Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Outwitting the Lizard

Update: When I initially wrote this it was about binge eating, but I think there are a lot of good tips one could apply to those times when you don't binge, but you eat a food you know you shouldn't eat.

I wrote something recently on a message forum that people seemed to respond to. Over the last several years I've read a bit about what I call "neural psychology", or the way the brain wires itself and how it makes us behave the way we do.

The books that provided, for me, a lot of insight into this was Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell and another good one was The End of Overeating, by David Kessler. Also I've seen a spate of articles on Science Daily and New Scientist about whether or not we actually have free will. Both books talk about how the brain works and how we struggle to understand or even verbalize why we do what we do and why we seem to have so little control over certain behaviors. Anyone who has been a food binger has probably learned one thing, it's almost impossible to stop a binge once you start one.

Why do we binge?

I think a lot of people waste a lot of time trying to find the reason behind this behavior. They attribute it to emotions, or a bad childhood, or something else. They flog themselves with guilt and shame over it and in the end that's very counterproductive. Feeling out of control makes you stop thinking rationally and you do all kinds of stuff, including more of the bad behavior you're trying to fix.

Lizard In Your Brain

The reason for your problem now is because at some point you rewired your brain such that binging sets off some kind of reward. Oh yes, you feel lousy AFTER you binge, but during your binge all kinds of great things are happening, lovely chemicals your brain absolutely craves are being created and released, in much the same way that anyone who is an addict can tell you about. Whether they're an addict on heroin or addicted to gambling, the results are the same. The brain has strong neural circuitry that causes you to want to indulge in the behavior. I won't get into the science, you can pick that up from the books I mentioned, or other science sources.

This brain rewiring probably begins to happen the first time we eat too much of something yummy. We feel great and want to have another ice cream cone. In days gone by, having a keen interest in opportunistic eating like that would be a great survival trait. If you lost interest in high calorie, high sugar food before it was consumed, you wouldn't have the fat stores to reproduce. But we were built for living as we lived 1,000's of years ago, not in the current age where extremely tasty food is super cheap and always available with very, very little effort.

By the way, if you're not wired to binge, as David Kessler's book points out, you will never in a million years understand a binge eater. It is like trying to explain a color to someone who can't see. Your brain just isn't wired that way. Consider yourself lucky.

So these neural circuits get established and we strengthen them every time we binge. These things are very primitive and in my opinion, don't really have much to do with our higher reasoning. So when we're being pushed around by the lizard-like parts of our brain we're completely at a loss when we try to describe using our higher reasoning why we did what we did. So are we helpless? Absolutely not! Our only blame in all this is if we can't use our higher reasoning powers to out-wit the stupid lizard-like portions of our mind that operate purely on impulse. But repeating to yourself "I will not binge" is probably not going to be helpful, or punishing yourself, etc. Stupid neural circuits are going to fire, you just have to engage other circuits to weaken them... and most importantly you need to break the constant reinforcement.

I have lots of things that trigger my "inner lizard". Going into 7/11 or other convenience stores and working in an office with a vending machine are my two biggest ones. While my Mom's health was failing it seemed like I could do almost nothing to resist the lure of Cheetos, or Doritos. But I did finally figure out a few things and got control of the binges. Here's my arsenal of tips:

Time: Every time you binge you reinforce the behavior and the trigger. For me, just walking past a vending machine can trigger an urge. The more I do the behavior (and the more recently) the harder it is to avoid triggering again. Some people think they'll cut down, or somehow control the behavior by indulging in it just a little. They're kidding themselves. The longer you don't binge, the easier it gets to continue to not binge.

Remove triggers: Take the stuff you binge on out of your environment as much as possible. Try to convince the people you live with to respect your need for a trigger free environment. If you can't, you'll have to figure out a way to store those triggers so you don't see them all the time (if at all). This was easy for me because I live alone. But frankly, even if I didn't live alone, I'd probably be pretty insistent that my family remove these things from the house.

Avoid external triggers: If walking past Cinnabun or a 7/11 is a strong trigger, you might need to pick a different walking route, or not step inside a 7/11, until you've had enough time pass for your triggers to lessen, and have gotten some techniques for dealing with what happens when you're around your triggers.

Deflection: I find it very useful to have something else when I trigger on something. For instance, I walk into a 7/11 and badly want some chips, I can usually a cup of coffee with cream, which I don't ordinarily drink the cream so that's a pretty nice treat for me. Or a fresh piece of gum. When eating at a friend's house I will offer to bring the dessert and make sure it is something sugar-free (like a low carb cheesecake with a nut crust) and as paleo as possible. Everyone always loves these desserts by the way.

When I eat X I crave Y: So don't eat X. This is really simple yet I run into people that would rather lose an arm than stop eating something. Come on people, use your higher reasoning skills, stop being lizards!

Avoid triggers when your defenses are low: Stress can make our higher reasoning shut off and let Mr. Lizard make all the decisions. So if you are very stressed, even just hungry, avoid the people, places and things that are likely to trigger you.

Understand the consequences of failure: Understand that failing right now is going to make it more likely that you fail in the future. From personal experience I can tell you it's a lot more difficult to stop a pattern of binging than it is to resist this one triggering moment. When you fail you're just reinforcing the neural circuitry that causes you to trigger.

Understand the health consequences of failure: Learn about how eating this crappy food could cause you to end up with Type 2 diabetes, cause premature aging (look up Advanced Glycation End Products or AGEs), read the book "Good Calories, Bad Calories", or read it again. Think about the consequences 10 or 20 years from now. How do you want to be living then? As an invalid? Buy a glucose meter and see how eating crap affects your blood glucose. Did you know that at levels over 140 damage is happening all over your body? Damage that can lead to kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, even limb amputation.

Hormones: Eating sugary, starchy crap food is going to push your blood glucose and insulin around and make you hungry and further increase your cravings. Don't get that cycle started!

Me and Chips

So, few years back I started bingeing on cheetos and doritos. I'd buy one bag from the vending machine and I couldn't stop until I consumed at least 1 or two more bags. It was terrible. The vending machine was like a ghost haunting me nibbling away at the corners of my consciousness, forever intruding on my thoughts. Finally I went cold turkey and after about 6 days of total abstinence the haunting stopped and 6 days turned into a much longer period.

I never had any major relapses but I did have minor ones. Every time I had a minor relapse I could feel the urges strenghtening and the chips would come nibble away at my consciousness. "Hello Nancy! We're so delicious... you know you want us." Even now if I'm at a party I know I cannot eat one chip. If one goes in the mouth, the entire bowl goes in. So don't even put the first one in makes it much easier.

When I'm about to set foot in a triggering environment I walk myself through it a little. "Ok, I'm going to have strong impulses when I walk in this store, but I'm going to focus on the diet soda section and leave." Or I treat myself to that coffee with cream. Or if the impulses are really bad, I walk myself through it like this:

"If I eat these I'm going to want them even more than I do now when tomorrow rolls around. I'm going to mess up my blood sugar for days. Who knows how much damage is happening to me due to my blood sugar skyrocketing above 140? I'm 50 years old, I don't need more AGEs to wrinkle my skin, hurt my heart and make me old!"

Aversion Training

When I found out gluten was causing me problems I knew I was going to have problems not craving wheat products like bread, cookies, bagels and so on. So I consciously set out to train myself to find those foods repulsive. Every time I smelled or saw those yummy wheat-y, gluten-y things I said to myself "poison". It was pretty low key and subtle but the message sunk in. People can eat that stuff around me and all that happens is I feel sorry that they're eating poison. I don't feel envious or feel like I'm missing anything, except perhaps a bad bellyache and days of diarrhea.

Can you ever eat your triggers in moderation?

I think it takes a long, long time to destroy a deeply etched neural circuit. I'm not sure one can ever unlearn the binge behavior. Even though it has been years since I've binged on chips I still feel those tuggings. I don't believe I can eat just a few and stop if there's more in front of me. I think this might need to be for life.

As a binge eater, this might sound depressing, but I think that's a bit of our wiring that causes that reaction. You're going to find other foods to replace these binge triggers that you will enjoy to satiety that don't cause you to binge. In fact, you should make that your goal, it will help alleviate whatever sadness and mourning you have over eliminating those triggers.

Good luck!


WereBear said...

Excellent post! Why are we so eager to give up control over what makes us feel good? Because when we eat things that make us sick, that is what we are sacrificing.

I've found that when I concentrate on how I'll feel after, not getting caught up in how I feel before, I get a much better way of diverting myself to better food choices.

Your sister in law said...

Great post. Another thing I've been thinking about lately is our expectation that all the rationality we have about binging doesn't HELP when we've been triggered. I should say, all the rationality doesn't change that fact that the only way to deal with a trigger/urge is to suffer through and try and make it to the other side. With time it may get easier- and it might take way more time than I expect.

I would/do catch myself having an Ah Ha moment and thinking somehow that piece of new awareness would be enough to make my urges go away.