THE BLOG
10/31/2013 07:05 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can You Recondition Your Brain to Stop Overeating?

Today I'm going 100 percent geek on you. But I'm also giving you excellent action steps and a little gift at the end. So grab a cup of tea, read this post carefully, then read it again, bookmark it and make sure you take action!

Did you know that your eating behaviors are hardwired in your brain?

Your three brains and eating

From an evolutionary perspective, you have three brains. Our most primitive brain is our reptile or lizard brain. Then our mammal brain developed. And finally, our neocortex.

Now, let's see how these three "different persons" you have inside of you play a key role in your eating behaviors.

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1) Your thinking brain and eating:

"I know these nutritional facts."
"I'm learning all this stuff from a diet book."
"I'll start on Monday."

That's your neocortex (the BLUE bubble in my graph). Your thinking brain knows what to do to get you slim and healthy. But then Monday comes... and what happens?

Nothing.

You keep doing the same things in the same way you did last week. Your intention was there. On Tuesday morning, you have no idea why you didn't follow through.

Scientists tell us that 95 percent of who we are today are subconscious programs that you memorized. You're for the most part of the day a set of memorized behaviors, feelings, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions, attitudes that run automatically. This means that when you decide to change a habit, you have that 5 percent fighting against 95 percent of who we are.

Impossible, right?

Well, there's hope for your thinking brain. Keep reading.

2) Your emotional brain and eating:

Your midbrain (or mammal brain) is your feeling brain. The RED bubble in the graph. It's Monday, and you crave something that your diet book forbids.

Two things can happen in here:

a) If you're chronically vulnerable to negative emotions, you'll miss this forbidden food more than others when trying to abstain. Because it helps you to "cope." It "numbs" your negative feelings. In this case, this treat is your Valium. It soaks up the byproducts of stress, leaving you relaxed. Here's where you may develop an emotional attachment to it.

b) Conversely, if you chronically lack positive emotions (say, you feel nothing... you're bored), your body needs an intense stimuli to experience elation. This food gives you a positive "high." Just like recreational drugs! Here's where you're more vulnerable to becoming addicted to it.

3) Your primitive reptile brain and eating:

As if your emotions weren't giving your neocortex enough hassle, it also has your reptile brain to deal with. Your reptile brain (the little GREEN bubble) is responsible for compulsive, automatic reactions.

This brain is governed by the promise of reward.

Think of Pavlov's dogs automatic salivation when he rang the bell. It contains your association centers and automatic conditioned responses. It's not that different to that response you have when you associate your sofa with cookies or M&M's.

Studies have shown that you experience a severe stress response when your basal brain perceives the presence of the object of desire -- real or imagined. Real would be if someone next to you is having M&M's. Imagined is the back of your head searching the kitchen cabinets while you're watching TV.

So your compulsion comes in, to temporarily free yourself from the painful stress associated with the craving.

The compulsion overtakes your brain and pretty much shuts down your rational reasoning. The key in here is to "wake up," engage your conscious brain, and "observe" your primitive brain and the trouble it's getting you into.

You may recall I briefly wrote about a simple technique to shorten a compulsion. Just like when you catch a child misbehaving. As she notices you, she feels observed and stops for a bit. You woke her up so she's now conscious of her actions.

The more you do this, the easier it gets. In the same way Pavlov's dog stopped salivating months later, because there wasn't any food after the bell rang.

Now that we have all three brains under the spotlight, let's see how you can start making some amendments. It keeps getting more interesting. Your action steps come next.

Wired By Nature, Changeable By Nurture.

I have more good news for you. Your attachment to full-fat ice cream, biscuits and Maltesers are behaviors that you learned sometime in your life. They are NOT who you really are.

They are a set of old memorized behaviors that you can un-memorize.

Contrary to old belief, it's been recently discovered that after the age of 35 we can still change and evolve the brain. In fact, neuro-plasticity and epi-genetics allow evolution until the last day of your life. I personally find that fascinating.

Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize in Neuroscience for his discoveries about habituation, says that repeated exposure to the same ideas weakens the brain's ability to take action. Whenever you go through something new, communication between neurons improve. Whereas old repeated thought patterns put the brain to sleep.

So could it be that starting the new diet on Monday is damn hard because your brain is asleep? The answer is yes.

Neurons become more active during any form of learning, and for this reason we are more motivated when we are introduced to a new environment, new experiences, new feelings and new thoughts.

If you want to rewire your brain, you need to expose yourself to different things and fresh ideas. In the next few lines I introduce you to a couple of them.

STEP 1: Prime your environment for change.

Here's what I want you to do. For an entire week, I want you to stop buying the M&M's, the biscuits, the crisps and all that stuff that you treasure in your sacred kitchen corner.

That's your only task. Nothing else. You don't need to follow any diet. Just get these things out of your house (and your office too) for a week.

And if the people you live with want them, that's fine. But they are theirs, NOT yours!

STEP 2: Hand in the biscuit -- and nobody gets hurt!

When you're shopping for food, or watching TV, and your lizard brain lights up like a Christmas tree and sets a stress response for you to grab its object of desire, I want you to give it no choice.

You need to realize something super important in here: A craving is NOT an emergency. It's uncomfortable and intense, but (just like hunger) it's not an emergency.

You won't die.

Even though your cerebellum is making you believe you will. But you won't.

It isn't real.

Get your neocortex, the CEO of your brain, to tell its primitive employee to take a forced holiday. And when it complains, go "Hand in the biscuit and nobody gets hurt!" Don't give it a choice.

It will be uncomfortable, but nothing bad will happen if you withstand it. In fact, in a few moments, you're going to be so proud of yourself!

Now, off you go and try these new techniques. Remember me when you do your next big shop!

Enjoy!

Alejandra

As promised, I have a little gift for you. You can learn more about your mind on food by taking this eating psychology test: Are you a Doer, a Thinker, a Planner or a Feeler? (It takes about two minutes to complete and it's totally FREE -- and "ad-free" too).