Sunday, April 18, 2010

Junkies, and Overeating, part 2

The focus of this post is how to overcome a food addiction, and by extension, a schema to overcome any addiction (since all addictions share a common neural mechanism).

You, dear reader, will recall that the types of food that drive addiction share the following basic characteristics:

1) they are some combination of sugar, fat, and salt; 2) eating them produces a "multisensory experience", and 3) they are strongly associated with positive emotional experiences.

This, however, is a poor description of what they do to your brain. The combination of the above induce a "cued response", much like Pavlov's famous slobbery dog. Food (the "unconditional stimulus" in psychology terms) paired with any neutral "conditioned" stimulus (such as the bell, a light, etc) elicit an initial unconditioned (natural) response: salivation. Eventually, the neutral "conditioned" stimulus triggers the (natural) response, and at that point salivation makes the transition from unconditioned (or natural) to conditioned ("unnatural", or learned) response.

One of Pavlov's dogs, Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russia

Hyper-palatable food, in this metaphor, takes the place of the conditioned stimuli, and overeating is the conditioned response. This is why hunger cues make no difference to the amount eaten; it's just stimulus/response.

"Intervention begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice--but only a moment--to recognize what is about to happen and do something else instead...It's only at the very beginning, when the invitation arises, that you have any control over it." (emphasis in original)

The End of Overeating book lists 5 methods to try and break this very strong conditioning.
1. Awareness
2. Competing Behavior
3. Competing Thoughts
4. Support
5. Emotional learning (very related to #3 above)

Specifically, you have unconscious, conditioned responses that do not require your intellectual input to act. You must be aware of your personal cues and vulnerabilities: parties, social situations, stress, fatigue, etc. Otherwise you find yourself 3/4 of the way through a box of donuts with no idea how you even started.

Competing behaviors:
Pre-plan a new physical response to your personal cues. In America's culture, there is no way to avoid the cues, so instead of going to a party and fighting the urge to wolf down all the cookies, pre-plan to head straight to the carrots. Practice (in front of a mirror, multiple times) a polite way of turning down an offer of cue foods. Set up rules such as "I don't eat anything that Scott & White provides" (my own personal favorite that led to an effortless 30 lb weight drop).

Competing thoughts/emotional learning:
Pre-plan thoughts to replace the cravings, and the emotions will follow. Instead of "just one bite won't hurt", review in your mind what happened the last time you took "just one bite"--it didn't stop at one, did it? You downed the entire pint of Ben & Jerry's. And felt sick to your stomach, and sick at your lack of self-control. The concept of "playing the movie to the end" is very useful, as the craving focuses entirely on short-term gain, ignoring long-term consequences. Consistent practice of this skill is what changes the cravings themselves. When the waiter at Chili's puts a huge plate of food in front of you, the conditioned response is not overeating, but instead disgust at the sickeningly large pile of food and anger at the entire overeating/gluttonous/slobbish culture of America that drives places like Chili's to serve us such a pile of pig slop.

Uhm, gross!

(Let's be clear here. I love America and would live no other place. However, I have lived other places. They label us as gluttonous, overeating slobs, not without a large measure of truth. America is not perfect.)

May be the most patriotic flag ever

Obviously, if you have someone around that helps you to recognize and avoid food cues, things are easier. However, this is the most likely aspect of change to backfire, as well-meaning friends and family (who do not suffer from the same cravings, and therefore do not viscerally understand the true addictive nature of food) encourage you to try "just a bite", or bake up something really scrumptous and leave a bunch of leftovers around.

Our next AA meeting will be held here...

A few points:
1. Overeating cravings, like cravings for cigarettes, are never fully overcome.
2. Diets (which deprive you and leave you feeling hungry) make the problem worse. Far better to schedule out food that satisfies (most of which has a high protein content).
3. Lapses are to be expected.

Anyway, there are lots more tips in the end of the book. I'm not about to summarized 150 pages in a single post. However, the above does give some framework for a beginning. Need more? Get the book!


Sarahbelle said...

I got the book! So far, Ch 1 is fascinating . . .

Sarahbelle said...

This month's issue of Nutrition Action Newsletter features the article: "In Your Face! How the Food Industry Drives us to Overeat." It is not yet available on their website (, but it will be online in June. I'll bring my copy when I come visit this weekend. Fascinating stuff!!!