Urges to binge can come in the form of strong desires to eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. They are characterized by a sense of loss of control, excessive food consumption, and often followed by disappointment and shame.
One doesn’t have to have a binge eating disorder or any eating disorder, per se, to be exposed to such urges.
Many people who’ve gone through a period of restrictive dieting experience at least one strong urge to binge. These powerful compulsions aren’t easy to resist. That’s why many of us, at some point in our diet, end up reaching for forbidden foods in larger amounts than what’s reasonable.
This is how we pave our road to ruin and give way to the well-known yo-yo effect.
It’s clear that food can’t be eliminated from our lives, but our thinking and acting around food can, indeed, be managed and optimized.
How can we rise above our durable desire to indulge in food that doesn’t serve us well in the long-term? What can support us in staying faithful to our initial intention for healthy nutrition?
And how can we make food choices that we won’t regret later?
The answer is already within you. To be more precise, it is located in the most recently developed region of your human brain called the neocortex.
This part of your brain, especially the prefrontal section, is responsible for:
- Planning and moderating complex behavior (including social behavior)
- Goal setting
- Expression of your personality
- Decision making
Your true self resides in this part of your brain. This is the self that doesn’t quickly lose control when exposed to animalistic desires such as an urge to binge.
The neocortex (the “new” cortex) is a brain area that is unique to mammals and plays a central role in cognition, motor behavior, and sensory perception. A deeper brain region, called the thalamus, sends sensory information to the neocortex via a major highway called the internal capsule.
In a 2017 study 1 1. Xiaobing Zhang, Anthony N. van den Pol Rapid binge-like eating and body weight gain driven by zona incerta GABA neuron activation Science, 2017; 356 (6340): 853 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7100 × , researchers in Japan identified a subgroup of neurons in the mouse brain that, upon activation, immediately prompt binge-like eating. Furthermore, repeated stimulation of these neurons over time caused the mice to gain weight. The zona incerta (ZI) is a relatively understudied part of the brain.
Patients receiving deep brain stimulation of the subthalamus, which includes the ZI, for the treatment of movement disorders can exhibit characteristics of binge eating.
Engaging Your Neocortex To Resist An Urge
How can we call on our neocortex when we want to make conscious food choices?
1. Consider your urge to be irrational. Before you take this step, ensure that you are consuming enough food. If you’re restricting your nourishment and starving yourself, then your urge to eat is a legit physiological need that should be met.
If you’re eating enough and still have desires to indulge in fattening foods, consider that desire as brain junk. This act will lift you up to the level of your true-self.
2. Divert your attention. What you focus on tends to grow. If you find yourself trying to fight your obsessive thoughts, they will only increase in strength and occupy even more of your precious mindspace.
What works better is to shift your focus to something more productive, self-care for example.
Once you allow yourself to engage in a pleasant or meaningful activity, your neocortex will get engaged, and the grip of your urge will lessen until it leaves you entirely.
3. Reach out to others. Food can often be used for comfort. Many of us choose to deal with our emotional turmoil by indulging in short-lived pleasures provided by sugary, fattening treats.
To keep this from happening, reach out to family, friends, or even strangers. Experience comfort from human connection.
In doing so, you’re activating the part of your neocortex that regulates social behavior. Once you rise to this level of consciousness, your cravings will crumble, letting you carry on with your day.
4. Get enough sleep. Cutting back on sleep boosts levels of a chemical signal that can enhance the pleasure of eating snack foods and increase caloric intake, report University of Chicago investigators.
Sleep-deprived participants in their 2016 study – all young, healthy volunteers – were unable to resist what the researchers called “highly palatable, rewarding snacks,” meaning cookies, candy and chips, even though they had consumed a meal that supplied 90 percent of their daily caloric needs two hours before.
The effects of sleep loss on appetite were most powerful in the late afternoon and early evening, times when snacking has been linked to weight gain.
“We found that sleep restriction boosts a signal that may increase the hedonic aspect of food intake, the pleasure and satisfaction gained from eating. Sleep restriction seems to augment the endocannabinoid system, the same system targeted by the active ingredient of marijuana, to enhance the desire for food intake,”
said Erin Hanlon, PhD, a research associate in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Chicago. This chemical signal is the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Blood levels of 2-AG are typically low overnight. They slowly rise during the day, peaking in the early afternoon.
In short, the mechanism mimics the marijuana “munchies.”
5. Watch your impulsiveness. A 2015 study found that the more impulsive you are, the more likely it is you’ll binge eat when experiencing negative feelings 2 2. Sarah E. Racine, S. Alexandra Burt, Pamela K. Keel, Cheryl L. Sisk, Michael C. Neale, Steven Boker, Kelly L. Klump Examining associations between negative urgency and key components of objective binge episodes International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/eat.22412 × .
“It’s human nature to want to turn to something for comfort after a bad day, but what our research found is that the tendency to act rashly when faced with negative emotions is a personality trait that can lead to binge eating,”
Kelly Klump, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said. What’s more, it’s not just those with binge eating who act impulsively when upset.
“Both overeating and feeling out of control when eating small or normal amounts of food were related to rash action when experiencing negative emotions,”
said Sarah Racine, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University and lead author on the research.
These tips are intended for those who have a relatively healthy relationship with food and experience occasional urges to binge. If you suffer from an eating disorder, you’ll find your best results in consulting professional support and recovery assistance.
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