Impulse Control

Our eldest son’s girlfriend sent me a link to a series of videos about bringing your new puppy home in the Covid era.  It is a fascinating overview of what you can expect from your puppy and why they do what they do.  (If you’re interested, it is at  The video series and related resources are free through May 31st.)

One of the things that especially interested me was the discussion of impulse control.

   “Impulse control, like refraining from biting, is a finite ability,” said Jane Killion.  “As the puppy starts to tire, you will find they bite more frequently—and as they seriously tire, the biting goes up exponentially,” she explained.  “What you have to do is give them something else to do or work with so that they are not depleting their pool of available impulse control.  Of course, the best solution is just to put them down for a nap so they can build that pool back up again.”

Her explanation made me reflect back on my series of failed attempts to lose weight.  I always did precisely what she was describing when trying to resist overeating.  “Don’t-eat-the-potato-chip, don’t-eat-the-potato-chip, don’t-eat-the-potato-chip” would be a never-ending mantra playing in my head.  I was approaching changing the way I ate by controlling my impulse to eat—and just like a puppy, our pool of impulse control is limited.  In other words, it was inevitable, when I was only using my frontal cortex to control my limbic system, that sooner or later I would break down and eat whatever I had worked so hard to avoid.

I have to say, too, it seemed grossly unfair.  I felt like I spent 95% of my time trying to avoid eating something better ignored, but that other 5% of the time made me fail every diet—and feel like a failure.  Why couldn’t I do what seemed so easy for other people?  From time to time, Marc would say to me, “Just don’t eat so much.”  Everything inside of me felt like screaming, “I’m trying not to!”

One of the great gurus of improvement science, Dr. Don Berwick, said that “every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it achieves.”  In other words, if a gadget fails 20% of the time, it is designed to fail 20% of the time.  Yet, it never occurred to me to question how I was trying to go about losing weight.  Oh, I definitely tried just about every diet ever invented.  The thing is, it wasn’t the diet itself that was the issue, it was how I was telling myself not to eat so much.  I was relying on an ever-depleting resource.

I have put a lot of tools in my arsenal since I started my path to a healthy lifestyle—and I have learned great ideas from others who struggle with weight.  One of my best tools was a decision I made that I was going to eat food I enjoyed, just small portion sizes.  This was a fundamental shift, and it immediately got rid of a dieter’s sense of constant deprivation.  If you are feeling deprived, you are instinctively going to try to search out ways not to feel that way.  Being able to enjoy my food puts me in a completely different mindset.

I have seriously slowed down my eating.  I used to sit in front of my plate with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right—and I held onto them until I had successfully shoveled everything in.  It took intentionality and work to slow down my eating, but simply putting my utensils down between each bit was a good start.  I also take a pause during my meal when I’m halfway through, to gauge if I’m full or not.  I concentrate on the view out the window or on the conversation—and very often, I forget that I still have food left on my plate.

I only put a small portion of food on my plate.  If I want more, I can go get it, but usually whatever I give myself is more than enough.  When she goes out to eat (those were the days, my friend!), one person I know asks for a take-home container to be brought to her when her meal is served.  She immediate portions out the meal and places it in the container.  She doesn’t have to have the potato chip mantra in her head because she removes it from her view.

If you’re battling with yourself every day, change your paradigm.  Have a case of the munchies?  Take a walk, get away from whatever you crave.  The amazing thing is that once you truly fall into a routine of not eating between meals or not eating a roll at dinner, it becomes so ingrained that you don’t think about it anymore.  It’s just what you do. 

See?  You can teach an old brain a new trick!

Categories Diet and Nutrition, Emotional Health, exercise, LifestyleTags , , ,

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