Why We Think Thin

And Eat Fat

Posted Mar 04, 2013

A major flaw of eating control programs is that they rely on conscious ways to manage habitual and impulsive behaviors that are relentlessly driven by unconscious motivations. They want you to think before you eat. If it were only that easy! The problem is you are almost always motivated to eat long before you think.

Eating is an emotional activity, and emotions get priority processing in the brain, up to thousands of times faster than thought and language. Before you know you're hungry, you already have a rise in dopamine, which drives you to get more of it by eating. You already have a shot of adrenalin to energize your quest for food. Even at earliest stages of physiological arousal, it takes a lot of conscious will to override these hidden but powerful motivations. You can do it sometimes. But over the long haul of hectic, day-to-day living, no one is that conscious and willful.

Another flaw in the "think yourself thin" strategy is that the emotions that get conditioned with food and hunger are persistent, while the conscious attention required for control of them is limited and exhaustible. Sooner, rather than later, you get tired of the considerable effort it takes for conscious control and give in. The ongoing stream of unconscious everyday emotions usually wins in the end.

Crossing Domains

Cognitive programs to manage weight underestimate the problem of "crossing domains." This curious term means that the brain does not normally access information experienced in calm emotional domains -- like diet-planning or therapy sessions -- in aroused states like anger or the impulse to overeat. In other words, when you want a hot fudge sundae, your brain will hardly ever access a V-8, just as Mr. Hyde will not remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in his diet seminar or anger-management class.

Emotional energy tends to grow more intense with resistance. Just thinking, "I don't think I should have this," increases the impulse to eat it. And if suppression of the impulse aggravates core hurts, as it does in those who feel deprived of food or undeserving of it or who feel devalued by someone who says they shouldn't have it, the motivation grows even stronger, to the point where it seems that only eating will calm you.

On the other hand, information about nutrition and anger management techniques resides in the slower "thinking brain," which knows that, despite its shortcomings as a snack, V-8 is sort of good for you. This cerebral information is unlikely to occur to you before eating calms the excitation of your limbic system.

The V-8 people were aware of the "crossing domains" problem and found a way to turn it to their advantage. Their ads repeatedly show someone who has just overeaten. She then slaps her forehead and moans, "Oh, I should have had a V-8!" (A similar ad for anger-management could show a person lying unconscious on the floor with his assailant saying, "Oh, I should have taken a time out!") In the throes of this after-the-fact realization, you are likely to put V-8 on your shopping list. Otherwise you will not remember it in the grocery store, where you'll be thinking about cookies and hot fudge sundaes.

The V-8 commercial highlights how the seeming strength of weight loss programs - their discipline - forms feedback loops of failure. The learning sequence your brain forges is this: Eat hot fudge sundae-feel shame-remember V-8. By the time this sequence gets repeated just a few times, we have trained ourselves to feel shame before thinking about the weight loss program.

The success of conscious control of emotions like shame is severely limited by the unconscious nature of biological functions. We first experience shame as a drop in energy, with some mental confusion and minor physical discomfort. There is also a slight weakening of the neck muscles, which makes it a bit harder to hold up your head. (That's why we look down when ashamed). At this point you are still unaware of any shame at all. You just feel a little less alert and more tired; you get a heavier feeling in your head and have to work harder to concentrate or even think. So what do you want when these things happen? The instant energy and clarity of anger of a hot fudge sundae! Your weight management programs (like anger management classes) have trained you to fail by associating the impulse to eat (or get angry) with shame, rather than self-value, thereby reinforcing the feedback loop of dieting doom.

By the way, the "emotional domains" aspect of memory is why, when you get resentful or angry at your spouse, you'll remember everything bad he or she has done since 1941. But you'll only remember them while resentful. When you feel sweet and loving, you'll remember all the nice things. 

The best way to overcome the crossing-domains problem is to condition cues from one domain with cues from the other. That will be the subject of the next post.

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