Your 3 brains and eating

Today I’m going 100% geek on you. But I’m also giving you excellent action steps at the end. So grab a cup of tea, read this post carefully, then read it again, bookmark it and make sure you take action!

Did you know that your eating behaviours are hardwired in your brain?

From an evolutionary perspective, you have 3 brains. Our most primitive brain is our reptile or lizard brain. Then our mammal brain developed. And finally, our neocortex.

Now, let’s see how these 3 “different persons” you have inside of you play a key role in your eating behaviours.

1) Your thinking brain and eating:


“I know these nutritional facts.”

“I’m learning all this stuff from a diet book.”

“I’ll start on Monday.”

That’s your neocortex (the BLUE bubble in my graph above).

Your thinking brain knows what to do to get you slim and healthy.
But then Monday comes… and what happens?????


You keep doing the same things, in the same way you did last week.

Your intention was there. On Tuesday morning, you have no idea why you didn’t follow through.

Scientists tell us that 95% of who we are today are subconscious programmes that you memorised. You’re for the most part of the day a set of memorised behaviours, feelings, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions, attitudes that run automatically.
This means that when you decide to change a habit, you have that 5% fighting against 95% of who we are.

Impossible, right?

Well, there’s hope for your thinking brain. Keep reading.


2) Your emotional brain and eating:

Your midbrain (or mammal brain) is your feeling brain. The RED bubble in the graph.

It’s Monday and you crave something that your diet book forbids.

Research suggests that two things can happen in here:

a) If you’re chronically vulnerable to negative emotions, you’ll miss this forbidden food more than others when trying to abstain. Because it helps you to “cope.” It “numbs” your negative feelings. In this case, this treat is your Valium. It soaks up the by-products of stress, leaving you relaxed. Here’s where you may develop an emotional attachment to it.

b) Conversely, if you chronically lack positive emotions (say, you feel nothing… you’re bored), your body needs an intense stimuli to experience elation. This food gives you a positive “high.” Just like recreational drugs! Here’s where you’re more vulnerable to becoming addicted to it.


3) Your primitive reptile brain and eating:

As if your emotions weren’t giving your neocortex enough hassle, it also has your reptile brain to deal with.

Your reptile brain (the little green bubble) is responsible for compulsive, automatic reactions.

This brain is governed by the promise of reward.

Think of Pavlov’s dogs automatic salivation when he rang the bell. It contains your association centres and automatic conditioned responses. It’s not that different to that response you have when you associate your sofa with cookies or M&M’s.

Pavlovs Dog Model

Studies have shown that you experience a severe stress response when your basal brain perceives the presence of the object of desire – real or imagined.

Real would be if someone next to you is having M&M’s. Imagined is the back of your head searching the kitchen cabinets while you’re watching TV.

So your compulsion comes in, to temporarily free yourself from the painful stress associated with the craving.

The compulsion overtakes your brain and pretty much shuts down your rational reasoning.
The key in here is to “wake up”, engage your conscious brain, and “observe” your primitive brain and the trouble it’s getting you into.

You may recall I briefly wrote about a simple technique to shorten a compulsion.

Just like when you catch a child misbehaving. As she notices you, she feels observed and stops for a bit. You woke her up so she’s now conscious of her actions.

The more you do this, the easier it gets. In the same way Pavlov’s dog stopped salivating months later, because there wasn’t any food after the bell rang.

Now that we have all 3 brains under the spotlight, let’s see how you can start making some amendments.

It keeps getting more interesting. Your action steps come next (below).


Wired by nature, changeable by nurture.

I have more good news for you.

Your attachment to full fat ice-cream, biscuits and Maltesers are behaviours that you learned sometime in your life.

They are NOT who you really are.

They are a set of old memorised behaviours that you can un-memorise.

Contrary to old belief, it’s been recently discovered that after the age of 35 we can still change and evolve the brain. In fact, neuro-plasticity and epi-genetics allow evolution until the last day of your life. I personally find that fascinating.

Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize in Neuroscience for his discoveries about habituation, says that repeated exposure to the same ideas weakens the brain’s ability to take action. Whenever you go through something new, communication between neurons improve. Whereas old repeated thought patterns put the brain to sleep.

So could it be that starting the new diet on Monday is damn hard because your brain is asleep? The answer is yes.

Neurons become more active during any form of learning, and for this reason we are more motivated when we are introduced to a new environment, new experiences, new feelings and new thoughts.

If you want to rewire your brain, you need to expose yourself to different things and fresh ideas.

In the next few lines I introduce you to a couple of them:

Step 1: Prime your environment for change.

Here’s what I want you to do. For an entire week, I want you to stop buying the M&M’s, the biscuits, the crisps and all that stuff that you treasure in your sacred kitchen corner.

That’s your only task. Nothing else. You don’t need to follow any diet. Just get these things out of your house (and your office too) for a week.

And if the people you live with want them, that’s fine. But they are theirs, NOT yours!

Step 2: Hand in the biscuit and nobody gets hurt!

lizard brain and eating

When you’re shopping for food, or watching TV, and your lizard brain lights up like a Christmas tree and sets a stress response for you to grab its object of desire, I want you to give it no choice.

You need to realise something super important in here: A craving is NOT an emergency.
It’s uncomfortable and intense, but (just like hunger) it’s not an emergency.

You won’t die.

Even though your cerebellum is making you believe you will. But you won’t.

It isn’t real.

Get your neocortex, the CEO of your brain, to tell its primitive employee to take a forced holiday.
And when it complains, go “Hand in the biscuit and nobody gets hurt!”
Don’t give it a choice.

It will be uncomfortable, but nothing bad will happen if you withstand it. In fact, in a few moments, you’re going to be so proud of yourself!


Now, off you go and try these new techniques. Remember me when you do your next big shop!

As always, I can’t wait to hear from you. Leave a comment below. Tell me: What’s your object of desire??? (we’re talking about food, of course).






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Mercedes MaidanaFebruary 8, 2014 at 8:36 pmReply

Than you Ale! I love it! Will try to train my reptilian brain into healthier behaviors :) Besos!

Alejandra RuaniFebruary 8, 2014 at 8:39 pmReply

I like that, Meti! The best way to do it is to HIDE THE REWARD so you don’t tempt it… :-)

Alejandra RuaniFebruary 5, 2014 at 9:08 pmReply

By the way, here’s the version published by the HuffPost (more links, more science!):


Marsha from YesYesMarsha.comSeptember 21, 2013 at 10:26 pmReply

Oh my goodness, Alejandra, I loved this!!

I feel like it applies to sugar cravings, but also TOTALLY applies to Facebook cravings, which I am just as subject to!

I am going to have a little you on my shoulder saying, “Hand in the biscuit/shut down that browser window and nobody gets hurt!” Thanks!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 22, 2013 at 4:26 pmReply

ha ha love it!

HannaSeptember 17, 2013 at 1:54 amReply

I’ve got that habit changing down to an art (on myself) I know how it will work EVERY TIME :)
BUT – recently I’ve ran into clients who are full on addicts. As in total withdrawal symptoms (fast carbs, junk foods) and their brain chemistry is TOTALLY off..
At what point do you think that we can’t break addiction without addressing brain chemistry???

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 17, 2013 at 9:12 amReply

Brain (and body) chemistry is a fascinating subject Hanna, and in fact I’m soon going to be published with my first Kindle book, called Sugar Sober, my 12 step system to reset your biochemistry and end sugar cravings. Sugar and alcohol addiction aren’t that different from this perspective, hence the title. Make sure you subscribe to my newsletter, I’ll be giving some free copies to my loyal divas!

plumbSeptember 18, 2013 at 1:21 pmReply

when will I be able to start looking put for this book, Ale? I`m very interested in it as I enjoyed how you wrote this out. Within the year, perhaps?

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 18, 2013 at 3:19 pmReply

Plumb, thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed it! The book is 98% ready. It’s now with the graphic designers. It should be published in Amazon by next week. Make sure you subscribe so you will have the priority to the free copies when they are made available, you’ll be the first to know :-)

Sonja KellerSeptember 16, 2013 at 8:08 amReply

Haha! Thank God for Neuroplasticity is all I can say :) Loved this post. Great research backing it up too. Thanks for sharing such an interesting article :)

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 16, 2013 at 8:58 amReply

thank you, Sonja!

Melissa BurkheimerSeptember 15, 2013 at 11:03 pmReply

I’m going to the store on Tuesday and I’m putting you in my pocket!! My biggest weakness is going out to eat. When we’re at home, most of the stuff is healthy.

And mine is M&M’s.

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 15, 2013 at 11:40 pmReply

ha ha loving that visual, Melissa

Desiree EastSeptember 14, 2013 at 9:38 pmReply

Wow…I love the science behind everything (I’m a bit of an undercover science nerd). I noticed that the only way I could keep from eating junk food is to have fresh and healthy food available throughout the week in my kitchen. For me, it’s about what available and that def helps with the convenience factor!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 9:45 pmReply

You figured out the way, Desiree, that’s so good to hear!

Also good to know I’m not the only geek in heels around :-)

Shana LaForeSeptember 14, 2013 at 8:50 pmReply

I really enjoy the way you present this information explaining the 3 parts of the brain and thought process. The lizard brain and I have some chatting to do. :) Great article!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 8:54 pmReply

Thank you, Shana!

The tricky part is that the lizard in us does NOT understand language…. So the only way to “speak” to it is to catch it in action.

Doing just that one simple thing (observation) stops the little trickster on its heels :-)

Mona LisaSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:15 pmReply

This is totallly what I needed to hear right now. I’m going to be much more aware of that sneaky lizard brain. Also… did you know that the Heart Math Institute actually found out that we have 3 brains, technically? Our head brain, yes, but our heart and gut actually have brain neurons! Thought I’d add my geeky thought, too. ;)

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:31 pmReply

hahaha yes, sneaky is the word, Mona Lisa! I like what you say and I learned that a few years ago we have around 3 million brain cells in the heart… fascinating!

“My heart tells me that…” is no longer a metaphor :-)

Silvia BiancoSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:02 pmReply

Sorry, i meant to say it wouldn’t be nutritionally bad. I suppose this is another incidence when “ignorance” works in our favor.

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:46 pmReply

ha ha, a very minor Freudian slip, Chef! :-)

Re. nutrition, I often say “A person’s food could be another’s poison.” Even within the same family with 99.999% genetic similarities. More on that soon!

Silvia BiancoSeptember 14, 2013 at 5:59 pmReply

This was such a great read Alejandra. i’m off to Whole Foods in a bit so I will def be thinking of you. Love what you say that guilt makes us fat, not food. I totally believe that’s true. If we could eat that candy bar or ice cream cone without any guilt not only would it not make us fat, it would be nutritionally bad for us either. But most of us aren’t there yet where we can eat what we “know” is “bad” without consequences.

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 6:47 pmReply

Put the little lizard in a cage whilst shopping :-)

Adi Maor SisoSeptember 13, 2013 at 7:05 amReply

I definitely going to think of you next time I open my fridge… lol…
Changing those basic habits is not simple but I try to deal with them every day with simple actions.
I think the most important thing about all of this is not being judgmental and critic ourselves. If one day didn’t go as planed, just try to focuses again the next day.
Thanks for all your ideas and action steps!
Love your posts!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 13, 2013 at 8:36 amReply

What you say is spot on, Adi. I always say: “guilt makes you fat, not food.” Will definitely touch on this in a future post: how guilt and self loathing can set a chain of uncontrolled non-stop eating. Psychologists call it “reactance.” More on that soon!

AndreaSeptember 12, 2013 at 2:04 amReply

I love your action steps! My object of desire: chips (crisps). I crave the salt around 2pm every day. Some days I give in, others I’m pretty good. But I love the advice to recognize that no one is going to die if I don’t give in to the craving. I’m putting my CEO in charge effective immediately!

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 14, 2013 at 8:49 pmReply

Nice, Andrea! Put the decision maker back where it belongs!

Unlike what everyone says, salt is good. Recent studies tell us that how much your body absorbs is determined by your brain (not your intake).

By the way, I’m curious if you crave the crunchiness of crisps and their texture instead??

Carly PSeptember 11, 2013 at 10:37 pmReply

Ale this is so great! I recognise the lizzard brain all too well…….. I am going to have a really good conversation with it (and chocolate is my vice btw!). Carly

Alejandra RuaniSeptember 11, 2013 at 10:46 pmReply

You go, Carly, love it haha

SabrinaSeptember 11, 2013 at 10:23 pmReply

Ale, I just discovered you, a friend just told me about you. I’m printing this and reading it in bed. There’s so much one can learn from this. You have a new fan!!

Re your Q, my object of desire is CORNETTO. I have about 3 of them every night :-( And I feel bad, because I buy them for my husband (they’re no mine as you say!)

Hand in the Cornetto and nobody gets hurt!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I really enjoy reading you!!

Thank you!


Alejandra RuaniSeptember 11, 2013 at 10:47 pmReply

I like what you say in here, Sabrina. The cornettos are his, not yours. Enjoy your bed reading and do hope to read you again soon in here!

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