Two More Weeks, Two More Things! (Installment #2: Hacking Your Brain)

My last blog explained the process of adopting and maintaining change, along with some ways to prevent a relapse back to behavioral procrastination (DUN dun DDUNNN).

This time, I’m going to explain how I stuck to it for the whole 12 weeks without eating an entire jar of peanut butter or all of the Halo Top in one sitting. No, I don’t mean a pint. A pint reasonably fits into discretionary calories.

I mean…all. of. it.

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I’m going to be honest with you. I LOVE FOOD. I love the process of eating. I even find meal prep to be meditative! I love chicken, cauliflower and potatoes just as much as I love a bison burger or sushi. My tastebuds don’t discriminate. I find a great deal of satisfaction in the feeling of a full tummy.

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I experience a great deal of a sensation called food reward. That is to say: I’m a highly-evolved eating machine whose primitive brain structures are finely tuned to encourage the proliferation of my genes! The drive to eat highly-palatable (a.k.a. delicious), calorie-dense foods is an evolutionary trait that served us well when food was scarce and required effort. The limbic system, or ‘reward pathway’ is a collection of structures deep in the brain which helps regulate four main behaviors: feeding, fleeting, fighting, and fu–er, mating. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in this area when we do something that might promote our health or the passing-on of our genes; the effect is similar whether we’re spending time with that special someone or simply spending time with Ben & Jerry. Some people experience more food reward than others. I know a couple people who don’t feel any kind of way about any type of food, and therefore have minimal appetites and–get this–a hard time eating enough. WHAT?! In all seriousness, I jest. That is a legitimate concern and certainly a ‘grass is greener’ issue! Today, though, I want to shout out to those of us that would happily affix a feed bag for the entire day.

Willpower is finite. There’s a reason why compliance dwindles by the end of the day. You’ve been up since 7AM using up your willpower resource with your spouse, your kiddoes, your boss, and your commute. You even made it to the gym. Once you get home, there’s so little leftover, and your innate drive to eat calorie-rich foods is so high, that you can’t resist just a bite of the cake that you so easily passed over this morning. That bite tastes SO DELICIOUS that you just have to taste another…and a third can’t hurt…and now you’ve blown it anyway, so just eat the whole darn thing and start over tomorrow!

On top of that, there is evidence that hunger and food cues such as seeing palatable food or even thinking about palatable foods will increase our desire to eat those foods. Tasty food also drives hedonic eating, which is eating without feeling hungry. So, while you’re in a caloric deficit, you’re experiencing hunger, which will likely exacerbate your cravings for calorie-dense foods; by eating those and increasing dopamine levels in your brain, you’re firmly establishing this feedback loop. Dopamine, as Dr. Guyenet points out in his book “The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat,” is not just a ‘pleasure’ chemical, but a ‘learning’ chemical. It helps establish learned behaviors. You are, in a way, teaching yourself to eat these foods.

Knowing this helped me make a decision about what some people call ‘cheat meals’ (though I prefer not to use this term given its connotations). Given the psychology of hedonic eating and willpower, and my self-awareness, I decided to forego ‘free meals’ for the duration of my diet, and to also limit the palatability of the food I would be eating. (There is plenty more evidence for this approach in Dr. Guyenet’s book, though I won’t give away the surprises. I highly recommend it!) That being said, I still had to practice self-control when it came to certain foods that I intended to include, like peanut butter.

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In short, these were the steps I took to successfully prevent caving to my cravings:

  • Provide an alternate reward for not eating a tempting food. Your brain wants dopamine as badly as you want to eat raw cookie dough straight from the package, and it has about as much foresight as a golden retriever. You can tell yourself how great your abs are going to look in two months, but your brain is focused on how delicious that ice cream will be right now. So, treat it to something else. Do your nails, play with your dog, cuddle someone you love, go window shopping…literally anything else you enjoy. Then give yourself a big pep talk, and tell your accountabili-buddy what a great job you did so they can give you another one! Teach yourself that other rewards are better than the food reward.
  • Avoid purchasing tempting foods. I know that I am only going to make things harder on myself if I keep my shelves stocked with certain foods–even the nutritious ones. Cereal, protein bars, Halo Top, fancy flavored peanut butters…none of these are particularly egregious calorie-bombs, but if you eat enough, anything can be an excess. I didn’t purchase as many convenience foods, so I saved money, which can be applied to bullet #1 (an alternate reward: transferring the equivalent money you would have spent on this to a savings account) as well as my next point.
  • Make your food taste good. Not sumptuous, just good. I cooked the vast majority of food myself, which a) saved money, b) increased my NEAT, and c) allowed me to make it as flavorful–or bland–as I desired. I cooked the same meats and vegetables with the same seasonings every week. Over time, the only thing that really drove me to eat was hunger, and I felt satisfied between most meals. The food wasn’t completely without flavor, but it wasn’t so delicious that I was driven to hedonic eating. Dr. Guyenet explains the benefit of limiting food choices in his book, as well. I stuck to chicken breast, ground turkey, peanut butter, squash, cauliflower, peas, carrots, potatoes, eggs, oatmeal and apples. I threw in convenience foods like protein bars only when necessary while traveling or hiking.
  • Once you have practiced the above for a while, plan tempting foods and eat them mindfully. I found that, by planning my favorites into my day early, I felt that I had indulged and wasn’t scrounging up the last remnants of my willpower in the evening to avoid over-indulging. Sometimes I would have to fall back on bullet #1 to provide an alternative reward for not continuing to eat more peanut butter after I’d had my planned amount.

Remember that the point is not to avoid these foods forever, but to re-frame the way you approach consuming them! A diet is not a way of life; it’s a short period of caloric restriction between maintenance and perhaps massing phases. Refraining from tempting foods and ‘free’ meals can be an effective strategy to keep your diet on track, but it is not sustainable. Throughout this entire process, you should be aiming for bullet #4 so you can include these hyper-palatable foods while practicing self-control and freeing yourself from the guilt or anxiety over enjoying them!

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