Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Nutrition Debate #63: Impulse Control and Metacognition

A few years ago, in an effort to understand how (not why) I had recently “fallen off the wagon” with respect to my very low carb diet, I developed an interest in the subject of impulse control. The “why” was too deep and complex – a psychological vortex – and I just decided I didn’t want to “go there.” I’m too old for that stuff, I told myself. Besides, I had already concluded that my patterns and habits of eating were pretty well imprinted on my brain due to a case of “arrested development” in my early teenage years.

I considered the “how” question more addressable. When I mentioned this on line on Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Forum (I’m a Type 2 diabetic), a friend suggested I set up a “Google Alert” on the subject of impulse control, so I did. It was really very easy to do and the daily email option was just right. I got a list of “snippets” every day (every day there was a hit). If I thought it sounded interesting, I opened it up and took a look.
One of the first hits introduced the term “metacognition,’ which literally means “knowing about knowing,” but there are many definitions. Look it up in Wikipedia. The operative definition of metacognition for my study of impulse control was “thinking about thinking.” So I started a new “thread” on “Impulse Control and Metacognition” on the Forum. It got about 50 replies and 3800 views. It was, I think, an interesting discussion.
An early reply on the thread from the Forum Moderator suggested that impulse eating might actually be a physiological rather than a psychological issue. She pointed out that Dr. Bernstein has mentioned that with beta cell burnout there is less amylin production as well as less insulin production, and low amylin levels mean the brain isn’t getting the message that you are not hungry. There is a pharmacological “fix” for this (Symlin), but I was not interested in going that route. There is also the leptin/ghrelin hormone interaction, but again hormone signaling to/from the hypothalamus is too high brow and still a new and emerging area of science. I wanted to keep my experiment simple and personal, so I started.
In the discussion, I pointed out that when I have been tempted to snack before dinner, or reach into the bread basket at a restaurant, or hit the freezer for ice cream before bedtime, I was aware that a finite idea had entered my mind: “the temptation.” The idea was usually dismissed quickly, but then usually returned, sometimes quickly and sometimes more than once. On its return, I have sometimes acted on it, always to my disgust, shame and chagrin. I beat myself up. That was an emotional response, not the rational response I was now exploring.
My rational response was to put “the idea” out of mind when “the temptation” first occurred. I just denied the thought. I emptied the brain the way I do when I put my head on the pillow at night to fall asleep. By not “allowing” the thought to stay on the brain, or by substituting another thought for “the temptation,” it went away. It did not persist. If it returned, I just created another “distraction.” I “changed the subject.” It could be another idea or it could be an action. Whatever it was, the idea was to catch the bad thought “in the bud” before it had a chance to get embedded.
Examples: If I am eating in a restaurant with others and the bread basket is presented, I pick it up and pass it (away). Or I start a conversation (not related to bread). Recently, when eating alone in a restaurant, I distracted myself by becoming engrossed in a newspaper. Another time I watched and listened (unobtrusively) to people at another table. In other words, I took quick action (by thought or deed) to side track “the temptation.” Actions are better than abstract ideals like “will power” and “steely resolve.” You have to be limber, imaginative, stay alert for the temptation, and act.
Of course, one of the very best ways to suppress “the temptation” is for it to be out of sight. I am a sucker for food I can see. If I can see it, I get an idea (eat it!). If I don’t see it, I don’t get the idea – even though I know the ice cream is in the freezer or the nuts are in the cabinet. The actual sight of it is the trigger for the idea, and avoiding the sight of it is the best way to avoid “the temptation.” I don’t know how common this phenomenon is, but it is an absolute truism for me. The difference between seeing the food and not seeing it is huge. It has nothing to do with hunger or sugar cravings. I can be mildly ketogenic with low serum insulin and fully controlled, stable blood glucose and still cave to food on sight.
Others have dealt with impulse control in different ways. Some use healthy fears, others the fear of catastrophic outcomes. But you have to experience it yourself, if you want to exercise the mind and relearn a behavior. Supplanting the emotional with a rational response is metacognition, the essential precursor to any action. Quoting Alfred Korzybski from his preface to “Science and Sanity, “…if they are not applied but merely talked about, no results can be expected.”
© Dan Brown 8/28/12

1 comment:

  1. "metacognition"

    Now I have a word to describe what I "know" causes too many of my own missteps. I can relate to shunning the very sight of certain, inflammatory, metabolically damaging foods. The impulse to eat them is too strong once they are stimulated visually .

    This, as a 60yo who began as a newly informed consumer of the unconventional SAD eight years ago can tell you--social interactions/activities involving food with family, clubs, churches, etc. are problematic. Though I am a disciplined person, having achieved improved health through the knowledge of what grains/carbs/sugars can do to my gut and cellular/hormonal integrity--

    BUT, I am silly putty when presented with the very addictive food product whose palatable and opioid reward response is overwhelming.

    In the social context of abundant, impulsive-driven foods I feel deprived if I disabuse myself--however if I make them unavailable and out of sight/reach I feel enormous empowerment.

    Yes, this seems to be my cross to bear if I choose reinvigorated health over short-term food reward through visual and may I say brain-bio-physical memory of food response/pleasure fantasy.

    I don't understand the deep science enough to dazzle the scientists, but I know honestly I'm not alone in the universal experience and understanding of this particular human plight.

    Good article for reflection, Dan.