Avoid Overindulgence With Brain Science

There is difference between indulgence and overindulgence. Indulgence every once in a while is fine but too many people put on weight over the holidays that takes all year to take off, if it ever comes off. I recently went to a seminar on understanding the connection between the brain and some of our behavior around food given by Dr. William Kelley, a Professor of Psychological and Brain Science at Dartmouth College. Here’s what science tells us about why we often fail to stick to our health goals and how we can outsmart our biology to keep you on track during the holidays.

It is important to know yourself and your usual patterns. Are you the type to have a small piece of dark chocolate and you are satisfied? Or does one bite of ice cream mean you will finish the whole carton?Yes? Read on:

Brain Basics:

  • Habits are an automatic response that the brain has figured out to improve our well being. Habits are learned and maintained based on reward.
  • We have a Reward Center and a Control Center in our brain. The Reward center is considered bottom up because it tends to happen without our awareness. The Control center is a top down function meaning it doesn’t happen automatically and can amplify or dampen the reward center.
  • Reward pathways are created through reinforcement involving a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. You eat a cookie or get a like on Facebook and dopamine is released lighting up the reward center. If you do this often enough and especially if there are emotions involved, a new habit is formed.
  • The cookie or Facebook or a glass of wine or whatever lighting up your brain becomes a “Cue” “ meaning whenever you are exposed to the cue, your brain becomes very motivated to receive that reward. It lives for the moment without caring about long-term implications. Give it to me NOW!

Stress and the Control Center:

  • You probably are already aware and have experienced what stress does to the Control Center “ it dampens it so it becomes a very soft voice when faced with that cookie. At the same time the Reward center amplifies so all you hear is COOKIE!
  • This applies to any reward: Pick your Poison – smoking, heroin, facebook, video games, alcohol, etc.
  • You are more likely to overeat when stressed if you are female, already overweight, sleep-deprived and on a diet.

Brain Science tips to avoid overindulging this holiday season:

  • Avoid Cue exposure by not buying your trigger foods your higher self doesn’t want you to eat.
  • Don’t allow even one taste of the forbidden food (or one drink, one cigarette, etc.)
  • Amplify positive emotions through daily gratitude or doing a heart-centered meditation.
  • Prioritize some daily stress management technique such as doing deep inhales and exhales throughout the day. Prioritize sleep over your to-do list, which may mean simplifying.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water.
  • Don’t try a restrictive diet during the holidays, it will only backfire. Fill up on eating whole foods (fruits and veggies) which will turn off your appetite and limit your exposure to triggers whether it is sugar or salty/crunchy.

Is there a Magic Bullet that could help with all these factors that is just as effective as all of the above mentioned strategies? Yes! Mindfulness training has been shown to be very effective at regulating sleep, the stress response, overeating, smoking and drinking. Instead of trying to stop the emotions and craving, with mindfulness you learn to observe them and let them go. Yes, I really want to eat that. Yes, I am really annoyed right now. Hug your emotions and let them go, and watch yourself pass on the second helping of pumpkin pie. I am teaching an introductory course on Meditation that will cover some of the basics of Mindfulness. For more information please see the Meditation Course page under Services on my website.

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