#037 How to Overcome Emotional Eating

September 22nd, 2014 by

I can find all sorts of reasons to eat. I don’t even need to be hungry!

Just this afternoon, I finished a very healthy and satisfying lunch, and it was time to go back to work. My first thought was, “I’m going to head out to the garage freezer and see if we have any chocolate out there.”

Having quite a bit of experience with this faulty thought process, I caught myself and asked, “Jane, are you really hungry?”

The answer: “No.”

“What do you really need right now?”

The answer: “I am tired but I feel I need to get back to work. I have so much to do. Instead of giving myself permission to rest for a few minutes, which is what I really need, I thought I’d try eating some chocolate and keep going.”

Aha! The truth!

I decided that I would honor my real need to rest for 20 minutes before I went back to work and assured myself that I could eat the chocolate later, if I still wanted it.

Rejuvenated, I went back to work, and made it through the rest of the day without feeling any pull from the chocolate.

This week, in our seminar, we explored the false promises of these sugary and fake foods.  They tell us that they will meet our needs, when really they just make us want more of them and less of what our minds and bodies really need.

When we look beyond the confusion of the labels and marketing of fake food products, it’s crystal clear that simply eating real food when we are hungry is the way to nourish our bodies.

So, why can’t we implement this knowledge and eat only real food only when we’re hungry?

Why are we lured in by these fake food products, often when we’re not even hungry?

The Top Ten Reasons We Eat

Here are ten of our favorite reasons to eat.  Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. I am tired

I am tired, so I think I’ll eat something.

2. I am procrastinating

I don’t want to do this, so I think I’ll eat something.”

3. I am happy

I am happy! Let’s eat!

4. I am sad

“I don’t want to deal with these feelings, so I think I’ll eat something

5. I am thirsty and need water

My body is sending me a signal that it needs something, I’d better eat.

6. I am with people

Here we all are with all this great food! Let’s eat!

7. I am alone

I am alone—no one will see me eat this.


“I am lonely, maybe eating something will make me feel better.

8. I feel stuck

I don’t see any other way to meet my needs right now, what can I eat to feel better?

9. I see food

Oh, that looks good! I wasn’t even hungry, but I think I’ll have just one.

Our seminar participants came up with many more favorites, including: I’m bored, It’s family tradition, I’m stressed, I’m rewarding myself….

But, here’s the one real reason to eat that will actually meet our needs:

10. I am hungry

I am looking forward to a nutritious, satisfying meal.

Separating the Truth from the Lies

Here’s the lie in the first nine (or so) reasons to eat:

I can fix the problems in my life or make the good things better in my life by eating.

We can eat and eat and eat until we feel stuffed, but are never satisfied. Eating for these reasons can never satisfy us because we are not addressing the real issues.

Here’s the truth in the last reason, number 10–eating because we are hungry:

“My body is ready for nourishment. I am going to honor it and give it what it needs. I am going to be satisfied because I am eating for true hunger and giving it real food.

When I eat for any reason other than hunger, more often than not, I turn to the fake and sugary foods which lie to my brain and lie to my body that they can meet my needs and that what I really need is more of these “foods.”

How to Interrupt the Cycle

The key to interrupting this cycle and developing healthier behaviors is to become aware of the cues that precede our reach for the unhealthy/unnecessary stuff, insert ourselves by asking a few questions, and provide ourselves with a different option that satisfies our true needs.

The last chapter of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit offers a helpful formula. I highly recommend this fascinating collection of stories and case studies, which illuminates how habits develop and the enormous consequences that can result.

I also highly recommend Susan Albers’ Eating Mindfully for an in-depth exploration of the habits that trap us in emotional eating cycles and strategies to return to mindful eating.

Here are the three questions I’ve learned to ask myself when I feel the urge to grab something to eat:

  1. Am I hungry–do I feel like eating real food?

If I am thinking about eating fake sugary food items, and I can’t think of something healthy and nourishing that I want to eat, the chances are high that I am looking to eat for reasons other than true hunger.

  1. What do I need right now?

If I can’t think of something nourishing that I want to eat, I can ask myself what I am actually feeling and needing. More often than not, I am feeling tired or procrastinating doing something I know I need to do but don’t want to do.

  1. What options can I give myself?

When I want to reach for junk food, I am usually in a situation where I feel I can’t meet my needs otherwise—usually at work. But there is always something I can do to interrupt this cycle. If I am tired, I can close my eyes and breath for a few moments and commit to giving myself time to rest or meditate when I finish a project. If I am looking for distraction, I can set a time for 5 minutes, go on a walk, listen to a podcast, call a friend, etc..

In each case, I can interrupt the cue-reward cycle with a question and an option. Then, I can invite myself to wait until I am actually hungry to eat and offer myself real food first.

Taking a minute to check in by asking myself these questions and giving myself other options dissolves the seeming desperate urge to eat foods I don’t need and enables the overall health and well-being I desire–one mindful choice at a time.

Please share with us! What have you found to be most helpful as you strive to eat mindfully?

#032 Ten Ways to Break Your Sugar Addiction

September 8th, 2014 by

Ten Ways to Break Your Sugar Addiction

Oreo cookies and cupcakes are more addictive than cocaine, according to recent medical studies.  Could the findings of these studies help explain why two in three of us are overweight or obese?

Many studies have shown that when a person with a sugar addiction sees something like a cookie or a cupcake, the prefrontal cortex area of their brain lights up on a brain scan as much as a cocaine addict when they see cocaine.

In my experience as a cardiologist, nearly all of my patients that have been able given up sugar and simple carbs and replaced these foods with real food choices have been able to return to a normal weight.  It really is that simple.

Simple carbs, like breakfast cereals, pancakes, breads or pasta made with flour, white rice, fries, or potato chips are really just sugars to the body. The key to breaking a sugar addiction, avoiding hunger, and maintaining a normal weight is to minimize or avoid sugar and simple carbs.

My Story

I lived what I thought was the typical American teenager’s life.  Every day, I ate cereals such as Frosted Flakes and Rice Crispies, or Bisquick pancakes for breakfast.  For lunch and throughout the day, I enjoyed  white bread sandwiches, pastries, bagels, and soda pop.

I was always wanting the stuff, but never felt satisfied.  I thought this was normal as all of my friends and their families ate this same way. I thought we were eating healthy because all of these foods are low in fat and cholesterol.

At the age of 21 I lived in Taipei, Taiwan with a Chinese family and had no contact with any caucasians for the entire summer. There were no processed or sugary foods available to me.

Never mind adjusting to a new culture and language, the hardest part of the experience for me was living without sugar!  I could not find any of the usual sugar fixes in my Taipei neighborhood. There were no bagels, waffles, donuts, or cookies.  On a student’s budget, I could not afford to travel to, or pay for, my traditional fixes at any of the grocery stores catering to Westerners living in Taipei.

So there I was, a summer in Taiwan with no sugar.  I went through quite severe sugar withdrawals.  I was irritable, depressed, and anxious for the first week or two. And then, miraculously, the cravings for sugar and simple carbs, and the accompanying symptoms, disappeared.

The amazing thing is that I felt the best I had ever felt in my life that summer in Taiwan.

Even at the young age of 21, it occurred to me that I really did have a sugar/simple carb addiction.  I thought I was cured until I came back to college in the U.S. at the end of the summer.

Everyday, as I passed my university bookstore each morning, I smelled something delicious. At some point during the second week, I vaguely remember thinking, “What could hurt in having just one?” It was all over that day.  I picked up right where I left off and sugar became my overwhelming daily fair once again.

This daily fair continues until  a medical crisis in my mid-40s , when I finally got this sugar/simple carb addiction under control and regained my health.

Do sugar and simple carbs qualify as addictive substances?

The medical definition of an addiction is a strong and harmful need to regularly have something.  By this definition, sugar and simple carbs qualify.  We know it is harming our bodies but, when addicted, we feel compelled to eat it despite the direct links to harmful effects such as obesity, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer… the list goes on.

What do sugar and simple carbs do to the brain?

Sugar and simple carbs are no different than smoking, alcohol, or cocaine on their effect to the brain.  In fact, an addiction to sugar and simple carbs may even be more difficult.

While smoking and drugs are despised in our culture, sugar and simple carbs are celebrated, starting at a young age.  Our children are showered with sugar and simple carbs at school, church, many friends’ homes, sporting activities, etc..

The Chemical Changes to Our Brains with a Sugar Addiction

1. Increase Serotonin Release

We all crave serotonin.  Serotonin makes us feel good and relieves anxiety.

Most medications used for depression and anxiety actually block the break down of serotonin.  Thus, these medications increase the serotonin in our brains.

2. Increase Dopamine

Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical in our brain.  With sugar and simple carbs we get the same dopamine rush as we would with cocaine.

3. Endorphin Release

Sugar and simple carbs cause a release of opiates within our brains.  This is the same thing as the “runners high.”  In fact, many medical studies have shown that we can block much of the addictive properties of sugar and simple carbs with a medication called naloxone.

Naloxone directly blocks the effects of opiates in the brain.  Thus, naloxone is very helpful for drug and alcohol addicts battling these addictions.

 4. Acetylcholine Release

Elevated levels of acetylcholine in the brain are seen with all addictions.  Sugar and simple carbs can have the same effect.  With elevated acetylcholine in the brain, the higher cognitive effects of the prefrontal cortex are impaired.

With impaired prefrontal cortex function, our willpower and ability to focus on high-level goals is also affected.  Thus, even though we know what sugar and simple carbs are doing to our health, we are powerless to change.

10 Steps to Break the Sugar and Simple Carb Addiction

In addition to the struggle we face with the brain chemicals that compel us to eat sugar and simple carbs, we also face another very real challenge: the people around us who are also in the throws of the junk food and want us to partake with them. It can seem nearly impossible to resist.

These scenarios can create a psychological dilemma. If we partake, we can get caught up in the addictive cycle.  On the other hand, when we make these foods “forbidden” or “evil,” it can further intensify the obsession for these foods.

What to do?  Let me give you my 10 steps to break the sugar and simple carb addiction.

 1. Real Food First

While abstinence would be best, for the 99% of us who cannot abstain, I have found that eating real food first is the best option.  This approach works best for our children as we are guiding them to make healthy food choices and navigate the plethora of sugar and simple carbs that surround them everywhere.  We call this the Real Food First Diet.

This approach is really quite simple.  At each meal, have vegetables, fruit, a healthy protein, and a healthy fat first.  If your body is telling you that you are still hungry after eating real food first, then you can eat whatever you want.

Of course, you need to wait at least 30 minutes for the “I’m full” signal from your gut to finally get to your brain before you eat more.  The goal is that if you fill up on real food first that you will reduce or lose the desire for sugar and simple carbs.

I have found that if people fill up on real food with each meal that they generally lose their desire to snack or eat junk food.  If, however, you are craving a snack, the same rules apply.  Eat real food first, wait 30 minutes from your first bite of real food and if your body is telling you that you are still hungry then you can eat whatever you want.

2. Do Something You Enjoy Everyday

Find something that you love and do it every day.  Take time for yourself.  If you get to do at least one enjoyable thing each day it raises your own natural serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.  When these substances go up, acetylcholine returns to healthy levels within the brain.

If we can get our fix of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins naturally we won’t feel compelled to get them from sugar and simple carbs.

3. Get 20-30 Minutes of Sunlight Each Day

Sunlight is also a powerful stimulator of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.  As a society we are doomed to stay inside.  Our offices are inside, the gym is inside, and at night we are inside our homes taking care of children.

Difficult as it may be, we must find a way to get outside each day.  Explore exercising outside sometimes rather than the usual gym class.  Instead of watching TV or working on the computer at night, try going for a walk with the family.

4. Get Physical Touch

Physical touch also stimulates release of these same feel good chemicals in the brain.  Physical touch, inside of a safe monogamous relationship, can have powerful beneficial effects even beyond the release of these brain chemicals.

If you don’t have anyone in your life, get a regular massage.  Indeed, medical studies show that massage can also significantly increase these feel good chemicals in the brain.

5. Yoga or Meditation

If you want to drop your serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels fast, just get stressed out.  I have found that yoga and meditation are very effective in reducing stress for my cardiac patients.  As our stress levels go down we can get our feel good brain chemicals up without sugar or the simple carbs.

6. Physical Activity

We have all heard of the runner’s high. This does not come immediately.  Once we make exercise a regular part of our lives we will eventually feel the high from surging serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels from exercise.

This was the case for me.  I remember absolutely hating to run.  Even running a mile was pure torture.  On a whim one day in medical school I committed to run the New York City Marathon with my roommates who were avid runners.

At first, every step was painful.  After about a month into my training, I found that I actually started enjoying these runs.  After two months, I was hooked and have been hooked on exercise for the last 20 years of my life.

7. Get 7 Hours of Sleep

This is probably the most overlooked part of resisting sugar and carb addictions.  If we can just get 7 hours of sleep each night we can get all of our body’s hormones in check and we will be in a better place not to crave sugar and simple carbs.

In our stress filled lives, we just want to keep working on various projects until late into the evening.  I have found that the best way to get 7 hours of sleep is to set our alarm clocks for bedtime rather than waking up time.

Let me explain.  Rather than setting our alarm clocks for 6 am, an even more effective strategy is to set our alarm clocks for 10 pm at night.

The rules are simple.  You cannot turn off the alarm clock until you are in bed with the lights out.  If we have a hard stop to the day we will find that we are much more productive with our time as there is a time limit to everything.  Also, with so much more energy the next day we will be able to accomplish even more.

8. Change Your Scenery

When you are bored, frustrated, or just avoiding a task it is so easy to start obsessing on sugar and simple carbs.  The sugar and simple carbs become a distraction allowing us to procrastinate what we really need to be doing.  I know this is the case for me.

Sometimes if you can’t plow through your task it is best to just change the scenery.  Perhaps taking a walk or getting a nice tall glass of ice water is all you need to break the sugar and simple carb thought obsessions.

9. Get Support

You are not alone in your efforts to resist the siren’s call of sugar and simple carbs.  Find an accountability partner or a friend or family member to give you support.

You may even want to consider joining a support group such as a 12-step group for people struggling with food addictions.  Having some tools and working with a group of people who are working towards the same goals can provide a powerful medium to break the sugar and simple carb addiction.

10. Go for Quality

The World Health Organization has deemed it unsafe to eat more than 25 grams or about 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily (including honey, maple syrup, juices, sports drinks, etc.). Choose wisely and enjoy what you select.

If you are limited to just 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily make them count.  For me, I choose to spend most of my 25 grams of added sugar each day on high quality dark chocolate.  As these 25 grams are priceless, I choose only the best.  Don’t waste your 25 grams of added sugar on a little more than 7 ounces of high fructose corn syrup in a Coke.  Make each gram of sugar count.

Have you been able to break free from a sugar and simple carb addiction? What has been your secret to successfully breaking free from your sugar/simple carb addiction?