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To Win the Battle of the Bulge, You Must Win the Battle with Your Brain

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Despite the fact that losing weight would have so many health benefits; our brains seem to have no interest in helping. In the battle to lose weight, your brain is not your ally. Your brain wants chocolate, potato chips and pizza, not the fruits, vegetables and grilled fish we know would be healthier for us. The struggle to lose weight demonstrates the reluctance our brains seem to have to learn new behaviors when it is comfortable with the old ones. But why?

One reason, albeit perhaps not the whole story, is that brains are lazy. Brains don’t seem terribly motivated to learn new habits. Once we learn to do something that either provides pleasure or avoids pain, the brain just wants to keep doing the same old thing. The brain does not urge you to go out of your way to do things differently when the current way is fine. The brain wants to put as much of our behavior on autopilot as possible. Consider this. How much of your daily behavior occurs with no thought whatsoever? It’s much more than you may wish to believe. When you walk down a flight of stairs do you have to decide which foot to move next or do you just seem to glide downward effortlessly? Ever arrive at work after a 30-minute drive and not remember over half of the details of your commute? How did you remember to stop at the red lights? How do you avoid getting into an accident?

Like walking downstairs and even driving a car, eating can easily become a mindless activity…from choosing what you eat, to preparing the food, to consuming the entire plate, without a single thought. Similarly, when a behavior becomes part of our repertoire we are very reluctant to change. For example: If you grew up using one brand of toothpaste, it’s very unlikely that you will switch to another in the future. Marketing experts know that changing brand loyalty is extremely difficult. Coke drinkers usually stay Coke drinkers and Pepsi drinkers usually remain Pepsi drinkers. While we would honestly like to believe that we make willful choices at every turn, more often than not the reason we do what we do is because that’s what we’ve always done. It’s not really a free choice at all.

The complexities of the brain will continue to be explored for many years and while we may never fully understand how to control each of the areas within the brain that affects our eating behavior, the good news is that we do have the ability to change our brains…by changing our behavior. Although your brain may not want to change on its own volition, with a concerted effort you can make it change. It’s called learning. Learning occurs when we discover something new. Learning is change. It’s figuring out the solution to a problem for the very first time. Once you know how to do something correctly, there is no more learning…its just repetition and autopilot. Ironically, all of your bad eating habits were learned to. You would never crave pizza if you had never tried it. You can’t crave what you’ve never tasted. Cravings are learned.

Earlier I mentioned that your brain doesn’t want to change, which is true. But if you put in the time and effort, our brains are quite malleable to acquiring new skills. The premise is really quite simple, but if you listen to how people explain why they do what they do, you might be confused. Many folks seem to believe that our feelings govern our actions. When asked why he didn’t take out the garbage, the young boy replied, “I didn’t feel like it.” When asked why she didn’t accept the invitation to go to the party, the woman said, “I wasn’t in the mood.” When asked why he couldn’t go on stage, the man replied, “I was too nervous.” One could falsely be led to believe that changing behavior requires changing one’s mood or emotions. While a change in our emotions clearly would help change behavior, it is often a very unreliable method for doing so. We can’t control our emotions very easily, but we can change control the other two aspects of our human experience…our thoughts and behaviors. Stated differently, “To change a thought, move a muscle.”

To lose weight, you must become aware of as many of the “cues” or “triggers” that influence your eating as possible. These are the things that “push your buttons” to eat. Keep a journal and write them all down, especially in the moments before and while eating. Here are some examples:

External or Environmental Cues:

  • What food choices were available in your environment?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What day of the week is it?
  • What eating cues are in your environment (television, window shopping)?
  • What foods can you smell in your environment?
  • Where are you? Avoid standing in the kitchen and other food-related areas.
  • Cost. What was on sale in the market?
  • Are you influenced by “new and improved” or other food marketing tricks?”
  • What’s left in the fridge?
  • Social Influences: What are your friends and family eating?
  • Cultural Influences: What food do you have a history of eating?
  • Holidays…special foods for special occasions

Internal Cues:

Beliefs:

  • Old internalized messages from childhood. “Clean your plate,” “Don’t waste food, there are starving children in Africa.”
  • Self-defeating messages. “What’s the point…I already blew my diet. I might as well eat what I want and start over on Monday.”

Biology:

  • What is your current level of hunger?
  • Some foods trigger the desire for others (salt – sweet)

Emotions:

  • Current mood state and emotional factors
  • Comfort foods associated with certain emotions or situations

Habits:

  • Do you have dietary restrictions (kosher, low-salt)?
  • Learning history…what have you eaten in similar situations in the past?
  • Current and past consequences of eating certain foods. What tastes good?

While the above list may look comprehensive, there are others so be eager to discover as many as you can. Then, get started with the process of changing as many triggers associated with eating as you can so that you are making thoughtful decisions every time you eat and are operating on autopilot as little as possible. Making substantial changes in your eating-related behaviors over time will eventually change what your brain asks from you. Your new autopilot will change the foods you crave, your triggers for eating, your food choices and maybe even the way you eat as well. As you develop a comprehensive list of eating cues and triggers, try to employ some of the suggestions below to start making real changes in your eating behavior:

  • Keep a food and eating diary. Write down what you ate, how much, when and what was going on. All of these are triggers you need to recognize and learn to change or control.
  • Formalize your eating. Plan your meals and snacks so you can be focused, rather than eating when you “feel” like it.
  • Rehearse reasons for improving eating habits…why am I doing this?
  • Change and control as many food-related cues in your environment as possible. For example: Stop keeping cookies and cake in your house if you really don’t want to be eating them.
  • Put less on your plate. Many people are “see-food” eaters. They see food and they eat it. See less…eat less. This helps the “clean your plate” problem.
  • Eat slowly: Be mindful while you eat and avoid engaging in other activities so you can “tune in” to your body. If you read or watch television, you are focusing on those things…not signals of fullness, satiety and satisfaction.
  • Discover alternatives for emotional eating and bored eating

It’s hardly a quick fix and it is admittedly easier said than done, but with consistent effort, you can learn to partner with your brain rather than battle with it and accomplish your weight loss and weight maintenance goals. Keep up the fight!



For me, thoughts feed emotions. Emotions create anxiety (good or bad = restless feeling). Anxiety is uncomfortable. My old habits were to medicate uncomfortable feelings with food to deaden them.

New behavior = don't medicate/eat the feelings away. New behavior is uncomfortable. What to do? Address the thoughts that led to the emotions. The thinking that got the cycle started. New thoughts = new emotions. New behavior = new habits. Stop the thinking in its tracks. Replace the old "tapes in my head" with new messages.

The hardest part about losing the weight is not the surgery or the rules I follow as a bander. It's breaking the old habits, the old cycle of thinking/feeling/eating. New habits take time. They need to be nurtured.

Great article.

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@@Warren L. Huberman PhD. Excellent article! I can relate with much of what you wrote. For me it is a bit of a struggle to retrain the brain and not fall back into old habits especially when/if your a person who's has strong emotional connections.

There are people who learn by sight, sound, touch, and there are those of us who also learn by making an emotional connection. This is where making changes in learned behavior can cause some major road blocks and tripping points along the way.

The emotional ties we have to unhealthy choices of food are not going to bring us the feelings and emotions we desire in times of stress and distress. For me it takes concentrated effort to disassociate myself from the "unhealthy" connections and focus on the reason behind them.

In times of stress/distress I am seeking that peace, that sense of security in the love of family, but knowing that is simply not enough in those moments when you are overwhelmed by emotions or a stressful time.

Eating a pie is not going to make it better, knowing that and seeking those feelings in another healthy avenue outlet is what is needed, and yet it is not always the easiest thing to find. The mind (brain) will return look for that thing that is the easiest form to comfort it and before you know it the pie is gone!!

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I am 5 weeks post-op and 2 pounds down but I am up a pound down a pound for a couple of days then stay at the new low a couple of days then up a pound down a pound. I thought it would be more effortless. I am keeping my carbs under 50 per day and about 800 calories a day. The inches seem to be coming off as I am fitting into things that I haven't worn for years. Am I doing something wrong?

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