Brain over body. Mind over matter.
Without thinking about it much, I always took these sayings as meaning “if only I decide and stick to it, if only my mind is strong enough, I can overcome this. I can stop myself from overeating”.
Then, when I couldn’t, the only logical explanation was that I wasn’t determined enough, I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t able. Something was wrong, or lacking. I’d worked on all the necessary skills, I knew what to do. It must be character. The out-of-control binges were proof. Right? The stigma must exist because it’s true. Isn’t it?
One time, a cardiologist basically questioned (in a roundabout but very clear way), my intelligence since I was obese. According to him, if you’re well educated and informed, the only missing piece must be intelligence, or I wouldn’t have this problem. Right?
Not right! His comments could have crushed me. Luckily, I was far enough along on my journey by then to recognize this as his unfortunate ignorance. I’d read a lot of research that showed the absolute opposite. After all, I knew what I’d accomplished in life, I was high performing in more or less all areas I put my mind to. I was determined, strong and able enough.
Still, I couldn’t explain my apparent inability to stop overeating.
This was the million dollar question of my life.
Brain science blows my mind
Enter brain science.
The first time I learned what physically happens on in our brain when we eat highly processed foods, my mind was blown.
Can it really be that simple?
It turns out, it can.
Why hadn’t I learned about this before? (That’d have to be another day’s topic)
I’d better put a disclaimer in here – while the explanation may be simple, the solution is complex and recovery is by no means easy!
What’s really going on in there?
Our bodies are formidable creations, of which we know a lot, but not everything. A physician or scientist would be able to lay this out in much more detail. What you’ll get here is my laywoman’s version, the shortest, simplest, need-to-know explanation in order to understand what happens when we, when addicted, eat sugar and flour:
- Eat processed sugar and/or flour products
- Blood sugar rises and so does insulin levels in the blood
- Insulin floods the brain and blocks leptin, which is the “I’m-full-time-to-go-play” hormone
- The brain, now incapacitated to receive leptin’s ever important message, gets stuck on “still-hungry-at-risk-of-starvation-better-keep-eating”
This is what makes it possible to know, without a doubt, that you’re full (because you can feel the physical sensation of a full stomach), and yet not be able to stop eating.
Why? Because, my friends, MIND OVER MATTER, BRAIN OVER BODY! Not in the “strong character” and “willpower” kind of way, but because the brain is the control center. And your brain is literally hijacked by leptin-blocking insulin! The signal is not reaching its destination!
Why me and not her?
Now you might be wondering “What about so-and-so who can just have a piece of this or that and then stop?” or “So-and-so eats sugar all the time but is just fine”.
Indeed, not everyone is susceptible to the addictive powers of sugar and flour. In short, the addiction is in the brain, not in the food. So if your brain is sensitive, you’ll be affected, if you’re not, then you won’t be.
It’s not the same, but we can use the idea of someone with a nut allergy for example. That person may suffer severe symptoms from a trace of a peanut, while someone else can eat fistfuls and be just fine. Allergies may be genetic, developed over time or seem to strike at will. Addiction is much the same. It’s what happens in the body that’s the problem, not the nut.
How to free a hostage
If you identify with this idea of your brain being held hostage. The question is, how do you get out of it with limbs and life intact?
A few years ago, I went through a field security training where we learned about and role played hostage situations. Hostages are “charged” with one objective: to stay alive! In order to do that, the advice is first and foremost to comply with the hijackers’ commands.
As an addict, the main objective is the same. Whatever you do: stay alive! However, the idea of complying with your hijacker’s commands is NOT the right strategy here. Instead:
- First and foremost, you need to know that your hijacker has no tools or weapons to kill you. (However warped, it actually believes that it’s keeping you alive by keeping you under lock and key). Knowing this, you can move from victim to a position of power.
- Secondly, you need to get abstinent. There is no room for “balance” or “everything in moderation” when it comes to hostage situations. You don’t negotiate with your hijacker.
- Abstinence makes healing possible. Both physically, psychologically, socially, and all aspects of life that have been affected.
- Commit yourself to exquisite care. Prioritize your recovery. Join support groups. Seek professional help. Learn about food addiction and recovery. Learn how to live differently, without food.
You often hear that you need to heal on the inside first, then you’ll stop eating, because it’s just a symptom. That may be true if you’re only eating emotionally, but that’s not how addiction works. You cannot heal yourself into recovery without abstinence.
Because addiction is an open wound. Sugar and flour are the bacteria that keep the wound infected.
You need to clean that wound up! It’s going to hurt. It’s going to take time. But it needs to be done. Once it’s clean, healing can begin.
Results are fast, recovery is slow
Freeing a hostage is an intense but surprisingly quick process. It won’t be long before you experience amazing freedom from the acute pull of processed food.
Recovery, on the other hand, takes time. You’ve got neural pathways for your brain to build, physiological damage to heal, and a garden-variety of everyday life coping skills to learn – or relearn – that doesn’t involve food.
That quickly accomplished sense of freedom will really help you through the drudgery and hardship of recovery. Because even when you’re facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, you’ve tasted freedom. You know it’s there because you’ve experienced it. It’ll help you stay away from the bad neighborhoods where hijacking is more rule than exception.
This is not a diet. This is life done differently.
If you’re ready to free you brain – you can.