Can you recondition your brain to stop compulsive eating? Try this lil’ test


It’s 40 degrees Celsius here in Sorrento. I’m sitting by the pool feeling bad for this young chubby girl who reminds me of me before. Despite the unbearable heat, she’s sweating like a track driver under her long cotton leggings and t-shirt. On the other hand, she’s eating her brother’s ice cream with her eyes.

She lives in an addicted body, like I used to. As neuroscientists explain, most of us can’t stop an addiction because we live in a state in which the body has become the mind. Our brains are ruled almost exclusively by the body and how it feels. So when your body, the way it feels, and your environment, control your behaviours around food… How can you possibly ever change that?

I’m going to get all geeky on you now. Here’s a little experiment I want you to try. Something that has helped me and my clients tremendously, and I hope it helps you as well.


1. Think like a scientist

For the rest of the day, I want you to become your very own scientist. Think like an outside observer. Someone greater than you.

2. Observe objectively

Find the spot in your brain that lights up when you experience this addictive response, which pretty much feels like an uncontrollable desire to eat. You should feel an electrical storm in the highlighted areas:

Food stimulation – brain of a binge eater. PMID: 21350434.


Try to identify the parts in your body that behave differently. In my case, my throat would start pulsing. Some of my clients feel their heart rate going up. Others sense their hands shaking a bit. Or their breathing becoming irregular.

3. Don’t control it

As you feel the urge to eat compulsively, don’t try to stop it. Simply notice it. Objectively.  No judgement.

Don’t try to control anything. Simply catch how your body responds.

What to expect:

Now let me explain why I’m teaching you this technique, which is being used in addiction rehab centres and compulsive disorder treatments. It’s called “metacognition.” An ability that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.


As you objectively pay attention to your own body responses, your brain reorganises itself and weakens a compulsion (Dunlosky & Bjork, 2008).


When you can notice how you’re feeling, acting and behaving, your brain changes chemically.

This action calms it down. The addictive response is shortened.

Sometimes it disappears completely, making you wonder why you’re opening a third pack of crisps. Keep observing as that happens.

Control, guilt and judgement don’t have a place in this experiment.

This is pretty much a form of evolution for you. I did it. My clients did it. Now it’s your turn.


Take action now. Observe any compulsion to eat like a scientist would do, and report back in the comments below.  Did you manage to catch yourself? What body part registered the strongest response? Did it stop?

Look forward to hearing from you.






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NathalieSeptember 17, 2013 at 12:03 pmReply

Oh, this is a good one. Really reminds me of what I tell people suffering from depression in my mindfulness coaching. They also need to learn how to recognize negative thoughts, isolate them without judging and then letting them go so they can eventually succeed in not going down the road of negativity where one poor thought (or in your case poor food choice) leads to the other. Great piece!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 18, 2013 at 9:20 amReply

thanks Nathalie!

Rosie T.August 19, 2013 at 5:53 pmReply

Love how you explain the science stuff, Ale! I’m a yoga instructor and I often tell my students to try this but had no idea of its scientific grounds. With your permission I’ll steal your explanation if you don’t mind, some people are sceptic of spiritual stuff and this helps. Amazing, thank you!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:53 pmReply

of course, go for it Rosie, that’s what it is for! :-)

TabithaAugust 17, 2013 at 6:32 pmReply

Great post. I’ve been working on my own emotional eating all this year. What I did sounds very similar to this. When I would get the urge I would just observe it and if I wanted to eat I would let myself. Rather than feel guilty and ashamed I worked on sending myself love and compassion for my behaviour. What I found as I did this is that the urges reduced and I would have more time to do something different. I also looked at having food that would replace the sweet urges. Bananas and pineapples are my favorite due to their sweetness. I also worked on making sure that I was eating more during the day so that I had less of an urge to eat when I was triggered. I also started exercising regularly, something I’ve never really done aside from walking. It’s taken me a couple of months but I’ve got some healthy routines in place – if you’d have told me I could run for an hour I would never have believed your – and I’m better able to manage both my emotional eating and emotions. Finally the weight is starting to fall off and I’m super excited :)

Alejandra RuaniAugust 17, 2013 at 8:23 pmReply

Congrats, Tabitha, you’re nailing it – great examples and tips, it will help anyone reading this right now :-)

My favourite part? ” Rather than feel guilty and ashamed I worked on sending myself love and compassion for my behaviour. Spot on!!

As I always say: “Guilt makes you fat. Not food. Guilt”!

Adore you!

Rosie T.August 19, 2013 at 6:03 pmReply


I can identify with what you’re saying here.

Have you tried yoga? :)

I’m a yoga teacher and I think it can complement your running nicely but most importantly it helps with the self-awareness and metacognition that Ale describes in here :)

I’ve seen many of my students lose weight by just reconnecting with themselves and their bodies, it really works.

Namaste xxx

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:53 pmReply

yoga is a good way to increase metacognition

Meaghan MorningstarAugust 17, 2013 at 9:21 amReply

Love this article … always enjoy a combination of body science and personal development .. I also enjoyed the “ALLOW IT” angle that you made .. I have found in recent years that ALLOWING the ‘bad’ helps you move through it much faster .. so much stuff is written about being positive and not feeling it .. thank you …

Alejandra RuaniAugust 17, 2013 at 8:34 pmReply

aww Meaghan, morning star diva! Love what you say in here. Being positive and affirmations can backfire in your brain, making you do the exact opposite… it’s called “reactance.”

You’re giving me fuel for a future post! thank YOU :-)

Rosie T.August 19, 2013 at 6:09 pmReply

Me too Meaghan!! I’m a yoga teacher but often wonder how things work for real

Alejandra RuaniAugust 16, 2013 at 4:20 pmReply

Thanks so much for sharing this, it’s gold, Leanne! I know it sounds harsh to most of us, but we pretty much experience the symptoms of an addict (restless, jittery, angry, as you say). Scientifically, the body becomes the mind, and the brain (no longer the master) obeys. Stopping and feeling, as you put it, is one of the most effective ways to override a compulsion. Good on you!

Leanne ChesserAugust 16, 2013 at 3:42 pmReply

I’ve been learning to not eat for emotional reasons, but to only eat to fuel my body when I’m physically hungry. So, I’ve been stopping and feeling my feelings rather than eating. I’ve been paying attention to my body and listening to when I’m actually, really hungry. What you’re saying is very similar, I think. When I feel like eating for emotional reasons, I get restless. Sort of jittery . . . which is part of the desire to go gorge out on all the crap I can find. It’s like a desire to stand up and start pacing around. And I feel angry. So, anyway, I’ve just been noticing and then dealing with my emotions apart from eating.

Alejandra RuaniAugust 17, 2013 at 9:10 pmReply

Thanks so much for sharing this, it’s gold, Leanne! I know it sounds harsh to most of us, but we pretty much experience the symptoms of an addict (restless, jittery, angry, as you say). Scientifically, the body becomes the mind, and the brain (no longer the master) obeys. Stopping and feeling, as you put it, is one of the most effective ways to override a compulsion. Good on you!

Read More at © Health Divas

BetyAugust 13, 2013 at 1:31 pmReply

Ale, a diva and a geek? He he

Felt like bread at lunch, my boyfriend was eating it, but then I stopped and asked your question, where is the sesantion, felt my upper stomach pulsing. Cant believe it it stopped by just trying to notice it again. And I didnt touch the bread, yay me!!!

Alejandra RuaniAugust 14, 2013 at 9:11 amReply

Awesome Bety!

F.E.R.August 15, 2013 at 4:13 pmReply

I’m jealous Bety, I wish I had that power :-(

Alejandra RuaniAugust 16, 2013 at 4:30 pmReply

you do, and the more you use it, the more natural and effortless it becomes

SandraAugust 12, 2013 at 8:11 pmReply

after 2 weeks of living on ice cream and bread (hols) I need 24/7 metacognition patrol – will it work? I’ve tried everything so why not giving this a shot

Alejandra RuaniAugust 12, 2013 at 8:18 pmReply

Go for it Sandra!

F.E.R.August 12, 2013 at 7:32 pmReply


I feel like that girl.

I rather die than wear a bikini.

I want to be slim so badly. But I can’t seem to remember that when I want to eat. It feels like another person takes over.

Will try this experiment tonight. My biggest problem is late night eating :-(


Alejandra RuaniAugust 12, 2013 at 8:16 pmReply

It really is like another person FER, but this time observe her and let me know what happens

F.E.R.August 15, 2013 at 4:11 pmReply

so the first time I tried this I was so hungry but still managed to pay attention, something changed for a moment, it felt like I stopped breathing, is that normal? or did I stop breathing because I paid attention?

Alejandra RuaniAugust 16, 2013 at 4:29 pmReply

What an interesting reaction, FER, you literally caught yourself by surprise! Your body paused when you started observing. When Coco does something naughty and then realises I’m observing her, she freezes on the spot. Not so different from this!

Rosie T.August 19, 2013 at 6:13 pmReply

I’m also a late night eater, I can’t eat between my classes, makes me feel nauseous. But I’m healthy and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having my biggest meal at night

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:54 pmReply

I actually agree, it works well for me

You too can weigh less & achieve more!