How can a cookie or plate of pasta or bag of chocolates have this kind of hold on me? I feel like a junkie! As I listen to people's tortured stories of unbearable cravings, yo-yo dieting, weight obsession, and emotion-driven stress eating, I've seen a pattern emerge. Their pleas for help are no longer your standard "Gosh, I'd love to drop 10 pounds before the reunion" fare. Instead, these entreaties have become eerily similar to the cries for help from my patients with hard-core drug or alcohol addictions:
"I just need that sugar fix every afternoon. If I don't get it, I'll go crazy with withdrawal."
"I need a dose of pizza."
"Those Tostitos and dip are like crack to me -- once I start, I just can't stop."
I started to realize that in more and more of my patients, these cravings are the result of a reward system gone awry. I had also reviewed the new science that shows the mere anticipation of that food-related dopamine high will cause the reward centers of the brain to light up like Times Square on New Year's Eve -- the same as brain scans of cocaine addicts eager for their next fix. It doesn't take much to trigger this cascade of brain chemicals: A casually mentioned word, a picture in a magazine or on TV, or a smell from a bakery is all it takes to awaken the desperate cravings. That same insatiable drive for reward keeps all addicts pressing the dopamine accelerator, overriding their brain's normal "satisfaction" signals. These dopamine-driven moments of pleasure start to accumulate.
With constant practice, they progress to habits, carving deep neural pathways in the brain. With every repetition of the cycle, those pathways get stronger and healthier alternatives get pruned out to make way for these new, ultra-rewarding but unhealthy habits. A walk in the neighborhood with your best friend begins to pale in comparison with sitting in front of the TV and bingeing on bags of your favorite chips. This False Fix becomes the default, setting up a domino effect, constantly reinforcing itself.
See if this sounds familiar: Eat in bed, stay up too late, get rotten sleep. Feel like hell in the morning, reach for sugary, caffeinated foods to stay awake. Mindlessly seek the numbing of "just one more [candy/chip/cookie]." A glass of wine at dinner becomes three, and maybe even take a sleeping pill before bed to get "a good night's rest."
Without fully realizing it, many people have created a life of continuous, comfortable opportunities to "dope up" in front of the computer, in the doorway of the fridge, and on the couch. They are driven to repeatedly score hits of what I call "False Fixes" -- anything (like food) that leads to short-term reward in association with self-destructive behavior, followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and defeat. In contrast, Healthy Fixes are productive, positive habits associated with feelings of pride, happiness, and achievement: the enjoyment of tasty, delicious whole foods, gardening on a sunny day, or taking a long walk with your best friend. When False Fixes prevail, Healthy Fixes are tossed aside.
The seductive lies of the False Fixes now occupy center stage. In pursuit of each False Fix, you create self-defeating habits to support your habit. You start to set up rituals surrounding your bingeing. And voilà, you're ensnared in your own endless vicious False Fix–seeking cycle.