Ever had a night like this? You swing by the store to pick up just one thing, but as you wait in line at the checkout a chocolate bar or bag of chips catches your eye. You know these aren’t good for you but you feel compelled to buy them anyway and scarf them down in the car on the way home. Here are some tips to break this unconscious cycle and get your brain out of binge mode.
Most people have experienced some version of the scenario above at some point in their lives. The inevitable outcome is that by the time you pull into your driveway, regret is kicking in hard and you are feeling awful about yourself. Most people think that this is due to a lack of will-power; while that may be the case, it isn’t the main reason for most people.
One of the major problems is that many foods – especially the ones with lots of added sugar, salt and fat – are so tasty that they actually overwhelm the brain’s circuitry. When you eat them, your brain cranks out large amounts of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with reward that drives you to eat that food again…and again…and again, and want it even more. Eventually, just looking at the food or even thinking about it can trigger a dopamine release – along with a strong craving to satisfy the desire to eat it. Once this occurs, your brain has been hijacked and is in full-fledged binge mode.
Here are some steps you can take to break out:
Visualize the Good
The brain can get hijacked via a number of mechanisms and temptation can seemingly strike out of nowhere. For instance, you walk through a food court and catch a whiff of freshly baked bread or cinnamon rolls. When this happens, many people try and reason with themselves thinking, “I shouldn’t eat that” or “that food is bad for me”. This is effective about two percent of the time, as our brain doesn’t care about logic at this point; it has been hit with a biochemical desire for something, and it wants it NOW.
To get your brain back to a place where you are in control, try to visualize a better outcome that is also rewarding, just in a different way. In the example above, try thinking “I have a delicious healthy lunch waiting for me back home that I can enjoy soon enough. It’s going to taste great AND I’ll feel good afterwards.” Changing the focus of your thoughts will put you back in the drivers seat and keep you focused on the outcome you want, rather than one you don’t.
Here’s another scenario: you’re driving along and see a sign for your favorite fast-food restaurant. You realize you’re hungry and the thought of eating your favorite cheesy fries pops into your head. Suddenly, you feel compelled to make an unexpected stop at the drive-thru and are about to cut across three lanes of traffic to do so.
Don’t stop. Instead consider this: studies show that addictive cravings tend to fizzle as soon as the object in question becomes unattainable. In other words, once you get a few miles down the road, you’ll likely discover that you didn’t really need those extra-large cheesy fries after all.
Consider the Aftermath
When you’re brain is being hijacked by the thought of eating super-stimulating foods, it’s reward system is keyed into one thing and one thing only: the immediate sensory pleasure of eating that food. You can regain control by thinking past eating the food to the consequences of eating that food. For example, if the thought of having a big ice-cream sundae pops into your head and you are feeling helpless to fight it, go with that thought, but extend your visualization to what happens next. Once you think about the guilt that comes the next day or the indigestion that always occurs after you eat ice-cream, you undercut the reward value of the food and the food in question will lose much of it’s appeal.
Your brain works for you; when it starts to think otherwise, use the suggestions above to assert who’s boss. After trying these suggestions in earnest, if you still feel helpless when confronted with cravings, amino acid therapy may help.