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How to rewire your brain to change your habits

By Michelle May, M.D.

In the video in my last post, I explained that most resolutions are doomed to fail because people usually make a critical mistake. (If you missed it, take a moment to check it out!)

Today, I want to talk about how you can actually rewire your brain for change…

Now, let’s say that you want to change your eating habits in the new year. Mindfulness helps you become aware of the thoughts and feelings that are driving your current eating habits. Once you recognize your patterns, you are able to make changes at the root cause level – so the changes will stick this time!

Based on what you are learning, is there a pattern you’d like to change in the new year? I’d love to hear about it! Please comment below.

In my next post, I have a little gift to help you with your resolutions.

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

18 Comments

  1. Karen says:

    Michelle, Love these little ‘moments’ of hopeful information. I look forward to listening to more !

  2. Gina says:

    I’ve tried to stop drinking diet pop but I’m never successful. Help!

    • It might be helpful to observe your patterns: When do you drink it? Are you bored, stressed, tired, thirsty, and so on? If you can figure out what the diet soda is doing for you, you can gradually replace it with something else to meet your needs.

  3. Kate says:

    I want to eradicate my cravings for junk food.
    Those have been my go-to foods when I feel stressed, upset anf as a form of procrastination

    • Kate, you have a good start by first identifying when you want these particular foods – such as when you are stressed, upset, or procrastinating. However, the challenge is likely fueled by your definition of these foods that you enjoy as “junk food.” Many people who struggle with food have this habit of “dichotomous” (good vs bad) thinking. When you define them as bad and tell yourself you shouldn’t eat them, you are focusing on the food. That increases feelings of deprivation and cravings. When you feel “deprived” of comfort, time, pleasure, and so on, these foods are a quick fix. As with most people, food isn’t your problem, it is your solution! Does this resonate for you?

  4. I feel on the weekend I must eat a pint of ice cream. Not a scoop or a serving but the entire pint. It is my escape but I realize it doesn’t do anything for me but has become a ritual.

    • Denise, try using TFAR to help you sort through this. For example… Thought: I shouldn’t eat ice cream (or other foods I love) during the week but after a hard week, I deserve an escape! Feelings: Deserving, reward, indulgent, then guilty. Action: Eat a little ice cream, then a little more, and so on. Result: “I blew it and did it again! I won’t eat ice cream at all next week.” You’ve proved yourself “right” and set up an all-or-nothing pattern. When the next weekend comes, you repeat the TFAR cycle. If this pattern (or whatever you figure out for yourself) makes sense, then go back to the original thought that ice cream is for the weekend. (Check out our Fearless Eating strategy in Workshop (or Chapter) 5.)

  5. Laura says:

    Hello Michelle,

    I’m brand spanking new to your blog and I really love your approach to eating and being mindful. I am 60 pounds overweight and believe me, even when I was at a perfectly normal weight well into my 40’s, I’ve always thought of myself as ‘heavy’, so those continuous thoughts have naturally become a self fulfilled prophecy, as the saying goes. The trouble is that no matter how hard I struggle to change these beliefs, I continue with the same types of eating pattern…..too many sweets, in general, which I shouldn’t be indulging in because I have type 2 diabetes with a very strong ‘dawn phenomenon’ leaning. Plus, even when I’m watching very carefully what I eat and trying to keep my thoughts positive, I don’t lose more than a couple of pounds so after awhile, I give up.

    I know this is a lot to ask but can you suggest a strategy that might actually work for me to finally lose this weight and have energy and confidence again?

    • I get it Laura! It may sound counter-intuitive, but my first recommendation is to stop focusing on losing weight! The changes you described making will have a huge benefit on your blood sugar and decrease complications from type 2 diabetes – IF they are lasting instead of temporary – whether you lose weight or not (this is the TRUTH). My second recommendation is to make smaller changes (instead of “watching very carefully”) that are sustainable. Again, this pattern of striving for perfection (even when you feel you “should”) ultimately leads to no change at all! What would happen if you picked a smaller change to practice with – and stopped using the scale to decide whether it was helpful or not? (By the way, since you are new to our site, you may not know that we have a book that will help you: Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes https://amihungry.com/marketplace/eat-what-you-love-love-what-you-eat-with-diabetes-a-mindful-eating-program-for-thriving-with-prediabetes-or-diabetes/)

  6. Mary says:

    When I get home for the evening, I eat dinner and I’m fine until my husband goes to bed and then it’s like a switch is flipped. My brain says go get dessert. So far that is all good. Then I want something else and then something else and while I’m consume less than my binges used to be it still has the same feeling. I have knitting right by me, I could do my nails, or a hundred other things but this seems like a habit more so than trying to make up for feelings.

    • Obviously it is impossible for me to know exactly what is happening so working with a therapist who specializes in binge eating would be helpful (check to see if we have any therapists or programs near you: https://amihungry.com/programs/mindful-eating-for-binge-eating/get-started/. In the meantime, here are just a few thoughts that might be the beginning of your TFAR cycle to consider:
      – I shouldn’t be eating this, but I’ve already blown it.
      – I can’t eat dessert in front of my husband.
      – I’m tired but I don’t want to go to bed.
      – Once I start eating, I can’t stop.
      – I had a hard day at work. This is my reward.
      – I shouldn’t be eating; I should be knitting or doing my nails.
      – I’ll be better tomorrow.
      And so on… Any (or several) of these types of thoughts can be the beginning of a binge cycle. Are you aware of any of these thoughts? Noticing what you are thinking and feeling (mindfulness) will help you focus on the triggers that start the cycle instead of just telling yourself you shouldn’t be doing it! (We wrote a book about this that I think will really help you unravel what is going on: Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating https://amihungry.com/marketplace/eat-what-you-love-love-what-you-eat-for-binge-eating/)

  7. Angela says:

    One habit I would like to get rid of is eating at work in front of my computer. It’s not mindful eating and I eat too much. I think I do it when I feel anxious or bored. For some reason it helps me concentrate better.

    • Could it be that, instead of helping you “concentrate better,” eating is actually distracting of soothing you from the feelings of anxiety or boredom? Are there other ways of addressing those feelings that you could experiment with (like taking a break or switching tasks when you feel bored or doing some deep breathing when you feel anxious)?

  8. Dina P. says:

    My work as an adolescent counselor is very stressful. The three bosses I have are very judgmental and unkind. I have regained about 80 lbs in the last year due to stress eating. I’ve realized this isn’t the right job for me and I plan to change.
    I am also vegan and really struggle with negative messages when I eat outside this parameter and have chocolate or cheese.

    • That is a difficult field – and important work! Since you can’t control how your bosses act, you are smart for recognizing what you are in charge of: whether you choose to work there or not. Those kids need you so I hope you can find a place where you feel appreciated.

      In terms of being a vegan, where are the negative messages coming from? Inside or outside? It may be helpful to explore your reasons for being vegan since those will impact how “strict” you decide to be. If you know you will choose to eat chocolate or cheese from time to time, would it make sense to call yourself a vegetarian instead so you have a little more flexibility?

  9. Deborah D. says:

    How do I stop the cravings for sweets?I have done so well and now I’m right back where I started. Help!!!!!

    • This is a very common challenge because most people decide to eliminate sweets altogether, believing that sugar is “bad” for them (even in moderation) and/or that their cravings are a sign of addiction. However, complete avoidance of something you love can lead to feelings of deprivation which increase cravings. When you finally give in to the powerful cravings, you feel guilty so you tell yourself you won’t eat it ever again – so you might as well eat it all now! This seems to confirm the original belief (and fear) that you are addicted. (Read more about this cycle: https://amihungry.com/articles/is-sugar-addiction-real/.)

      So how do you break free? By healing your relationship with sweets! And that begins with thoughts. For example, “Sweets are not bad,” “I can enjoy sweets as part of a balanced diet,” “Just because I love sweets, doesn’t mean I am addicted to them,” and “I feel my best when I eat the foods I love in moderation” (and so on). There is also a “Fearless Eating Strategy” in Workshop 5 and Chapter 5 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat – https://amihungry.com/marketplace/eat-what-you-love-love-what-you-eat/.

      I know this sounds scary and impossible but we’ve worked with thousands of people who tell us this changed their lives!

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