Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson is a tenured psychology professor who has served on the faculty of several colleges and universities across the globe. Her Ph.D. is in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and she specializes in the psychology and neuroscience of weight loss, willpower, and food addiction. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to helping people achieve long-term, sustainable weight loss.
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Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food on October 28th, 2014. How are you today? Let’s get to the next part of the program because I’m really excited to bring on Dr. Susan Pierce Thompson who is a tenured psychology professor who has served on the faculty of several colleges and universities across the globe. Her Ph.D. is in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and she specializes in the psychology and neuroscience of weight loss, willpower, and food addiction. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to helping people achieve long-term, sustainable weight loss. Dr. Thompson welcome to It’s All About Food.
Susan Thompson: Hi Caryn, thanks for having me on.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m really looking forward to this. You know we had the opportunity to chat a while ago and I learned so much and now I’m so happy to share it with my listeners.
Susan Thompson: I’m glad to be here. It’s exciting.
Caryn Hartglass: I got to listen to your webinar which was amazing. You’ve just packed so much information into a couple of hours. It was great.
Susan Thompson: Thank you, hopefully many more to come.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. A lot of people need this information…
Susan Thompson:, …more and more unfortunately.
Caryn Hartglass: My passion is all about getting healthy delicious food into people’s mouths and making them feel good and feel better. It’s complicated because there are so many issues that surround what we choose to eat. And one of them is our brain. How does our brain get involved with what we want to eat?
Susan Thompson: What a question Caryn. I could take the next 28 minutes and just talk about that. Let me just say briefly…I’ll give a quick outline and then you can touch on whichever of these you want me to talk about more. One of the ways our brain gets involved has to do with the way willpower works in the brain. A lot of people have noticed that they have good intentions about what to eat and may even know a whole bunch about what they should be eating, about nutrition and about the research behind what’s best to eat but find themselves making other choices in the heat of the moment. In order to really unpack what’s going on there it’s very helpful to understand how willpower works in the brain. So that’s one thing, that’s one way that the brain gets involved. The short answer there is that willpower is not very healthful so you’ve got to find strategies to work around what I call “the willpower gap” which is gaps between what we know we should be doing or what we should be eating and what we actually do pick in a given choice scenario. Another way that the brain gets involved is it has to do with the fact that we have this illusion that we’re making intentional choices about what and how much we eat when in reality the brain sort of tricks us in various ways. This is research by Brian Wansink of Cornell University. He shows for example that when we eat off of large plates we eat more food than we think we’re eating or we rely on external cues rather than internal cues to decide whether we’ve eaten enough. So for example he did this clever experiment where he had soup bowls…people were eating in his lab at a table out of soup bowls and as they were eating the soup the bowls were magically being refilled by a tube from the bottom of the bowl that ran down under the table and was connected to this big vat of soup. He would stop them periodically and say “Are you full yet?” and they’d look down at the bowl which was still two thirds full and they’d look at him like he was crazy. They didn’t know they’d already eaten like three quarts of soup.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Susan Thompson: We rely on these cues that are not the cues that we think we’re relying on so people would be insulted if you told them you really have no idea whether you’re hungry or full, you really have no idea how much you’ve eaten. So it’s helpful to know how the brain works in that way. The other thing is it’s really helpful to know about the neuroscience of food addiction because food addiction is very, very real thing. It doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some people are really afflicted with it more than others. Getting that message out…I think the message is already out there that food is addictive, especially sugar but also processed flour. I think that people are a little confused about what exactly is addictive. It’s really sugar and flour that are the culprits more than sugar, fat and salt which people are talking about. People are forgetting the flour which I think is important. Pizza, pasta, bread, bagels, chips, crackers those are often foods that people often binge on. It’s really irrespective of salt or fat content. It’s the flour that’s doing it. I’m trying to bring a more nuanced discussion about food addiction to the general public because people are talking about food being addictive but ok then what does that mean? What next? What should someone do who are finding themselves pulled by cravings that they keep succumbing to. There isn’t a lot of helpful discussion about that so I’m trying to bring awareness around those questions.
Caryn Hartglass: I just want to mention…you were talking about sugar and flour and you had made a comparison with cocaine that I found so powerful.
Susan Thompson: We often don’t think about where these substances come from. Where does cocaine come from anyway. Where does heroin come from? The answer of course is that they come from plants. Right? Cocaine comes from the coca leaf which people in Guatemala and Colombia have been chewing on for millennia without any particular adverse effects. Chewing on a coca leaf gives you a tiny little lift that’s like drinking a little cup of caffeinated black tea or something like that. It’s a very minor effect. But when you take the inner essence of that coca leaf and you refine and purify it into a fine what powder you get a drug. Similarly heroin comes from poppy plants and they’re harmless on their own but if you take the inner essence of that poppy plant and you refine and purify it into a fine powder you get heroin. What’s sugar–where does that come from? You take a plant substance maybe sugar cane, maybe beets, maybe corn and you refine and purify its inner essence into a fine white powder and you get sugar. And flour is the same way. You take natural plants that are healthy, if you eat them whole but you take a legume or a grain and you take its inner essence and you refine and purify it into a fine powder and you get flour. And these refined substances don’t hit the brain the way nature intended. They hit the reward pathway of the brain as drugs. There is now incontrovertible evidence of that from brain imaging scans and also rat studies where you take rats and you hook them on the food and then you look at their brain and you see that these substances have altered the dopamine rewards structure exactly the way that heroin and cocaine alter the dopamine reward pathways by thinning out the dopamine receptors in the brain. So it’s the same exact stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m just wondering—is everybody getting this? This is really powerful stuff. So we know that cocaine and heroin and these white powders are dangerous and they’re addictive and they’re not good for us and they come from simple harmless plants. And then we’ve got sugar and flour that are in everything that people are eating today and they are just as addictive.
Susan Thompson: As a matter of fact I just came across this study the other day or a few days ago and they took some rats and gave them a choice of being injected with intravenous cocaine or sucking down sugar water and the rats preferred sucking down sugar water. Then they actually addicted the rats to cocaine…they hooked them on cocaine and those hooked rats still preferred the sugar over the cocaine even if they were already hooked on cocaine. Here’s the other crazy thing—it worked for saccharine too. So Sweet ‘n Low, those little pink packets that people sweeten their food with. This process is actually mediated through the sweet taste buds. It’s not a blood sugar phenomenon. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Truvia or stevia or Equal or Sweet ‘n Low or whatever or sugar or honey or corn syrup or agave or molasses. It’s the activation of the sweet taste buds that hooks directly to the reward centers in the brain and hooks you. In my program, in my Bright Line Eating Program we eliminate all that stuff, just get rid of it because you can’t eat that stuff in moderation. The tag line I like to use is “happy, thin and free”. If you want to be happy, thin and free don’t be eating that stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: I have to just take a moment and say that I’m very sorry for the rats that were in these experiments. I don’t believe in animal experimentation. Those rats on their own would not choose to consume coke or sugar. We know they’re a lot smarter than we are.
Susan Thompson: Totally . I’m with you there. Sorry rats.
Caryn Hartglass: We see this in humans all the time. We have to do the science before people are going to start talking about it in a sensible way.
Susan Thompson: We see these effects…for anyone who is out there who is saying “come on, sugar’s not as addictive as heroin” I want to ask you why do you think that 80,000 people in the United States this year are going to have a foot amputated for Type 2 Diabetes and they know it’s coming? They’ve been told by their doctor “if you don’t stop eating sugar we’re going to cut off your foot, we’re going to cut off your leg.” And 80,000 people in one year, just this year, are going to have that happen to them. Another 25,000 are going to go blind and they know it’s coming. That is powerlessness. That is addiction. I don’t know about you but I don’t know anybody who would willingly walk into blindness or foot amputation if there was some simple change that they could make, if it was within their control to avoid it, right? What other explanation makes sense other than addiction? What else could possibly be the explanation?
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. Where we don’t have control. Now you’ve told me that some people…there are different kinds of people and some people are more influenced by this kind of addictive power and other people aren’t. They have way way more control.
Susan Thompson: That’s right. It’s just like any drug actually. We know that alcohol’s addictive, right? But lots of people drink a glass of wine here and there or even two glasses of wine a night, right? Some people have heard a glass of wine every night is healthy and they drink one glass of wine every night. Other people if they try to do that they accelerate their drinking consumption and before you know it they’re going to AA, right? For whatever reason we’ve known historically that some people are addictable and some people aren’t. You might say “well heroin is addictive for everybody” and I say not really. Lots of people have surgery and go home with their Vicodin and they take it…even if they have chronic back pain. Some people take some kind of opiate for chronic pain, regularly and never deviate from the doctor’s prescribed instructions and never develop a habit that spirals out of control even though it’s a substance that is clearly addictive. Other people can’t handle it, right? It’s the same with rats to get back to the poor rats but we’ve learned that one-third of rats are not addictable. They are just not susceptible to the addictive properties of various addictive agents. One-third of rats are somewhat addictable and one-third of rats are highly addictable. It looks like that for humans as well. So with our research on food addiction one-third of the population…and this is some percentage of obese, overweight and normal weight individuals. Some normal weight individuals, slender people as well report being heavily addicted to food and not being able to control how much they’re eating and how much they’re thinking about food in between times, how much they get pulled by that addictive craving. It’s about one-third, one-third, one-third in terms of the population breakdown.
Caryn Hartglass: So what I think is encouraging about this, first this information has to get out there because most people don’t know it but for people who really struggle with food addictions—and they see all these other people around them who are not suffering—they think I can get over this myself because everybody else has a handle on it but you may be unfortunately one of those people, one-third of the population, that really struggles with addiction and need a better strategy.
Susan Thompson: Totally, totally. What I call this is the susceptibility scale. How susceptible are you to the addictive properties of refined foods or some other addictive substance. I think an understanding of the susceptibility scale—I like to think of it as a scale from one to ten or zero to ten, right? Where people on the low end, the one through three or whatever, they’re just never going to be affected. They just eat when they have to eat and they don’t think about it much in between times. The eights, nines and tens I agree with you. They’re going to need something else but if we all understood the susceptibility scale it would clear up a lot of misunderstanding. For one thing people think that some sort of diet and exercise regimen or healthy eating solution or program of action to lose weight or whatever is going to be a one size fits all proposition. That’s really not the case. If you know where you’re at on the susceptibility scale you’re much better armed with information about what type of program is likely to work for you.
Caryn Hartglass: So how do you find out where you are on the scale?
Susan Thompson: Yale University does have a food addiction scale which you can google, just “Yale University Food Addiction Scale” and it will come up and you can take it. It’s free online. I think that actually most people can probably diagnose themselves. The simple questions are: “How much am I obsessed with food?”, “Do I have the sense of being out of control over how much I eat?”, “Once I start eating is it hard to control the quantity of the food that I eat?”, “Am I feeling pulled by cravings that I can’t seem to shake?”. If you start to ask yourself these questions you can probably get a sense of where you’re at on the scale.
Caryn Hartglass: OK, let’s just talk a little more personal about you because you’re not just some person who went off and studied this and is smart and is sharing this. You have real personal experience with food and addiction.
Susan Thompson: I do. I have decades of personal experience. I’m a 10 on that spectrum. Yay me. It’s the dubious luxury of being a perfect ten. This isn’t the category you want to be a perfect 10 in. I’m actually just highly addictible across the board. As a teenager I got addicted to drugs. I was addicted to crack as a teenager, really bad. I dropped out of high school—the whole nine yards. Super bad. I got clean and sober when I was 20 and my life got a whole lot better but the addiction just transferred right over to food. I think I’d been addicted to food before that. As a kid, I can look back and see the signs of food addiction in my early youth. I didn’t quite have a weight problem yet. I had a weight problem starting at the age of 12—I was overweight. I think I actually started doing drugs—my first hard drug was crystal meth which makes you not want to eat. That’s what that drug does essentially. It keeps you awake, nonstop and it makes you not want to eat. I remember being so elated that I was dropping weight and no longer obsessed with food. It took the food obsession right away. That was for me one of the primary attractors for me to that drug. Once I got clean the weight piled on and I knew it would which was acceptable to me for awhile. I hate being fat. I don’t know if anyone loves being fat. I think certain people are ok being heavy. It’s kind of who they are and they don’t worry about it too much. I have never been that way. Every extra chunk of weight on my body just feels wrong. I liken it to someone who is transgender, like they’re born a female but they’re really deep down feel like they’re male or they’re born male and feel like they’re female. Deep down I’m a slender person and I was just always living in a fat person’s body. Every time I’d catch my image in a mirror or shop window or something going by or in one of those awful video cameras, security cameras, in a store—I’d catch my image and go “really, is that what I look like?” I was stunned that I was so fat. I’m never comfortable being heavy and so I dieted…not just diets I was trying to do the real deal. I was trying to get happy, thin and free. I was trying to get in shape and eat the right foods. I feel like I tried everything. I spent, from the age of 12 when I first started dieting, I dieted nonstop and tried to lose weight and tried…I was a binger. I would go off on these wicked binges. I was diagnosed with binge eating disorder when I was 23 or something like that but I’d been doing it for a long time I’d just finally got in front of a doctor who officially diagnosed me. It wasn’t until I was 28 that I found the solution that I follow now which is in the form of a 12-step program for food addiction. I can’t tell you which one because that’s breaking my anonymity. There’s several of them…even if you just google “12-step programs for food addiction” and that really worked for me. I’ve been slender now, I took off all my weight. I’m 5’3” and I weigh 110 pounds or something. I wear a size 4. I’m slender now so my body is finally in alignment with what I always thought I should look like but I’ve done it the right way. I eat an abundant quantity of delicious wholesome whole foods. I think you’d be proud Caryn. I eat good stuff. Over the years I’ve noticed why doesn’t everybody go to a 12-step program for food addiction who has this problem or something similar to it? I’ve found that a lot of people don’t prefer a 12-step program for their answer to things. I don’t know why. I love 12-step programs. They saved my life. That’s why I started Bright Line Eating Solutions—my business—is to bring this message of what works both in terms of the brain science of it and the actual practicality of it to people who are either maybe not tens on the scale but somewhere in the 5 to 9 range, like they know they have a problem and they need something or people who are real food addicts, you know 10 on the scale but they don’t want to go to a 12-step program for food addiction for whatever reason. Those are the people that I serve because I’ve been working with people now for over 11 years. I’ve worked with hundreds of people. There’s a formula for taking off all your weight and getting free of the obsession with food. It takes a lot of willingness. Those are the people I’m looking for. I’m not in the convincing business. I’m just serving business, people who are willing, like I’ll do whatever. I’ll eat shoe leather, I don’t care, just tell me what to do to get rid of this problem. The people who are on the floor in the fetal position saying there’s got to be an answer for this. I’m so tired of being overweight and exhausted and binging on ice cream late at night when I know I don’t want to be. Why do I keep eating these foods? I can tell you why and I can tell you what to do about it. That’s kind of the mission I’m on.
Caryn Hartglass: You work with people individually? That works different than the 12-step program where you’re in front of people.
Susan Thompson: Yes, 12-step programs are in a group and going to meetings a lot and getting a sponsor and stuff like that. My business is just starting so I’m just a few months into business but I just started my first boot camp which is 40 people now I’m taking through a course. I’m a college professor. I like to give courses. I’m taking these 40 people through a course on Bright Line eating and what to do. Before the year is out I’m going to have two more things added to my business model. I’m going to have a membership website so a community online where people can belong to this community. They’ll have their own login and their own ID and they can get in there and educate themselves about the problems that I’m talking about today and get support. There’ll be chat threads, there’ll be videos, there’ll be webinars. They can have access to all of that just by joining the community. I’m also going to do an ongoing group coaching thing with 10 individuals. That’s going to be my platinum group. I’ll give the 40 people who are in the boot camp right now first dibs on those seats but I’m sure over time seats will open up and stuff. I have an e-mail distribution list where I send out information, just free information on the neuroscience and psychology of long-term weight loss maintenance and food addiction, sugar and flour, all this stuff I’m talking about. I’ve got like 750 people on that mailing list now but I just started it a couple of months ago. It’s growing really rapidly. I’ve added to the list 300 people in the last two weeks.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of people who need help. They are all addicted.
Susan Thompson: Unfortunately yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: The thing is that the corporations that make a lot of this processed food they know what you know.
Susan Thompson: Oh they do. Oh they do. They talk about getting mouth share and developing heavy users. They talk about it like it’s cocaine. They say we need more heavy users of our product.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s really scary. I just want to get back…you mentioned that it’s not just the real sugars but it’s also the artificial sugars, the ones that don’t have calories. That’s important to know. They turn on the same lights. They do the same thing.
Susan Thompson: They do, they do. From the sweet taste buds to the addictive centers in the brain they do exactly the same thing.
Caryn Hartglass: People can be addicted to Diet Coke?
Susan Thompson: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. Even without the caffeine in there. Decaffeinated Diet Coke totally addictive. Diet sweeteners also mess you up in a couple of other ways. There’s a recent paper that was just published that shows that diet sweeteners mess up the micro biome in your gut and leads to insulin and blood glucose deregulation. For anyone who has insulin resistance or leptin resistance or any of those problems, pre-diabetes, diabetes, artificial sweeteners are awful. They are consistently messing with the gut flora. They did this great study where they like transferred the gut flora from one animal to another and showed that it transfers over. The other mechanism…which makes sense if you think about it. Think about how the stomach and the brain work together, right? You put food in your mouth and you can tell that it’s like a rich, high caloric meal, right? The brain sends a signal down to the belly that goes “a big bolus of calories is coming, big meal is on its way, get ready.” The stomach churns out its juices and starts to digest the food. Let’s imagine now that you eat a whole bunch of stuff that’s sweetened with artificial sweetener. The tongue doesn’t know that, it just tastes sugar. So the signal goes down to the stomach that says “oh a big bolus of calories is coming” but when it actually gets there it’s empty, there’s nothing there. So the stomach goes “liar”, right? What happens is when you consume artificial sweeteners it breaks the signal from the brain to the belly where basically the message of “get ready, there’s a whole bunch of calories coming” just gets broken so people overeat because the belly doesn’t believe what the brain is saying. Research shows that 70% of people have lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake naturally. Like a two year old will regulate their caloric intake naturally. If they eat a huge meal they will not be hungry and they will refuse to eat for a long time. It doesn’t matter if you put ice cream in front of them they won’t eat it. They’re full.
Caryn Hartglass: And that drives some parents crazy. They don’t realize their child knows when they’ve had enough to eat—they keep saying eat more, eat more.
Susan Thompson: Totally, yeah. I counsel people on how to parent…I have three little kids myself…and letting them decide whether and how much to eat from what you provide is so important because you don’t want to break that signal. The body knows, when they’re young the body knows. By the age of four or five in our society most kids have already lost that ability unless they’ve been parented really, really well with food because of all the sugar and all the crap that’s in our food system now. The brain’s already been broken.
Caryn Hartglass: We can get that back, right, when we start getting new healthful habits and eating better? We can reestablish that brain-stomach connection, right?
Susan Thompson: You know, I don’t know that I have the world’s most optimistic answer on that. I thought that after…let’s see this was two or three years ago after doing Bright Line Eating…by the way Bright Lines are no sugar, no flour, three meals a day and weighed and measured quantities, some kind of control on quantities. So those are the four bright lines. I thought that after maybe eight years of doing this continuously that I would have earned the right to just be a normal eater at this point so two and a half years ago I stopped doing bright line eating. I was actually surprised by how quickly things unraveled for me. I was back to my old ways and bingeing, not as often as I used to, but periodically bingeing again and gaining weight again and feeling unmanageable with food again and feeling that sort quiet desperation that I used to feel. It came back pretty quickly. So the answer is you can learn…I’ve found that you can live a life that looks exactly like perfect health and happiness but you’ve got to keep…it’s just kind of window dressing…you’ve got to keep all the structures in place to keep it going. If you start to violate the principles and go back to your old ways then you’ll be back to your ways then you’ll be back where…you know, keep doing what you always did and you’ll keep getting what you always got, you know what I mean? One thing we know about the brain and we’ve known for decades, since research with behavior in the 1930’s is that the brain doesn’t ever really unlearn anything. Everything that you learned at some point…it might go underground but it’s still there. Those circuits are still there. So if you have right now an addictive, challenging, unmanageable relationship with food and you find a way to clean it up, the only way to maintain that new level of freedom and health and happiness is to stick pretty diligently to whatever it was that allowed you to achieve that. You don’t really ever get to just go back to being like other people are…like the one-third at the bottom of the scale. They just have a freedom around food that I will never have. They get to decide when and what they want to eat and if they want a piece of cake, they have a piece of cake. I don’t do that. I have to say that I don’t mind that because for me my personal path has been really through the food that I put in my mouth and I’ve grown as a person so much by creating these bright lines and sticking with them and regaining my integrity as a person by sticking to my plan of what I’m going to eat and I feel so good about myself for doing that that I get so much more by following this way of life than I would by just being able to eat anything I want willy-nilly. I don’t actually wish that I could do that. I get more by living this way than I would by living that way. It’s a choice. I choose not to eat that stuff today.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m applauding you Dr. Thompson. I’m glad you’re taking that choice and I’m glad you’re sharing it with so many people who need this information. Thanks for joining me today on It’s All About Food. I’ve learned so much every time I talk to you.
Susan Thompson: Thanks so much Caryn. It’s been a real pleasure.
Caryn Hartglass: Now where to people find you?
Susan Thompson: They can find me at www.happythinandfree.com. Actually I have a gift waiting for anyone who goes to that website. You can download a free report that’s called The Three Huge Mistakes That Almost Everyone Makes When They Try To Lose Weight.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. That sounds great. I’m going to go there right now. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food.
Susan Thompson: Thanks, Caryn.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly 11/26/2014