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Resuming your healthy eating habits is more difficult than you might think.

Salty snacks.(Getty Images)

We are trying. We plead with ourselves. We had a fight. We seek therapy for our uncontrollable eating. We hope today is different, but at 10 a.m. we’re looking for any carb-laden leftovers we can get our hands on.

What happened ? Why have I lost so much control over the holidays? How could I so desperately desire change but be unable to achieve it?

The answer to all these questions is the same: addictive tracking.

Find your triggers

If you’re struggling to rewire your post-holiday eating habits, you’re probably feeling the intense signal of a processed-food addiction that you probably didn’t even know you had. This explains why we lose control over vacations. This explains why the loss of control worsens with each seasonal meal. And that explains why it’s getting harder and harder to get back on track. Luckily, addictive tracking also shines a light on the path back to food control and a healthy body.

The story begins in the mid-1980s. In 20 years, the rate of obesity/overweight increased from about 45% of all Americans to over 70% as the amounts of sugar, fat and salt were increasing in processed foods and becoming more ubiquitous.

The result is that millions of people around the world are now stuck with dependent brain cells in the reward region of the brain. Thanks to Pavlovian conditioning, these cells are now trained to pump out a flood of neurotransmitters in such great volume that they easily override any other source of behavioral control.

We eat even when the frontal lobe is screaming at us to stop. We have a really painful problem, but the key is to recognize it as a mechanical problem in the brain. The flood of food cravings is triggered by everything we associate with processed foods. These are called associative signals. Processed foods are highly addictive and our brains have confused them with seeking real foods to survive.

Processed Foods and Clues

It is useful to remember that starvation or starvation was one of the main causes of death. As Mark Bittman describes in his book “Vegetable, Animal, Junk”, France experienced 10 famines in the 900s and 26 in the 1000s. Millions of Irish people died in the 1840s from the blight of the potato even as English landowners exported food crops for profit. This scenario repeated itself when Britain colonized India. Famines in India increased from one every 100 years to one every three years as the English appropriated farmland for export crops. Between 5 and 10 million people died in the 1870s. The same thing happened in China in the 1870s when Britain took over farmland in China to produce tea. An estimated 30 million Chinese died in the 1870s. This happened again in Ghana when crops changed to cocoa and coffee and in Senegal with the advent of groundnuts.

Survival foraging marks every detail so you can find the food and avoid perishing from starvation. Whenever the addicted or food-seeking brain notices any of these details, it dictates your eating behavior. It’s an automated response.

Identify your food signals

The full name of the game for getting your food back on track is to pay attention to the signals your brain has learned to associate with processed foods. These signals are the reason you can’t get back on the path to healthy eating.

  • Places. Anywhere you’ve eaten processed foods is a trigger.
  • People. Anyone you ate processed foods with is a trigger.
  • Period of the year. If you ate processed foods around this time last year, you are encouraged to do so this year.
  • Settings. Funerals and weddings are notorious for triggering overeating, but social events are high on this list, especially holiday events.
  • Substances. Sugar, flour, gluten, excess salt, dairy products, processed fats, caffeine, and food additives can all be addictive.
  • Triggers. Clothing, exercise, travel, holiday decorations, stress, fatigue, emotions, and birthdays can all be triggers.

Is it hopeless? Not at all. Is it going to take a lot of hours to quit the addiction? Oh yes.
Overcoming the flood of addictive craving in the brain takes two routes.

The first is to avoid clues altogether. It can be a long and slow process, but it’s worth it. Start noticing when you have processed food cravings: what just happened? What were you looking at? Is this a signal for overeating? Who have you traded with? Could this person be a clue to the trigger? As you become aware of the sources of the triggers, ask yourself how you could avoid being exposed to this signal.

The second tip is to prepare in advance for unavoidable index exposure. Do it the same way you might learn a new word in a foreign language. Write the signal on one side of a paper. On the other side, write the consequences of eating the desired food. You develop a great defense called pain avoidance. You will think about the pain and the desire to eat will decrease. You can do it!