Many people believe they don’t have the willpower to eat healthy foods. Millions of Americans try unsuccessfully to diet 4-5 times each year. After falling off the weight loss wagon once or twice it can be difficult to climb back on. Even if weight loss is not a goal, simply eating healthy foods regularly can often be anything but simple.
Guilt and shame are some powerful emotions that can actually drive us further into the den of melted chocolate and potato chips, where we can lament our lack of willpower and ponder why emotions can drive us so strongly to the bowl of ice cream or chocolate chip cookie.
But what if weight loss and eating healthy foods has nothing to do with willpower?
What if emotional eating is not actually driven by emotions, but by our innate hardwiring?
Could a few biochemical reactions really be responsible for our seemingly uncontrollable urges to eat?
We Are Hardwired for Emotional Eating
As a species we are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When we were hunting and gathering we learned fast how to avoid the pain of a saber toothed tiger, and seek out the pleasure of a life sustaining meal.
Over time, our brain circuits began to adapt to predictable patterns, which reinforced certain behaviors as important for survival.
Today the foods we eat and the repetitions at which we eat them is still driven by this innate hardwiring, which can drive us to certain foods, sometimes without us even knowing it.
This explains why we can make the decision to avoid our morning Starbucks, and fifteen minutes later find ourselves at the drive-through window not knowing how we even got there!
It turns out; anything you do repetitively enforces neurological pathways, which can drive you unconsciously, like a care on autopilot. So, looking at your habits and rituals can be very helpful. Once you identify an unhealthy pattern or ritual, you can become more conscious of when you are triggered by that pattern.
Awareness of why you are driven toward certain foods or behaviors can make it easier to laugh at the trigger instead of being driven by it, allowing you to pass the Starbucks drive-through with a smile of awareness.
Sugar Cravings and Our Biochemistry
When sugar (found in most processed foods, fast foods, and sweets) hits our tongues it triggers the release of chemicals in the brain called euphoric endorphins. This is important, because endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to increase feeling of euphoria and reduce our perception of pain. Think about this, If I can eat that donut to release endorphins, which will reduce my perception of pain, and I am in pain, why wouldn’t I? People all over the world are using sweets to ease pain, the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of poor self-esteem, and many other reasons.
And because endorphins are similar to drugs such as morphine and codeine, we can also eat sugar to give us a high or a rush.
Sugar is so much like a drug, certain brain imaging techniques have found the brains of obese individuals and the brains of habitual drug users to be very similar.
Our Dopamine Centers
Another reason we crave sugar is because when you eat something sweet, or anything highly pleasurable, a sensation shoots straight up to your brain and “tickles” an area in your brain called the dopamine center. When dopamine is released your brain likes it very much and will command you to do it again! Do it again. This heightens the possibility of reaching for something sweet when you are not even hungry, or drive you to take one more bite, even after your already full.
The Food Industry
Any highly pleasurable food can tickle your dopamine center. In fact the food industry has discovered that the combination of sugar, fat and salt are the ultimate dopamine tickling trifecta and design foods specifically to keep us coming back for more.
Between our hardwiring to seek pleasure and avoid pain, our biochemical reactions, and the food industry, we have much more than just will power going on. This is exactly what drives our emotional eating.
So how do we get out of this mess?
Create a Plan
A plan provides structure and brings awareness to our routine. It also eliminates the chaos and impulsive nature of food binges and spur of the moment relapses. Many people use holidays as an opportunity to binge for months straight, but if you map out your social calendar and mark the days you have parties or holidays as reward meals, you really can make Good Decisions Most of the Time, and enjoy friends and family too. Knowing you will have a reward meal helps you “hold out” and can strengthen your ability to say no.
Once you have a plan, prepare for the week. Shop on weekends or your day off and know what each meal will consist of. Creating a menu plan for the week increases your chance of sticking to it. If you have your lunch and a snack with you, you will less likely be tempted by the donut in the break room and your environment is set up for your success.
Be ok with being uncomfortable
This is the most effective tool I have found so far. When we can learn to be ok with being uncomfortable and watch our emotions to see how they can drive our behavior, we can see the humor in our thoughts. We see the little devil on one shoulder telling us to eat the donut, and the little angel on the other that begs us not to and we can laugh! When we can watch our mind trying to justify the donut, instead of buying into it we can smile and walk away.
Sometimes this is easier said than done, sometimes that little devil can be quite convincing. If you falter, don’t beat yourself up, and let go of judgments around food. Letting go of judgments around food is a great way of letting go of guilt and shame.
For instance, if we judge the donut as bad, and we eat it, that must mean we are bad. Instead of judging the donut as bad, we can see it for what it is, a high sugar food that can affect our body adversely when over-consumed. There is not good or bad, it just is- cause and effect. This demystifies the donut and can help to release some of its control over us. We can do this with overeating too, instead of beating ourselves up for overeating we can just say, “I just overate” I am not a bad person because of this, it is just cause and effect.
The really cool thing about making Good Decisions Most of the Time is as you practice you literally send excitatory impulses that activate an area in your brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control means your ability to self-govern increases when you practice. I love that sentence, let’s say it again, your ability to self govern increases when you practice! You can literally rewire your brain to get excited when you say no! This is great news for those feeling out of control and helpless around food.
Other Tips and Tools for Overcoming Emotional Eating
• Eat only when you are hungry. Stop when you are full. This requires you to pay attention and wait for the stomach to growl and tuning in to your body for the satiation signal.
• Premeditating your response to any situation in which you may face temptation increases your chance of overcoming it. Something like, “No thank you, I am trying to make good decisions…most of the time. Know it will be awkward at first until your social network and you adapt.
• Move into discomfort. Sometimes people will avoid being in tempting situations. I don’t recommend this. I recommend putting yourself into temptations path as often as possible. This increases your psychological hardiness around food and strengthens your ability to say no. Look forward to temptations, and envision yourself saying “No”, with a twinkle in your eye and laughter in your belly!
• Be present with your emotions and identify that while you may be experiencing a powerful emotion, it does not define you. The more you can observe your thoughts, the more absurd they may seem. You can then laugh at the inner voice, and powerful emotions will die down.
About the Author
Author of Good Decisions…Most of the Time, Danielle Brooks is a Nutritional Therapist and Clinical Herbalist with experience helping clients overcome emotional eating. Danielle is the founder of Redmond Nutritional Therapy, Lake Washington Massage Therapy, and Good Decisions Inc. Learn more and connect with Danielle at www.gooddecisions.com