I’ve learned something profound in my personal life when it comes to healthy eating habits. Around the age of 10 I pursued a path of health and wellness as a solution to the struggles in my childhood and family life. I somehow created the idea that a healthy body would build superhuman powers in me that would end my suffering.
Since the time I first created this solution I discovered a great deal about how the human mind works. One of my discoveries has to do with the topic of why people overeat. It doesn’t take more than a bit of observation to catch on to patterns. As I grew in self-awareness through my own practices and those of clients it became clear that people overeat because they are trying to find satisfaction.
You Can’t Find Love In The Fridge
The issue? They are simply misguided. They were seeking satisfaction in the wrong places.. Despite what the marketing campaigns tell us, there isn’t a super food we can eat to eat to fix our spiritual struggles. In fact, there usually isn’t any food to eat that will fix any problem. Food is simple nourishment, meant to be enjoyed and to help us continue to enjoy the beauty of life.
When we seek satisfaction in the wrong places, looking for happiness, peace and love in the refrigerator, we wind up using food as a substitute for fulfillment. Renouncing the failed approaches of fad dieting and setting all forms of denial aside, let’s aim directly at the problem of overeating, which is, at its core, a search for fulfillment.
When that problem is solved, normal eating falls into place automatically – there’s no need to force it with rigid solutions. When you find a better way to be happy other than overeating, your entire system – both body and mind – will achieve what it really desires.
What many do not understand is that they can override simple signals from their body. Our thoughts and intentions have leveraging power and therefore something as basic as hunger is not so basic – it involves the entire brain.
For example, consider your mood or thoughts just before or as you are eating. Do you feel guilty or grateful? Depending on the views you have toward food, your experience of eating will be very different.
Some people have grown up learning that food is more important than them, be it through shameful eating, a history of strict dieting, or even poverty. These types of conditions turn the simple act of eating into something far more complex than it is. When food becomes that important, it’s essentially a big deal in our minds, and we aren’t able to manage anything that’s bigger than us.
Not everybody has issues with the natural system that controls hunger (appetite). Those who grew up with more ideal life circumstances – enlightened parents, good health and plenty of food on the table – have a much different relationship with food. Their views and attitudes toward food sound something like this:
- My body tells me what it needs.
- I sense when my body is uncomfortable.
- I exercise because it makes me feel good.
These are the statements of someone who is strongly rooted in a healthy and functional mind-body connection. Unfortunately, when the natural suppressors of life cause it to fail to work correctly, our mind-body awareness dulls and we fall victim to bad habits.
When our body is out of balance from years of ignoring its wisdom, the wrong signals are sent to us. Because we can’t hear the body’s cries and cues for balance, we are duped, listening to the wrong signals. The result is that our hormonal system gets further out of whack, we gain or lose weight, and ultimately we get sick. We ignore the signals of distress such as feeling tired, and instead of a nap, we become caffeine addicts or stuff ourselves to increase feel-good hormones like dopamine.
Understanding The Brain
Scientists have discovered that there are three sections of the brain — the lower brain, middle brain and higher brain. Each of the three sections of the brain serves a fundamental purpose. The lower is also known as the reptilian brain and its job is to ensure basic survival – instinct, protection, and the animalistic drives such as sex and aggression.
The middle brain is the emotional brain and its job is to tune into the sensations of the world – so we can feel love, intimacy, intuition, and connection.
Then there is the higher brain, which science calls the neocortex. It is the whole brain that creates the fullest, richest life. The higher brain makes humans special, giving us the ability to rationalize and have good judgment.
Despite the bad rap that the word judgment has gotten, the truth is that with judgment comes wisdom. When we use our higher brain, we are able to make choices that are in our best interests.
When we break the mind-body connection, we succumb to the lower brain. When we have a broken mind-body connection, we no longer are capable of making wise judgment calls. The lower brain somehow tricks us into believing that eating an entire box of cookies is in our best interest. Primal survival and irrational emotions have taken over, leading us down destructive paths.
To understand how the three parts of the brain work, consider this metaphor. Imagine three telephone conversations happening at once. Each part of your brain is having a conversation, with you – the choice maker – on the other end. Each part of the brain has something it wants to tell you.
However, like three different friends, each has their opinion on what’s best for you to do. The lower brain is your friend that’s telling you to do what makes you feel good physically. The middle brain is the emotionally healthy friend advising you to do what makes you feel good emotionally. Lastly, the higher brain is like your wise advisor, suggesting you make a decision for yourself taking all aspects into consideration.
Dietary Dogma < Mindful Eating
We’ve all at some time experienced and know the frustration of this scenario. Who do you listen to? The good news is that all three friends (brains) can come together and cooperate. The lower brain will tell you to eat so you physically don’t feel like dying, and the middle brain will agree because eating makes you happy. This idea reaches the higher brain, which suggests you actually stop and have some food.
This is the balancing act of your brain behind the scenes. It’s all three friends agreeing and cooperating on a meal choice. No single part of the brain forces its message in a healthy and functional mind-body connection. All this seemingly complex communication between brains is rooted in one goal: happiness. Looking at your relationship with food, what do you see? Do you see someone who is frustrated or satisfied?
I see so many clients of mine – and I was one myself – whose higher brains are so packed with technical information from reading thousands of books and attending every health lecture that their inner voices are crying out with dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
You’d think someone with so much knowledge about eating would be relishing the joy of his or her intellectual food choices. Yet so many of them eat with guilt, dissatisfaction and general misery. Is this you? Has dietary dogma and your higher brain shoved the lower brains completely out of the picture?
In these people and myself I’ve found something interesting. Their overly active higher brain was stimulated and exercised out of fear. Thoughts of fear of failure, reaching to be perfect, and knowing the best food choices so they can control their body and please the world has driven them to become overly controlling in dietary choices.
In addition, they have an even deeper fear of being out of control, knowing that at any moment they may crash under the pressure of their lower brain. For me, this was true. I grew up where food was minimal and I secretly always feared there would never be food on the table. My solution? Learn everything I possibly could about food and I’d always have it. I learned that a solution rooted in fear will produce ugly results.
No wonder I overate without enjoyment. I was eating out of hidden fear. I remember days of eating alone in my car with rare memories of satisfaction. The majority of my eating was done alone, rushed and rigidly (adhering to strict dieting or dogma).
We can’t escape the conversations going on in the mind all the time. Yet, if we wish to put an end to overeating, we must learn to master the mind at some level. Living in the present can work wonders for getting out of our heads. However, to do this we must not resist the process of the mind.
We are met with so many choices each moment, and we must learn to filter through them and ultimately use our power as the choice makers in our lives to become truly self-determined. By listening to the considerations of the brain and accepting our humanity, we can rise above it.
First, accept and know that our brains have a pleasure center for food. Everyone has emotions that when left untamed can override natural hunger and make us overeat. There is nothing wrong with you; this is a natural process and you just haven’t learned to master it. The first step is having awareness of it.
Secondly, our own distorted beliefs – our self-created truths or dogmas of the higher brain — can interfere with both emotions and hunger. Hence, the anorexic teenager who sees a starved body in the mirror but feels “too fat”. This is due to a warped mental image, an idea we create in the higher brain. This is how our own ideas can become our own prisons. We must be willing to take responsibility for our own limiting beliefs and expand our minds. When we overeat, it appears that the lower brain has won the conversation and forced us into uncontrollable eating. Actually, the problem is systemic – it’s a blend of miscommunication between the brains. One is trying to have control (lower) the other finding comfort (emotional brain), and then one making a bad choice (higher brain). It’s a continual dance of impulse, emotion and decision.
- Impulse: When the lower brain tells us we are hungry, fearful, stimulated, or our survival is threatened.
- Emotion: When the middle brain tells us about our mood, positive or negative, then we are to respond in the present moment based on these emotions.
- Choice: When the higher brain tells us that a decision must be made now based on the circumstances of reasoning, which leads to action.
This is the dance that is always happening in our minds and that everyone who overeats is basically unaware of. Here’s the secret: we will never win this war. Let’s be honest, if we could, we would have and you wouldn’t be reading this article.
What we resist persists, and when we fight our brains, we keep ourselves trapped even more. When we fight and struggle we make ourselves a victim of a problem and we stay stuck at the level of the problem. The solution? We must rise above the level of the problem and reach the level of the solution.
That means that rather than do some exercise or take an approach to overeating like calorie counting, hiding food or some other fear-based solution to the problem, we find a level of awareness where the problem doesn’t exist.
How do we do this? The good news is we all have a great motivation working for us: the desire for happiness. Happiness is a state of fulfillment, and everyone wants to be fulfilled.
Instead of asking “what’s wrong with me”, which only gives you equally poor-quality answers, we have to ask better questions. When we ask better questions, it switches our focus. The level of the solution requires a shift of focus.
By focusing on what makes us happy, which is our most basic motivation, it becomes a lot easier to see what unknowns we are trying to make known. We can boil this down to a single question: “what am I hungry for?” By focusing on the solution and our true desire, we will be pointed in the right direction.