keep you connected and lift your spirits even when news headlines may be tamping them down.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellbeing? We’d love to hear it.

There’s plenty of existing research on the benefits of smiling. Not only does it spread positivity, it affects us physiologically by triggering our brain to release happiness hormones. But why not look for opportunities to take that a step further and fundamentally improve our wellbeing, through regular socializing, staying physically active in smart ways and more? Who knows? You may find yourself naturally smiling as a natural byproduct of these activities.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellbeing? Please share a story or example for each.

  • If it fits with your beliefs, consider making it a habit to attend service.

Research conducted by our partners at Blue Zones has found that people in the world’s longest-lived communities are generally involved in some type of regular religious activity.

  • Prioritize respect, compassion and gratitude.

Researchers suggest the wellbeing bump associated with attending religious services regularly may be related to values like respect, compassion and gratitude. Sharecare worked with St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Florida to inspire an attitude of gratitude locally during the pandemic. Each day the church rang its bell at 2:20 p.m. in remembrance of the first American citizen who died of COVID-19 on Feb. 8 at 2:20 p.m. It was also a time to honor the courageous individuals working to keep our community and nation safe. Whether you’re a member of an organized religion or not, you can take time to contemplate the good things and people in your life.

  • Serve your community.

Service is one of the clearest ways to show you appreciate your community. Blue Zones Project by Sharecare worked with First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Tex., as a key partner in improving wellbeing outcomes for community residents. The church saw volunteerism increase by 30% as a result of opening more doors for members to serve the community. While this partnership involved a church, you can replicate its effects by working with friends or with volunteer organizations to make yourself available to help your community.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate overall wellbeing?

I have many! In college, I was very active in our outdoor program, going on or leading backpacking trips during school breaks. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but nature helped me touch into a quieter, contemplative place in myself (I guess Thoreau was right!). Looking back on that, this was the seed crystal that set up my 25-plus-year journey of mindfulness and meditation practice (I started formally meditating my first day of medical school, right after college). I think that nature helps us open up in general, especially simply by bathing in the sights, smells and overall calm and quiet that we’re surrounded by. And just as importantly, it helps foster our superpower of curiosity. There are so many things in nature that draw out our inner three-year-old as we simply look around and explore the wonder around us. This also opens us to awe and reverence for the literal natural wonders of the world. Being open is a critical aspect for overall wellbeing, whether helping us break bad habits or simply being able to be in a difficult conversation with a family member or coworker. When we are open, we can see that disagreeing can be a way to bond by seeing that it is OK, and even healthy, to have differing viewpoints, and that this can even make us stronger as a collective.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Well, if I could wave my magic wand, it would be to help people awaken to the power of kindness and curiosity — and how these two support and foster each other. In a world where so many people are being radicalized and pushed toward extremes, I would start (or rather rekindle, because this is not a new thing — many spiritual leaders have led these types of movements) an extremist movement of kindness. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I’d have a meal with Jack Dorsey. I’m fascinated by all of the social and political decisions he and his team are faced with on a daily basis and would love to see how he works through issues before making decisions. Also, Twitter is the perfect vehicle for social contagion (the spread of emotion from one person to another), and we’ve seen how easy disinformation and hate can be spread through the platform. I’d love to explore with him how we can foster the spread of kindness. Here’s a short animation that describes what I have in mind. Word on the street is that he’s also a big meditator, so it would be fun to geek out with him about the power of the mind.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Just check out my website, DrJud.com. You can also visit sharecare.com to find each of the mindfulness-based digital therapeutic programs I developed and access complimentary tools and content through the Sharecare app to support healthy living.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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