Holiday season is rapidly approaching, and with it comes the trick and treat display just inside the front door at your local grocery store.

If you can walk on by, congratulations! You my friend have some will power.

However, once you bypass the sugary sneak attack, the battle is far from over. In fact the battle has just begun – in your brain. As you make your way around the store, your brain is stuck on the image of that pile of jack-o-lantern frosted cookies, and they are now talking to you – “Just one won’t hurt”, “Take us home”, “No one will know”. Something is also changing in your brain chemistry, and I’ll explain that in just a minute.

Why is so incredibly hard to resist something as small and seemingly innocent as a little, orange, frosted cookie? This is a profoundly individual question, but I am going to simplify this all too common struggle for many into two things – habit and mindset.

Hardwired habits

The draw you feel from that cookie goes way beyond just a mild interest: you are wired to want it, and resistance is not futile, but hard. In his book, The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler M.D. explains the breakdown:

When you taste foods that are highly palatable (such as foods containing excess sugar, fat and salt), i.e. Mr. Jack-o-Lantern cookie, your brain releases a tidal wave of chemicals. And those chemicals land on receptors that “turn on” very specific centers in the brain responsible for feeling pleasure and a sense of reward. The feeling triggered can be as intense as pharmaceutical drugs designed to target the very same centers for various reasons.

The more you eat, the more you are “rewarded” with pleasure as your brain centers are now buzzing on that impossibly buttery, sugary sweet cookie. The triggered reward drives you to take bite after bite. Next thing you know, Jack and half of his friends are gone. Yikes!

Bet you can’t eat just one? You betcha. Food manufacturers, and maybe your local grocery store baker, are literally banking on it this holiday season. They carefully craft their treats to trick, tempt, and tease your brain onto that slippery slope of pleasure. In the whirl of chemical pleasure it becomes difficult for you to assess (or control) just how many calories can go by-by in a matter of seconds.

So who or what is to blame for sucking you into that display in the first place?

One very powerful brain chemical – dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for motivating you to seek out that cookie, because of the associated pleasure your brain remembers so well from the last cookie confrontation. You remember how good it tasted and how great it made you feel – at least for that couple of minutes – before the guilt set in. Dopamine energizes you to work for that cookie, to concentrate on it, and literally drives you to seek it out.

If this sounds close to an addiction, you are correct. The draw for some to sugary sweets has been shown to be more powerful than what drug addicts can experience when seeking their next high.

Once you have “treated and rewarded” yourself a few times, the habit has formed, and it can be quite challenging to break. Your brain chemistry and circuits have become wired to crave that momentary pleasure the cookie provides.

Have you fallen victim to the grocery store sabotage? You are not alone. Over one-third of all adults in our country are obese, in large part due to food companies and grocery stores knowing it is hard for you to resist.

Enough doom and gloom. How do we set you up for success next time into the store?

Can you reset your brain chemistry to be rewarded by eating healthy, great-tasting, and nutritious food?

Yes, and the secret is a shift of mindset. You must want something else more than you want those fleeting moments of pleasure that the cookies bring you. What is it? What do want? Maybe you want to drop a couple of jeans sizes. Maybe you want to be off your blood pressure medication. Maybe you want to be known as an ‘athletic’ type person. Maybe you want to not fall victim to the diseases that have long affected your family members.

Or maybe you just want the immense satisfaction of being in control of yourself! When you lose your ability to resist that cookie, you feel defeated, like you have lost power over controlling anything else in your life. And many who succumb to the temptation feel that it is no longer worth sticking to a healthy lifestyle.

I want you to shift that mindset and take back that control today!

Here is how you will do that:

  1. Stop. There is no easy way to say this. Tough love time. You must stop eating foods that are destroying your health and will keep you from reaching your goals. In the beginning, this will be difficult. When everyone around you is chomping on cookies and soft drinks in the break-room at lunch, you will be challenged. The dopamine will start dripping into the bloodstream, and it will be very hard to resist. Think about your goals and what you want more than that cookie; think about what you can only have by resisting the cookie. Sheer will-power is what you have to use at this point. Leave the room. Eat your lunch outside while enjoying some fresh air.
  2. Savor the victory. Once you come out on the other side having successfully won the battle within your own mind, you will have accomplished much more than just saying no to that cookie. You will have begun ‘cooling’ the stimulus, as Dr. Kessler puts it. You have taken the first step toward weakening the reward circuitry in your brain that drives you to habitual patterns of (bad) behavior, and building a new circuit of reward – a deep sense of reward that you did not let that cookie derail your goals. The next time, it will be easier. And after that, even easier.
  3. Focus on new rewards. As you remap your brain, you are creating new neural pathways that in time will be stronger than the weakening, “cookie-centric” pathways. Make sure these new rewards are life-giving, energy-producing, and health-promoting such as the thrill you get when you can run a 5K or set a personal best in your weight-lifting.

Build healthy habits, muster this new mindset, and your potential is limitless.

You can do this!

Dr. Tait

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