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The Brain Chemistry Behind "Just One Bite" And How To Beat It
You and dark chocolate have a long-standing love affair. You’re seduced every night. You’d like to be monogamous, but coconut ice cream calls you. So do vegan chocolate chip cookies and crusty bread with olive oil. Cognitively, you know you shouldn’t be eating these foods, but once you’ve had a bite, you’re done. You’re intoxicated. Dopamine floods the brain and you continue eating these foods until there’s nothing left. Moderation doesn’t exist in your world, even though you wish it did. You really wish it did. You want nothing more than to be in control of what you put into your mouth. Why does it feel like there’s an invisible hand guiding you towards these temptations? Why does it always feel like you need one more bite?
It's All In The Chemistry (So Relax About Your Willpower)
The answer lies in your brain chemistry: neurotransmitters and conditioning. It’s not your willpower, so drop the self-flagellation. Instead, be aware that there are biochemical forces at play. The good news is that you have the power to transcend these. You’re not driven in search of a dopamine high like a strung-out junkie, nor are you one of Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to salivate at the ring of a bell. You’re a human being with the ability to stop, observe and change behavior at any moment. Being aware of what you’re up against is the first part of breaking the addiction.
The Feel-Good Signal
When you eat a sweet food, it immediately sends a signal to the brain to release dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter. Dopamine feels good. It gives a sense of relief. It’s the same neurotransmitter that is released during sex, recreational drug use and flirtation. Who doesn’t want a little dopamine hit? Unfortunately, the more you provoke dopamine with food, sex, or drugs, the more your body stops listening to it. The result: you need even more stimuli for the same high. More chocolate, more ice cream, and more bread. If you think dark chocolate and bread don’t have sugar, you’ve been tricked. One quarter of a 70% dark chocolate bar is sugar, and bread converts to sugar. There’s also a serotonin influence and an endorphin response, particularly if the food contains wheat or dairy. Eat both dairy and wheat together and you’ll hijack your brain with so many stimuli you may as well be injecting yourself with Prozac and Wellbutrin, because that’s exactly what they do—recycle old serotonin and dopamine so you have more.
Re-Train Your Brain, Defeat Your Subconscious Reactions
Ninety-five percent of our actions are based on our subconscious. Our subconscious is defined by memorized behaviors, emotional reactions, attitudes and beliefs. If you’ve trained your body to over-eat, binge or numb yourself with food, that’s what it’s going to do, even if 5% of the brain is telling it not to. This is why it feels like there’s an invisible force driving you towards something you know you shouldn’t be doing. This pattern can be broken. Abstain from your trigger foods for 21 days so you can rebalance your brain chemistry. If this sends fear running through your body, you’re using food as a drug. Food should produce a neutral response in the body. Therefore, it’s even more imperative that you abstain. If you get a little teary, you’re using food to numb an emotion. It’s OK; we all do it. But that emotion enslaves you and binds you to f11ood. Use pen and paper to get out how you feel. Food isn’t there to medicate. It’s there to heal.
New Neural Pathways = New Habits
Make a different choice from the day before. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until the new behavior has become ingrained into your subconscious (typically 21 days). Don’t underestimate how challenging this will be. You’ll hear voices that will tell you it’s OK to have just one bite, that you’ve had a tough day and that you deserve it. The brain does this because it has to create new brain cells and new neural pathways to create a new habit. This is work for the body, and it doesn’t like it. But you’re not a slave to your brain. You’re in control and you can direct it. What will your new habit be? What’s going to keep you strong through the next 21 days? How will you feel when you break the addiction? Commit to this now. Be free. It’s glorious.
Photo credit: Daryl Hannah in the classic 1984 movie Splash.
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