Before you read this article: make a list of all the unhelpful thoughts your hungry brain conjured up over the last week that try to convince you to abandon your healthy eating plan. It’ll set the stage for what you’re about to learn here.
Your Inner Reptile
Right now, your feeding rituals are controlled mostly by what some have dubbed the reptilian brain. This ancient structure provides the urges and thoughts that you placate by eating. Then it rewards you with pleasant feelings of satisfaction, ensuring that this cerebral tryst will repeat itself again in the near future. But now it’s time to put that celebrated neocortex of yours to work providing competing cognitions in the wake of the overwhelming unhelpful drives delivered by old Scaly.
For instance, have you ever told yourself, perhaps when face to face with a box of See’s Dark Chocolate Nuts and Chews, “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.”?
If so, you’re a great candidate for the following competing response, Really? How many times have I said that to myself? A hundred? A thousand? If I keep restarting my diet, I’ll never lose weight. I’ll be very happy later if I don’t eat this.
Let’s try another.
“I feel crappy.” It’s true, I do feel crappy. But if I eat every time I feel crappy, I’ll stay stuck right where I am. I have to learn other ways of handling crappy feelings. I could start now by taking a brisk walk around the block.
Does this notion of verbally refuting your automatic food thoughts sound a bit simplistic? Alas, my belief that compulsive eating—driven by a juggernaut of thoughts, emotions, and instinctual hunger drive—could never be tamed by so simple an ideology as this kept me stuck for years, until I finally got desperate enough to actually put it to the test. Mind you, the change didn’t happen overnight but happen it did as I, over the course of several months (and years), practiced challenging my seemingly insatiable impulse to consume.
In the beginning, I often had trouble discerning any thoughts justifying my eating. Often, I just “felt” like eating, but in order to use this cognitive technique, you need an unhelpful thought to work with, so I made up this incomplete sentence, “It’s ok for me to eat this [unhealthy food] because _____________.” From there, I could tailor a helpful response to the unhelpful thoughts leading to bad eating.
Let’s look at some more examples:
I’m celebrating [therefore it’s ok for me to eat this]! Yes, but I won’t be celebrating tomorrow morning when I step on the scale if I continue eating. How about if I make a verbal commitment to someone that I’m done eating for the night? I’ll be so proud of myself when I leave if I quit eating!
[It’s ok for me to eat this because ] I already blew it at breakfast; I might as well throw in the towel for today and start again tomorrow (or next week or next year!). Yes, but if I continue eating, I really will have blown it. Eating crap for the rest of the day doesn’t negate my breakfast binge. If I get back on track right this minute, I’ll minimize the damage done and feel very good about myself when I crawl in bed tonight.
This program doesn’t seem to be working for me—I think about food all the time. Is that really true, that I think about food all the time? Let’s see, I had two 15-minute cravings this morning and one yesterday afternoon. But otherwise, I haven’t really craved in the last couple of days. I’m just tired right now. What else can I do to pick up my energy and shift my mood that doesn’t impinge on my self health care?
I just don’t care. It’s true, I don’t care in this moment. But I know from past experience that I will care in the near future. This mood will pass, and then I’ll be really glad I stuck to my healthy food plan.
As you can see, generating competing responses is largely about challenging the validity of your automatic thoughts. When you put words to your hidden rationales for eating, you’ll find that they’re often not that rational after all.
Now take the list of unhelpful thoughts you generated, and come up with some compelling responses for each one. Then, in the coming weeks, identify the spurious logic behind each nutrient-poor food choice and apply a good competing response. If you are consistent with this practice, over time you’ll find it easier and easier to stick to a nutrient-dense, healthy diet style.
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