Why Changing Eating Habits (for Good) is So Hard

written by Kari Anderson, DBH, LCMHC, CEDS, Executive Director, Green Mountain at Fox Run and its Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating

The following article is written for clients who struggle with binge and emotional eating. It is not intended for those suffering from anorexia or bulimia due to the mindfulness intervention that is better suited for clients struggling with binge and emotional eating behaviors. It was originally published on Psychology Today on 10/3/17 and is republished here with permission. 

Most of us can change what, when, and how much we eat for a little while. But once our newfound “willpower” runs out, we fall right back into old habits. Every single time!

Why is breaking up with destructive eating behaviors so hard to do?

It’s complicated and primal, and has everything to do with your brain trying to help you survive. Yes, even if the eating changes you’re trying to make will make you healthier.

Deep within our brain lies a basic quest for survival, located in the reptilian brain. Food is key to our survival and represents safety. So if someone (even you) starts messing around with your food, all bets are off. That’s because any threat to to your safety, whether real or perceived, evokes fear.

This is especially true for those with a history of food insecurity caused by poverty, eating disorders, or chronic dieting. Adoptive parents of children from countries with food scarcity often report food-hoarding behaviors among their children, even though there is now plenty of food. Staffers at one eating disorder treatment center I read about once found an entire cut of roast beef, frozen, under a patient’s bed. (Evidently, she had gotten into the walk-in freezer when no one was looking.)

Chronic dieting can cause a sense of food insecurity, too. If you grew up with a parent or other caregiver who tried to control your food, or if you have willingly participated in continuous dieting behavior, you will naturally experience some degree of threat when you begin to change your eating habits.

Food also has a strong emotional pull. Part of our habits with food have been built within the reward pathways of our mammalian brain. Not just the reward of pleasure, but those representing connection, bonding and even love. Food is not just food—it can mean so much more.

According to the Porges Polyvagal Theory, a behavioral hypothesis that is gaining recognition, relationships and social engagement with others is the primary way that mammals have developed to calm themselves. This natural regulation is accomplished through neurological processes. When relationships go missing, food often serves a similar function.

Through sensory experiences and the movement of facial muscles, eating neurologically mimics social interaction, providing a feeling of safety and calm. So when someone says food is “my friend, my lover,” they aren’t far off the mark. They are using eating to regulate their nervous system.

As humans, we have a higher-level brain — the human brain or cortex — with the ability to plan, reason, and see things through to the end. Most of our diet plans or goals for changing our eating behaviors take place at times when we are calm (possibly when we have a hand in a bag of chips).  Unfortunately, when we are stressed and tired, we lose our “rational brain” and our quest for safety automatically defaults to our reptilian or mammalian brain.

Don’t lose hope. You can change your brain. There are effective methods for healing food insecurity, habitual food reward pathways, and the isolation and food as connection cycle. Programs like Green Mountain at Fox Run offer science-based solutions in a safe healing environment.

The Secret to Changing Eating Behavior, for Good

To change eating behaviors in a lasting way, you must understand what is driving your desire to change. In our culture, we see two main motivators for people making changes to the way they eat: Wanting to be good and wanting to look good. Both tend to be good-enough motivators in the beginning, but they never hold up for long. Here’s why—and info on the type of motivation that does stand the test of time.

Wanting to “Be Good”

More than ever before eating has become such a moral behavior. How many times have you heard the phrase, “sinful indulgence” about a food? Since when is chocolate a moral issue?

Foods have been labeled “good” or “bad” for a long time. Unfortunately, that type of black-and-white, good-or-evil labeling of food also extends to the people who eat it. If you’re not eating clean, then are you dirty? Through this twisted moral lens, eating behavior becomes about who you are, not just what you put in your mouth.

This is especially true for people who are also dealing with the stigma of having larger bodies. There is a widely accepted myth that if you live in a larger-than-average body, you have somehow failed. Feelings of shame can be pervasive. If you’re motivated to change your behavior because of shame that has permeated your being, you are seeking acceptance from others.

But what you need is acceptance from yourself.

I have never known anyone who took the time to take care of themselves when they don’t care about themselves. More often, I see people punishing themselves with food (or a lack of it), especially when they feel they have failed to “be good.”

Shame—whether it comes from inside yourself or from others—is not a good motivator. That’s because a natural response to shame is anger. Getting mad and rebelling is one way the powerless (and shamed) can feel powerful. Some call it rebellion, others call it sabotage. It is the inner drive that tells you “you can” when everyone else tells you “you can’t.”

We have been sold out to the 65-billion-dollar diet (or clean food) industry that sends the message we can’t trust ourselves with food, and that we need to pay them to tell us how to eat. When faced with these shaming rules, we say, “I can eat anything I want, and I will!” It’s a natural response, but one that can simply reinforce the shame spiral we’re trying to escape.

Wanting to “Look Good”

The second big reason people often want to change their eating habits is to look “good.” And the definition of “good” is usually driven by our society’s thin ideal — the notion that thinness defines beauty and health.

As a result, too many of us regularly attempt to change our body size or our weight. Sometimes we do it in the name of health because we’re routinely told that we need to lose weight to be healthy. But our best laid plans to do this are often made with our bellies full, or as was the case with me, my hand in a bag of chips. The planning sessions frequently take place on Sundays or the eve of a new month or year. Or, the calendar comes out, weeks are counted back from a special event for which we want to “look our best” and a formula involving points, or calories in and calories out, or daily steps is used to define our course of action.

We set out eagerly on the new plan and do just fine—until, that is, we hit a moment of being totally stressed out.

You see, we can’t effectively use our executive brain function—the parts that are able to reason and weigh evidence and make fact-based decisions—during difficult moments. Our brain’s default to neural pathways laid down by fear and other emotions. We succumb because we are not thinking about our new 12-week goal; we are thinking about surviving right now, and we will start again….tomorrow.

Then when we are in our “right mind” again we start recalculating. But the more“diet fatigued” we are, the longer it takes us to gain enough energy to get back on the wagon.

Wanting to “Feel Good”

If the motivations of wanting to “be” good and “look” good don’t work in the long run, what does?

Behavior change science tells us that intrinsic motivation is the key, motivation that comes from within, that is internally driven by what is important to you.

This eluded me for a long time. I would think to myself, “Well, my health is important to me. Why isn’t this enough to motivate me?” Then someone asked me, “When do you know you are healthy? When the doctor tells you?” No, I know it when I feel good!

The doctor’s statement is an example of external motivation. Knowing when you feel good and wanting to do what’s needed to keep feeling that way is an example of intrinsic or internal motivation. Unfortunately, many people are so disconnected from their bodies by shame that they don’t know when they feel good, or bad.

How to Reconnect with Your Body & Mind

The pathway to reconnecting to your body and your internal motivation is through mindfulness. When we can be still and be present in the moment, without judgement, we can listen to our bodies and our internal feedback loop of wisdom for the answers. We can watch our thoughts and sense our emotions, which are both symptoms of our well-being. The next step is to simply observe how our behaviors make us feel in our daily reality. Then we find it easier to repeat the behaviors that make us feel well.

We can notice that some foods we eat, in certain amounts, combinations and at certain times either feel good or don’t feel good. We can notice that we have a choice about what we eat and when—that no one but our own bodies is telling us what to do.

When we begin to feel better, we can move more and have more energy. We can begin to sleep better and feel more rested.

By simply pausing and noticing, our awareness of behaviors that make us feel good can create new reward pathways in our brains. “This feels good!” Mindfulness focuses our attention to the daily experience, moment by moment. Our reward becomes the twinkly little lights of a life well lived moment by moment, rather than putting pleasure on hold until we can finally allow for, at the end of the day, a floodlight of reward. The behaviors involved with floodlights of reward —overeating, for example—usually don’t make us feel good at all in the long run.

As we tune into our clarity of thought and the energy we get from balanced blood sugar, we begin to feel good and can better experience a joyful life now.

Developing Trust in Self and Food Again

People feel good when they are getting their most basic needs met. If we are truly feeling autonomous and competent in our decision-making regarding our eating behavior, we simply eat in a way that makes us feel good. It is here where we make decisions based on competence, not shame, and have access to our executive functioning, allowing us to pause and make decisions rather than act out of habit.

This is the premise of intuitive eating: developing a trust in self and trust in food again. The ability to ask ourselves,“Will this decision bring clarity of mind, and the energy I need to be my best self?” If the answer is no, then what will?

Interested in how this motivation approach is being used to change eating behaviors? Review Green Mountain at Fox Run’s research on this topic.

green mountain chart

For a larger image you can use in your practice, go to Green Mountain’s website.   https://www.fitwoman.com/resources/infographics/