Taking Control

The last tip I shared on overcoming hypereating was behavioral. Training yourself to physically avoid cues and triggers will ease the stress of dealing with them on a constant basis and there’s nothing wrong with trying to make it easier on yourself. Life is hard enough!

Today I’m going to address another cognitive strategy that Dr. Kessler outlines in his book. This is a great long-term strategy that has the power to change your way of perceiving those foods that are contributing to unhealthy eating and obesity.

In the other posts we talked about the cycle of cue-urge-reward-habit. We are cued by something, perhaps visual, emotional, or olfactory. Our brains respond with a strong, pervasive, insistent urge to eat that food. We pop that doughnut into our mouths and are temporarily rewarded by its taste, sensation, smell, memories…By doing so we strengthen the habit, and make it stronger. Now the next time we are cued that urge will be even stronger.

Each time we give in we strengthen the behaviour and lessen our chances of resisting.

That’s a very important point.

So how do we break the cycle?

In my first post about strategies I talked about how we have just a few seconds in that cycle where we have the strongest chance of breaking it. By responding immediately to the cue and following through on it with all the reasons we don’t want to – and won’t – eat that food. I’ve been using this strategy a lot and it’s a powerful tool.

The next cognitive strategy builds on that one. Not only can we rationalize ourselves into refusing to obey the trigger we can learn to change our response to the trigger altogether!

As long as we accept that food as a reward our brains will always drive us towards it. That’s how the brain works, that’s how we survive. But what if that food was not a reward at all? Then the cycle is broken, and we are no longer conditioned to overeat!

Now, food is a primary reinforcer, meaning we are hard-wired to be rewarded by food in order to aid in our survival.  But we can choose what foods we are rewarded by. And we can introduce other rewards as well.

This is done by taking control of your thoughts around those foods.

Here’s an example: I really want that ice-cream…BUT, I am not going to have it, because I don’t want diabetes. Ice-cream is not a reward, because it’s bad for me, and makes me unhappy with myself. I feel awful after I eat the ice-cream. I’m going to have some grapes instead. They’re refreshing, and my body will appreciate the antioxidants. I’ll increase my chances of living longer and having fewer diseases!

By changing how we see foods high in sugar, fat and salt, identifying them as disgusting and harmful, we lessen their power as a reward. By learning to truly see those foods as enemies, by reminding ourselves of the horrible consequences those foods can have, we can help our brains recognize that these foods are not rewards, at all.

Then we can choose the rewards we want to have dominate our lives.

We can imagine the money we once put into fast food going into yoga classes, clothes we enjoy wearing, or massages. We can see ourselves putting money once spent on “treats” towards a cruise, or tuition for school.

It takes a little time but the more we work on breaking the cycle the weaker the cycle gets. Eventually the triggers lessen and the urge becomes something we can dismiss with relative ease. We see ourselves as one of those people we used to admire. The ones who just seem blissfully unaware of the cake and cookies on the staff-room table.

This strategy is meant to be a long-term cognitive shift that will serve us well, as long as we are diligent and don’t start seeing those foods as friendly, rewarding foods again. It doesn’t mean we can never have ice-cream, but given time we can do so with control.

And isn’t that what we wanted all along?


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