For most of us eating is a pleasurable experience, but for some it is a double-edged sword that leads down a path of emotional cues, cravings and bad choices. In previous issues of Desert Health, I discussed the neurotransmitter dopamine and how it drives us toward foods and substances to fulfill pleasure to get us out of flat, low energy funks. There are a few important steps to take to overcome this cycle.
Be aware of the cues, such as stressful situations, fatigue, low blood sugar or sensory cues like the smell of fast food or places where certain foods are readily available. To overcome the cycle, we need to acknowledge that our brain sometimes goes on autopilot and cannot be trusted. Will power just won’t cut it. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first to take a moment before reacting to an urge, but with practice and determination you will be on your way to awareness with a response versus unconscious reaction.
Create a competing behavior to replace the unhealthy one driven by dopamine. This is going to require planning and to quote a very old saying, “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” For example, if driving down the fast food corridor on the way home from a long day at work urges you to eat fast food, pick a new route to drive home. Many cravings are compounded by low blood sugar, and the larger the gap between meals, the lower the dopamine levels. Eat every 3-4 hours, be regimented, set an alarm, always be prepared with good quality snacks. Foods high in tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine, include ricotta cheese, fava beans, chicken, duck, beef, lamb, pork, fish, eggs, edamame and mustard greens, to name a few, so just be aware.
Create a new competing thought. Change the internal dialogue. Instead of beating ourselves up after we indulge in the dopamine habit, wouldn’t it be nice to repeat a new positive mantra using new positive dialogue? I repeat a saying from a client in recovery, “A thimble full is too much and a swimming pool full isn’t enough.” Reinforce your behavior with words to yourself, “I don’t have to react that way; I can respond this way.” Learn to reinforce longer term outcomes instead of short-term rewards. Choose a longer-term outcome to focus on that is supported by quality eating, like a good night’s sleep, energy in the morning, clear thinking or weight loss.
And last but certainly not least, enlist support. Have positive supportive people around you to help you recognize and avoid the negative cues, acknowledge your successes and support your commitment. Support is an essential way to sustain and reinforce our motivation. Have you ever noticed you are less likely to load your grocery cart with junk food if you are likely to run into friends or co-workers? You are not alone, and sometimes it does take a village.