Ep.80: Never Binge Again Interview with Dr. Glenn Livingston
Today, Dr. Glenn Livingston joins us to talk about binge eating. He is a Ph.D., a veteran psychologist, and was the long time CEO of a multi-million dollar consulting firm which has serviced several Fortune 500 clients in the food industry. You may have seen his previous work, theories, and research in major periodicals like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, or The Chicago Sun Times. You may also have heard him on ABC, WGN, and/or CBS radio, or UPN TV.
Disillusioned by what traditional psychology had to offer overweight and/or food obsessed individuals, Dr. Livingston spent several decades researching the nature of bingeing and overeating via work with his own patients and a self-funded research program with more than 40,000 participants. Most important, however, was his own personal journey out of obesity and food prison to a normal, healthy weight and a much more lighthearted relationship with food. I was really interested to talk to Dr. Livingston because we don’t get the male perspective on binge eating and emotional eating very often. Enjoy!
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Robyn: Hello everyone and welcome back to Vibe. Today we are talking about binge eating, and I’m really interested to dive deeper with our guest. I’m interviewing today Dr. Glenn Livingston. He’s a PhD, a veteran psychologist and he was the C.E.O. for many years of a company whose clients were Fortune 500 food industry companies. He’s been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun Times, ABC — lots of media outlets. I was really interested to talk to Dr. Livingston because we don’t get the male perspective on binge eating and emotional eating very often, and what’s really interesting to me about Dr. Livingston is that I’ve talked many times about the wounded healer concept, and my own background as a psychotherapist was very informed by the fact that I feel like so many psychotherapists come to this profession to heal themselves, start with themselves.
And so, Dr. Livingston is interesting to me as a psychologist and as an expert in this binge eating subject because he had his own issues with obesity, and he calls it food prison. He was frustrated by what traditional psychology had to offer overweight and/or food obsessed people. And so he has spent several decades researching the nature of bingeing and overeating with work, with his own patients, and he self-funded a research program with over 40,000 participants. Dr. Livingston himself has gotten to a normal, healthy weight, and a lot more lighthearted relationship with food. So welcome, Dr. Glenn Livingston.
Glenn: Thank you so much, I hope you’ll call me Glenn.
Robyn: I will. I was telling you, that’s my oldest little brother of my six brothers.
Glenn: Dr. Livingston still sounds like my dad to me. I come from a family of 17 therapists, so I was not the first doctor in the family. I like using the title when it gets me into a restaurant or something, but otherwise, I’m kind of just a Glenn.
Robyn: I love it. You cover a family of 17 therapists.
Glenn: Yes. And so when you say that we are wounded healers I couldn’t agree more. Each and every one of us, I think, even though it was a family profession, we had to make a choice and I think we ultimately chose it to heal ourselves. And it turns out that by working with other people you really can heal yourself. I would definitely resonate with that concept.
Robyn: I feel like it’s also medical doctors and people in the physical healing profession as well as psychology profession who are drawn to these specialties after medical school because of their own health challenges. I think it’s all good, I think it actually makes us better healers, but it probably makes for a pretty interesting family discussion. Are you guys always head-shrinking each other?
Glenn: Nobody agrees. What’s really funny is there are umpteenth different ways to do psychotherapy. If you were to come to a family reunion you would see people arguing about a case presentation and saying, no you’ve made the worst mistake. It’s really awful, I know.
The other thing is that nobody taught any of us how to fix stuff around the house; we can all ask for it I would feel but we don’t know how to fix it. Very heavy emphasis on soul searching and an introspective life, which I wouldn’t trade for the world. But sometimes I wish I were given more practical tools to get through life. It’s a good upbringing.We all get the family that we get. At 53 years old, I’m really happy with the family that I have.
Robyn: Good. Well, one of these days I’m going to find somebody to talk about the U-Curve; I don’t know if you’ve read about the U-Curve of happiness, where it’s really documented over the course of a lifetime. They’ve even gone to primate studies and found this to be the case here as well and even when you control for factors of how affluent people are, and what race, and what continent they live on, people are happiest in their 50’s. Have you come across this?
Glenn: I think there’s a book Called Stumbling Into Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Is that where that comes from?
Robyn: Well, there’s a lot of different research on it, and what’s so interesting to me is that every time a study shows that people hit a low point in their 40’s; the average nadir of the happiness U-Curve is about age 47. People are really struggling in their 40’s. Because you come out all shiny into adulthood, you think everything’s going to go your way, and then in your 40’s you’re hitting aging dying parents, your kids start doing weird things and they weren’t the cute little cuddly people they were when they were born. You’re asking yourself, wow, is this all there is? And all these different existential things are happening at the same time, that all these life-circumstances things are happening.
But then, every time they do a piece of research and they discover that people in their 50’s report the highest life satisfaction that they ever have and then even higher in their 60’s and people in their 70’s are happier, nobody believes it; people question it. They’re like, wait, these people…? They don’t look good, they like have health problems. Why on earth would they have the best satisfaction, and something you said triggered me to think about that, about the U-Curve of happiness. There was a great article in The Atlantic about it, I want to say last month.
I think it’s exciting. With all this focus on aging, and we’re not supposed to get wrinkles and we’re not supposed to ever look bad, and all these women doing things to ourselves to fight the aging process, it’s pretty cool that we might actually be our happiest in our 50’s.
Glenn: You know, I certainly resonate with that personally. I spent most of my life up until my mid 40’s looking for love at the bottom of a bag, box or container. I was really binge eating. It was only when I really came out of that I could really think more seriously about who I was and what I wanted. I certainly had a midlife crisis. I got divorced, I changed my business. It all came down to understanding who I was at my core and what I wanted out of life, and even though my forehead is now a fivehead and I’ve got a little bit of sciatica and a couple little aches and pains, it’s really true, I’ve never been happier in my life. So I think that’s good news for all of us aging baby boomers.
Robyn: I think it is really good news. And today we’re talking about how to never binge again. It was your subject, it’s what you chose, and I’m excited to talk about that. Just a little side note, I went on a one year sugar-bet with my good friend Matthew a bunch of years ago, six or seven years ago, and I think it really challenged my own binge eating. I don’t think I sit there, eating a whole bag of chips. or eat a whole quart of ice cream or whatever, but I certainly have done plenty of overeating in my life and had a really crappy diet in my 20’s.
Something I learned from it — and then you can go where you want, introduce binge eating to us — something I learned from it that was a shock to me, my big resistance to, “oh my gosh, can I really go a year and not eat any sugar” was that I realized, well into that year, that I’m having just as much fun. Life is not sweeter with the processed sugar. When you take processed sugar out of it, like I did really, there’s nothing else that I was really addicted to and so, I just didn’t overeat.
That was a big eye-opener for me. Is that something you learned as you conquered your own binge eating?
Glenn: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I want to say a little bit more about my history and how I got to this. But basically, part of the solution involves recognizing the twofold nature of our brains. That we’ve got our early evolutionary structures, like the lizard brain which looks at things in the environment and says eat, mate or kill. It doesn’t know love, it doesn’t know long term goals or aspirations or spirituality or community. It knows eat, mate or kill. That’s the part of our brain that is targeted for addictive substances.
The supersized stimuli — the hyper palatable concentrations of fat and starch and sugar and oil and excitotoxins — they have a dual effect. They release dopamine and serotonin in the brain and give us this sensation of pleasure. They do it on a level that evolution never prepared us for because there weren’t chocolate bars and pizza and chips and pasta on the savanna, right, when we were evolving. These are recent inventions of industry and our physiology is not really prepared to deal with them.
So what happens is, our physiology, our neurology, down-regulates. Everything from the taste buds on your tongue becoming much less sensitive to natural sugars to the whole dopaminergic reward system in the brain just not firing at a regular level to a normal stimulus. So, that’s why when you eat a chocolate bar every day, an apple just doesn’t taste the same. Your lizard brain will tell you can’t live without processed sugar. It actually feels like a matter of survival that you can’t possibly live without it. Because when you’re in the middle of the addiction, that feels true. In order to feel normal, in order to get a normal level of pleasurable stimulation in their neurological system, you really do need the supersized stimuli.
If you don’t have a chocolate bar, or you don’t have processed sugar for a month or a year, your body will up-regulate and your taste buds will be doubled in sensitivity in a month or two, and your neurological system not far after that. Before you know it, all of a sudden you think wow, I thought I couldn’t live with chocolate but I need that apple. I’m really craving a banana.
You’re not supposed to believe me, you’re not supposed to believe that that’s true. Most people walk around saying I could never give up sugar because I hate fruit and vegetables. Well, that’s okay that you hate fruit and vegetables, you’re supposed to hate fruit and vegetables because you’re eating so much sugar. But if you stop having the sugar, your body will readjust; you will start to like fruit and vegetables again.
So you won’t be tortured forever, the craving’s not going to drive you crazy forever. They dissipate a lot more quickly than you think they will, especially if every time you have a craving you redirect your body towards more natural whole foods. You’re going to retrain your body to crave what it’s supposed to crave as opposed to letting the products of industry hijack your survival drive and link your beliefs of what it takes to live to their products and services. Well, most of their products. Does that make sense?
Robyn: It does make sense, and you’re totally singing my song. I did a 450 city speaking tour over the course of six years. I didn’t set out to speak in 450 cities, I just kept going back out on the circuit. One of my books is called The Adventures of Junk Food Dude, and it’s a children’s book, and I would read it to adults. My audience was 98% adult. I would read them just a few pages from The Adventures of Junk Food Dude, about how you just go off of sugar for four days. I didn’t call it up-regulate in this children’s book but I love your description of it, how if you go four days without sugar something like an orange tastes so magical to you.
So I read a few pages about that and Glenn, I cannot count for you how many people would talk to me afterwards because, like I said, 450 cities. I would always stay after for 90 minutes and sign books and answer people’s questions. So literally thousands of people stayed after and talked to me afterwards, and I read a few pages from that book just to highlight a point in probably a couple hundred cities. Can’t count for you how many people said to me they’ve never gone a day without sugar in their lives.
Some people are going to have to take your word for it until they actually put it to the test. It’s the first four days that are the hard days. After that, it gets a lot easier but most people who literally have never done it.
Glenn: People have no idea that they’re 96 hours from freedom and a lot of people live a lifetime in a food prison not knowing that. It’s like you’ve got the key, you can open the door, 96 hours away. I absolutely agree and I hear that all the time. Some people say it’s 72. Some people say if they can get three days that they start to feel a lot better. My experience is it’s more like four. Absolutely, yes, I’m glad you brought that up.
Robyn: Wow, that’s a great quote. I sat here and wrote that down and put a big circle around it. You’re 96 hours from freedom. People don’t make it or they’ll go one day or they’ll go two days and they’ll make jokes about how it almost killed them.
I tried to get my tennis team recently to do a little three days of green smoothies only with me and a couple of them were like, no, no, the last time we did that almost killed me. I can’t go three whole days without diet coke. I heard a story about one of my teammates, who is a really badass tennis player, and she’s really skinny so a lot of times people think that somebody who’s skinny is eating healthy. Somebody said to me, she actually never went off the diet Pepsi. She had green smoothies and diet Pepsi the whole three days.
I laugh about it because it’s like well, you don’t know if you actually can get off of diet Pepsi and you don’t know if you can actually go without sugar because you only did that hard part. I’m glad to hear that you’re having the same experience with people. They don’t turn that corner where really the up-regulation causes them to not be living in lizard brain.
Glenn: There was a series of studies in the late 50’s and early 60’s by some doctors named Milner and Olds. These were not ethical vegan studies or anything like that but they were done. They inserted electrodes in the pleasure centers of rats’ brains and they took them to a lever to let the rats self-stimulate. What they found was that the rats would self-stimulate to the exclusion of their survival means. They pressed these buttons thousands of times a day just to get that dopamine rush in the brain. Starving rats would ignore their food. Nursing mother rats would ignore their pups. Rats would crawl over painful electrical grids to get to their lever and press thousands of times per day.
I think what this shows us is that when you short circuit the neurological pleasure mechanisms that evolution has provided us, the result is extreme self neglect. I did a lot of consulting for big food back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that we’re being given those pleasure buttons because the amount of money, billions of dollars, that goes into finding the bliss point in these food-like substances. How many calories and how much flavor and how much concentrated sources (I talked to you about this before) and fat and sugar and salt and oil and excitotoxins, how much can you put into the smallest space for a reasonable amount of money, and then how much money goes into packaging it to make it appear healthy. And then how much money goes into advertising it to make you believe that you can’t live without it. And then the addiction treatment industry says you can’t live with it, you can just abstain, one day at a time; don’t hope to quit.
So, there is this perfect storm of addictive forces in our society today. I often wonder how anybody can possibly manage to eat well.
Robyn: I agree and I think all of us should be mad. We should be mad that a consultant to these Fortune 500 food manufacturing companies, that people sit around boardrooms and create focus groups and do research to find out what the exact amount of sugar, fat and neurotoxic chemicals like monosodium glutamate should go in their product so that people eat the most.
Glenn: Yes. I remember consulting a major foodware manufacturer who would sue me if I mentioned their name. But I remember consulting for them and talking to their VP, who told me that their major profitable insight was to take the vitamins out of the bar and put the money [for the vitamins] into the packaging instead. So they made the packaging appear healthy by making it with vibrant diversity of colors. The reason that works is because evolutionarily we’re supposed to respond to a vibrant diversity of colors, because it signals a vibrant diversity of nutrients.
If you have a salad with cabbage and lemons and greens and cherries and tomatoes and all different colors, you’re really getting a diversity of nutrients. It’s not an accident that we respond to that, but they were kind of faking us out, right? They took the health out of it and they put it into the packaging instead. That thing is perfectly legal and that goes on all the time.
I don’t know if you remember the movie Network. There is a movie called Network and there is this one scene where the newscaster was trying to get the population riled up and he said, “I want you to go up to your windows and I want you to say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take …'”. I actually find that that’s part of overcoming overeating. See, the messages in our culture we say that it’s our fault. “We have a disease, we’re powerless over this. There’s something sick about us.” It’s a very kind of self-deprecating way to look at impulse control.
I tell people that I want to help them go from shame to anger because I think part of overcoming overeating is recognizing what’s happening, and then really drawing lines for yourself that very clearly define what healthy eating is and isn’t for you, personally. Reclaiming your power, reclaiming your hope and enthusiasm and ability to stand apart from what the industry is doing. And you really can, it’s really possible.
I guess I’m kind of skipping my early story but what we’ve really found is that willpower, it’s not a black and white switch, it’s not like some people have it and some people don’t. It’s more like gas in your tank. What wears it down is the necessity to make decisions day in and day out. You can only make so many good decisions over the course of the day. And I’m not just talking about food decisions by the way. They find that if you ask people to do math problems they’re are more likely to have trouble resisting marshmallows afterwords than if they didn’t do math problems at all, because they had to exert a lot of mental energy and make decisions while they were doing math problems.
One of the implications of that is that you use rules as opposed to guidelines. A guideline is something like, “I avoid chocolate 90% of the time,” which is a perfectly good guideline, it’s a good north star to shoot for. Nothing says you can’t have chocolate once in a while. If you avoid it 90% of the time you’d be healthy. However, the problem with that guideline is that a guideline requires that you make a decision every time you’re in front of a chocolate bar: is this part of the 90% or is this part of the 10%. Gee, I had chocolate yesterday. Well, it’s only March, there’s still 90% of the year left or 80% of the year left and so I can kind of sort of get away with eating it again. I’ll stop on April 1st.
Your brain starts redefining things in order to make those decisions. Your will power gets worn down. But if you were to say, “I never eat chocolate on a weekday. I just never eat chocolate on a weekday, that’s how I’m going to avoid chocolate most of the time.” Well, that’s very clear. 10 people that followed you around all month would know whether you were on it or you weren’t. You don’t have to make any decisions Monday through Friday. You’ve essentially said, I’m just not the kind of person who eats chocolate during the week. It’s a statement of character.
People conduct themselves according to their character beliefs all the time without knowing it. If you go into a diner (I’ll pause for a second in a minute so you can ask questions and whatnot) but you go into a diner and you sit down at the table and there’s a $20 bill on the table which the waitress hasn’t seen yet and she says I’ll be right back, I’m just going to go get your menus. And there’s no video camera, there’s nobody up front, there’s no window, nobody would see if you took the $20 bill. The vast majority of people tell me they would never do it. And I’ll say why. They’ll say, well, I’m not a thief. That woman worked hard for her money and I’m just not the kind of person that would do that.
So they they’ve defined their character in a way which obviated them of the need to make decisions about whether or not to take the money at the table at the diner, even though it would be pleasurable, even though they would benefit from it, even though nobody would know, they would know when it’s not in their character. That turns out to be the major trick that makes it possible to step outside the matrix, if you will, and see what’s going on and define for yourself what role you want certain foods and food behaviors to play.
I wish that someone sat down and told me that 30 years ago so I wouldn’t have suffered with the things that I suffered with and almost killed myself with food. I can’t tell you how powerful that’s been for myself and a lot of the people that I’ve worked with. So I’ll pause for a second.
Robyn: This is interesting because you’re basically saying that you have bright lines. That in your integrity, in your rule system, you have these bright lines that you won’t cross saying, “This is what I will do and this is what I won’t do,” and that those help govern your behavior. And that makes sense to me because right now, I’m actually in another sugar bet with the same friend, one of my best friends Matthew, but he didn’t want to do it for a year, I would’ve done it for a year but we’re both on a 90-day sugar bet right now and I think we’re about halfway in. I’d have to go figure out what our date is.
Honestly it’s not hard for me. After I did that for a year and I had that one very, very, single key learning, which is my life is not less sweet, I did not have less fun, I did not have less pleasure during that year, I just got used to it. I absolutely agree with you. I’ve told several people in this current 90-day sugar bet I’m in, I love it, I love being in a sugar bet. If Mathew or I eat sugar, unlike the one year bet where we had a page each other $10000, this time we have like silly things you have to do. Like he has these shock collars and if you eat sugar, whoever eats the sugar has to wear a shock collar and the other person remote control shocks them over the course of a few days.
He bought some ghost pepper lollipops, ghost peppers being like the hottest pepper there is. We have some toasted spiders. So we have some dead spiders that we have to eat if we lose. We also have a can of (apparently this is like the worst thing that could ever happen to you) silkworm larva that we have to eat a bite of it if we eat the sugar. If I feel tempted to eat the sugar I just start thinking about, “Do I want to eat the sugar enough to eat a spoonful of silkworm larva and a giant dead spider” and the answer is always no.
But my buddy Chris at work says 100% is easy, 99% is hard. When I’m telling people about this 90-day sugar bet, I say I love it. The reason I love it, is all the internal chatter is going on. I’ll see something that is normally something I love. I’m not really controlled by sugar like I was for decades, before that when our sugar bet was really pivotal for me. But, and even though most days I wouldn’t need sugar anyway, if I see from my old days a brownie with ice cream hot fudge, that would be like my kryptonite, like that would be like the most delicious thing I could possibly imagine.
If I saw that, I would just be like, “Oh yeah, don’t look at that,” because like that decision is already made. There is no more mental [combat], like screwing myself over mentally over and over and over and over again like you do when you sit there and debate with yourself, “Am I going to have a glass of wine or not going to have that sugar, am I going to snort that cocaine or not,” whatever a person’s addiction is. It is absolutely so awesome to take it off the table, even if it’s for a period of time like that. Sounds like you say rules are important, that you have your own personal rules.
Glenn: What a lot of people don’t understand is the source of food obsession. Like in the early days I would be sitting with a suicidal patient and being a psychologist was always most important to me, but I couldn’t be 100% present because I was thinking about, “When can I go get pizza?” or “I’ll go get two pizzas.”
The source of that, the fuel for that, is the ambiguity about what kind of person you really want to be around pizza. Very often, never is a lot easier than sometimes. If pizza is a never for you, then it’s not that long before all those obsessive thoughts go away. “When am I going to have it, how much am I going to have, how am I going to stop myself from having it, how much exercise do I have to do tomorrow to make up for it. Who’s going to know, how am I going to lose the weight. Am I going to weigh myself or not. Where am I going to get it, what kind am I going to have. Where am I going to throw away the box so that nobody else…” All of that. All of that it just goes away, and what you’re left with is presence and mindfulness.
What’s kind of interesting is I get critiqued for this method, where people are telling me that it’s kind of the opposite of mindful eating, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s just that the order of operations is a little bit different. You think through the rules of the road so that you know when you’re following them or not. When you’re following the rules of the road, then you can be mindful when you’re driving. If you’re not sure if the light is red, or if it’s yellow and you’re not sure what you do at a four way stop, then you’re much more likely to get in trouble when you’re driving and you can’t have that relaxed and mindful experience navigating your way through the city streets.
But if you think through what intersections need a red light and what intersections need a yield sign and what intersections don’t need any traffic control at all so that we maximize the free flow of traffic, then that actually enhances your freedom and enhances your ability to live your life intuitively as opposed to the opposite. It’s a weird philosophy; it’s a different way of looking at things in our society which is so focused on mindfulness first. I really think that discipline supports mindfulness and that’s the life that I choose to lead.
Robyn: I like the metaphor of, you know, lanes on the freeway because I think we need lanes. I think human beings, the human brain needs lanes. I need the lines painted for me. I’m kind of a rule breaker myself; I’m not the best rule follower. If there’s a rule, ever since I was a little girl, I’d be like well why is there the rule. If I understand the rule I’ll follow it, if not I’m going to break it. And so, I think having those lanes and having those personal lanes that we decide on and painting the lines is a really important part of it.
I read a book about mindful eating years and years and years ago when those words were actually really very new, and there was something I really didn’t like about this book (written by two women, can’t remember the names now) and there’s something I really did like about it. Thing I didn’t like about it is they were like, people want to kind of take the discipline and the rigid rules out of it because that’s what got people in trouble in the first place. We could make a case both ways.
I’m with you. I think that my having firm rules around food is super, super helpful to me. I didn’t like they said, hey, there are no bad foods. You can over eat them, but there are no bad foods. I disagree. I think there are bad foods and I think there are foods we shouldn’t eat. Just because socially it’s acceptable that we’re eating Cheetos doesn’t mean that that’s actually real food. It’s actually terrible food that we really should never eat, and maybe that offends you and maybe Cheetos is something you’re going to let yourself eat once in a while. But there are some things I will never eat. I will never eat pork, I’ll never eat processed foods. I’ll never have soda. I’ll never eat hydrogenated fats. There’s things I eat very, very rarely, like pizza.
But I did like in the mindful eating book where they told me — this was a really good tip for me, I don’t know if this is something that you help your patients [with] and the people that you coach in your online program — but they said, if you’re sitting at a table and there’s all kinds of delicious things on the table and everybody’s eating and indulging, maybe it’s a party — just really extraordinary food. You know you’re pretty satisfied, and you know that you don’t really need any more food, but you feel this urge to keep going when you check in with yourself and you are mindful.
What I’ve earned to do is like give myself permission. I can have more. I can have more, but I require myself to wait five minutes; and I’ll tell you what, that tip, that one thing from the book, has then very, very useful to me because if I wait five minutes I never eat the thing. Why is that?
Glenn: Take a walk outside, take a breath. Put your fork down between bites. That kind of thing works really well.
Robyn: Why is that?
Glenn: Because it gives you those microseconds that you need to wake up and remember who you are, the kind of person you want to be, or that you want to become, around food. It takes you out of your lizard brain and puts you more into neocortex and mammalian brain where your long term goals and aspirations and really soulful connections in life live, your human identity. Then you’re free to make a choice, then you’re free to make the choice and you say, “Well, when I think about the future that I’m pursuing, when I think about wanting to have more energy and avoid disease and look better and have clearer skin…” and all the things that come along with taking care of yourself.
And by the way, being an example for all the other people at the table, who I probably love to some degree or another, if all of them are not going to have the fate that the majority of Americans have, where more than half the people are riddled with cancer or cardiovascular disease or diabetes or worse, then somebody has to go first, somebody has to be a leader. Someone has to lead by example and show them that it’s possible to be seen and step out of the cultural matrix with food that’s killing everyone. That’s why it is. It gives you a chance to remember who you are and who you want to be around food.
Robyn: Yeah. To add to that I think, for me, it’s a lot like those who’ve read my book Vibe, I talk about 90 seconds to metabolize, reframe and release any emotion. Starts with understanding that hey, this emotion only lasts 90 seconds on average. The emotions really come and go quite quickly. For me it’s also just letting that sort of hijacking of my brain, or this insane craving for this food I really don’t need and I’m completely full and satisfied. It just lets that craving pass. Cravings being like emotions. They don’t actually last that long.
Glenn: That’s true. Most people spend a lifetime avoiding negative emotions not knowing that you can get through them in 90 seconds. Now I want to read your book.
Robyn: Hahaha, well, we can hook you up. You’ve mentioned your early story and I feel like we glossed over that. Do you want to go back and talk a little about your early story, how you came to this point in your career being so passionate about helping people understand what is binge eating, like what is it exactly, why are so many people doing it? Anything we want to fill in there?
Glenn: I’m 6’4, I’m fairly muscular and as an adolescent I discovered a kind of superpower where if I worked out for two and a half or three hours a day I could eat whatever I wanted to. It didn’t bother me, I thought it was great. I thought it was just a lucky thing that I came into in life. I had multiple pizzas and chocolate bars and boxes of muffins and donuts, and I kind of lived to eat and I worked out to eat. Today they would diagnose it as exercise bulimia because I was technically purging with all the exercise I was doing, and in many ways it was a waste of life. I could have been preparing better for adulthood and accomplishing other things with my life. Not that I’m an under-achiever by any stretch of imagination, but it takes a lot of time and energy to do that.
As I got older and I was married and seeing patients and commuting from Long Island to the Bronx all the time, I just didn’t have the time to work out. I would do like three times a week for half an hour instead of two and a half hours a day. My metabolism was slowing down and I found that I was still obsessed with the food. I couldn’t stop eating, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And like I mentioned before, I’d be working with a couple after an affair or with a suicidal client and I just couldn’t be present because I was obsessing about the food. That really bothered me.
But I unfortunately, coming from a family of psychologists, I spent really 30 trying years to love myself thin. I talked to psychologists, some of the best people in the country because I knew them, given the family they came from. I went to Overeaters Anonymous for a couple of years. I took medication with a psychiatrist. I tried everything. I had a very soulful journey, I learned an awful lot about myself. Some things worked a little bit but nothing really cured the problem. Some of it made it worse.
Eventually I did this, it was a combination of two things that really put it together. I decided that if these big companies were paying me all this money to do these big studies that I should do one for myself. And so I organized a study on the internet back in the days when internet clicks were really, really cheap. This was like mid to late 90’s, early 2000’s. It ran for like three, four years. I asked people what areas of life they were most satisfied with, and least satisfied with, and I asked a whole bunch of personality questions. And also asked about the particular foods that they struggled with.
I found that people whose binges started with chocolate like me, who couldn’t stop eating chocolate, they tended to be more lonely or broken hearted. The other things I found that people who were struggling with salty crunchy things tended to be more stressed at work and people who were struggling with soft chewy things like pasta and bread and bagels tended to be stressed at home, which was really fascinating and I got a lot of press for it. It didn’t fix the problem at all in me or anybody else that I worked with.
I could tell you a story that illustrates why. In fact, why don’t I do that. So my mom’s a psychotherapist … I was in a bad marriage at the time and I was fairly unhappy. So I thought being lonely or brokenhearted made sense for someone that was struggling with chocolate. I’m divorced now. I asked my mom what she remembered about my history because she’s a psychotherapist. What does she remember about my history that would suggest that I run to chocolate when I’m lonely or brokenhearted? She got this horrible look on her face and she said, “Honey, I’m so sorry.”
I said, “What?”
And she said, “Well, you know when you were about one year old, your dad was a captain in the army and they were talking about sending him to Vietnam. And my father, your grandfather, had gone to prison and I just found out about it — I was horribly depressed because I always adored him and I had no idea he was involved in that stuff and he was guilty, he actually did it. I was depressed and frightened and overwhelmed and you would cry a lot and you’d coming running to me asking to be held or wanting me to make you some food and I just didn’t have it in me to do it so a lot of the time I kept a bottle of Chocolate Bosco Syrup -” I’m dating myself with that brand, “- Chocolate syrup in the refrigerator on the floor and I’d say go get your Bosco Glenn. So when you were sad and lonely and unhappy I’d push you right to the chocolate and you’d run to it and you’d suck on the bottle and go into a sugar coma.”
If this were the movies, mom and I would have a good cry and a good hug and then I would never have chocolate again. I would be cured. But it’s not what happened. We had a good cry and a good hug and I forgave her and she forgave me. I forgave myself is what I meant to say. So I was more compassionate towards myself, which is a part of part of learning to stop overeating. You do you have to forgive yourself a lot more quickly than people do when they make mistakes.
I didn’t stop, and in some ways it got worse because, although I was more compassionate towards myself about it, there was this voice in my head that said, “Hey Glenn, you know what, you’re right, your momma didn’t love you enough and she left a great big chocolate sized hole inside of your heart and until you find the love of your life you’re going to have to go right on bingeing on chocolate. Yippee, let’s go get some more.”
It became kind of like an excuse to do more. I found similar things with people that were struggling with stress at work and eating salty crunchy things. They’d say, “Well, until we can get the man’s boot off of our neck and go work for ourselves and have a normal work life, we’re just going to have to keep on crunching those chips.” And around the same time I was exiting Overeaters Anonymous, which wasn’t working for me, and I was looking at some alternative addiction treatment literature. I ran across a guy who works mostly with alcoholics and drug addicts, which are black and white addictions. They’re are things that you can quit entirely as opposed to something you have to take out of the cage and walk around the block a couple times a day.
And basically, I’m really bastardizing his paradigm, but he shifted my paradigm to let me understand that you can’t love yourself out of an addiction, or a lot of people can’t. Your inner wounded child and your lizard brain are two separate things. The inner lizard brain, that thing inside you that says eat, mate or kill that’s being targeted by all these fat cats in white suits with mustaches laughing all the way to the bank when we eat their stuff, the lizard brain doesn’t know love. Lizards were much more oriented towards eat, mate or kill than caring about the other members of the tribe and connecting and cuddling and all that. Lizards don’t know love.
What you need to do is capture and cage it. It’s more like the attitude that an alpha wolf takes towards a challenging wolf for leadership in the pack. That attitude is, look, step out a line and I’ll kill you. I’m the boss here and if you want to take control there’s going to be a fight and there’s going to be hell to pay, right? It’s like capturing and caging a rabid animal.
So what I did, this kind of circles back to a lot of the things we talked about more eloquently and scientifically earlier in the call is I said, you know what, I’m going to call my lizard brain my inner pig. I differentiate this from real pigs in the world, who are very sweet animals, but I’m going to call it my inner pig. I’m going to say that I need to make very clear lines in the sand, bright lines, like “I will never have chocolate again” or “I’ll never have chocolate during the week again.”
If that’s true, then chocolate is pig slop. Whatever the pig says to get me to eat pig slop is the pig’s will. For example, “Hey, chocolate comes from a cocoa bean and a cocoa bean grows on a plant and therefore chocolate is vegetable and you’re supposed to have more salad so go for it,” which sounds crazy right now but anybody who’s made a sworn commitment to a diet on Monday morning and broke it by Monday afternoon knows what I’m talking about. And I said, I don’t want that, my pig does. I don’t eat pig slop and I don’t eat out of a pig’s trough and I don’t let pigs tell me what to do. I don’t let farm animals tell me what to do.
As primitive as that was, as crazy as that sounds … I didn’t want to publish this book. This was a journal. I told my C.E.O. that I’m going to be the laughingstock psychologist of the world if I publish this book, and get up on stage, and talk about this pig inside me. That’s what did it. I needed something that aggressive to shift my paradigm from, “Oh, poor baby, I’m craving that chocolate, I must need to love myself more,” to “I don’t eat pig slop and I don’t let farm animals tell me what to do.”
It would wake me up, it was like a jolt at the moment of impulse that would remind me who I was and what I wanted to be. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t like a miracle cure, but it was the first thing that gave me a sense of power back when I was feeling hopeless about the whole thing. It was the first thing that made me realize that maybe I can take control. I practiced it and I kept the journal for eight years and I kind of refined things over time and I refined the kind of rules that you made, and then I worked with people’s resistance to make the rules.
Before you know it, I was thin. My triglyceride went like the national debt anymore and I’d lost 50 pounds and I was feeling healthy and I felt like I was in control. I’d make a mistake once in a while and but they got less and less and less. I felt more and more in control until eventually I said, “I don’t really have to listen to this pig ever again. I can just take control and not binge again.” That’s when my C.E.O. said, “Why don’t you write a book?” and I did.
Robyn: Yeah. I congratulate you on not just overcoming your tendency to overeat, because when that gets programmed young, we’re so vulnerable, our brains are so impressionable. We’re writing fairly indelibly, we can change, we definitely can change but makes it much harder when you get that going very young like you did.
But I also really appreciate that you share your own vulnerable story because first of all, I don’t find that that’s very easy for most men. I don’t think it’s easy for people but you’ve got some specific gender imperatives that are even harder to overcome. I think it makes this more likely, not less likely, to follow what you teach. For me for sure because I believe in the wounded healer. I believe that someone with academic knowledge is less qualified and less powerful in their teaching than someone who is both academically qualified and has been to their knees personally and you have.
Glenn: I have been to my knees. You know when you talk about using the larvae, or the shock collar, all those things, I laugh about that but when I was at my worst I actually went to an attorney and I told him I wanted to give him $10,000 and if I didn’t weight a certain weight in one month that he had to donate it to the Nazi party in my name. Thank God that that guy wouldn’t take it, he wouldn’t do the job because otherwise I would have been a Nazi party contributor.
I know what it’s like to feel so desperate that you need some external consequence to control you because you feel like you can’t control yourself. At this point I prefer to cultivate confidence rather than fear. At this point, I don’t really feel like I need that anymore. I was there. I was desperate. I lost three decades to this, so the more people I can help, the better I feel.
Robyn: So, is it really possible to never binge again? Do you never binge or do you just binge a lot less, if that’s even a fair question to ask you? I can’t say that I never overeat but I don’t feel like it has me by the throat.
Glenn: I named the book Never Binge Again for a very specific reason. If you look at the psychology of winners, winners visualize the goal having already happened and they purge all of the doubt and insecurity from their mind. Look at an Olympic archer for example. They actually see the arrow going into the bullseye before they let go of the arrow. It’s almost like they are the arrow at the moment of victory before they even make the attempt. What that does is it prevents doubt and insecurity from draining their energy to accomplish the goal.
Now if they miss the bullseye, they don’t get up and say, “Oh my God, I’m a pathetic bullseye misser and I might as well just shoot all the rest of the arrows up in the air into the audience.” They get up and do it again. They have an attitude of progress, not perfection after the attempt, but as they are focusing on the goal, they really commit with perfection. It’s possible to commit with perfection and forgive yourself with dignity at the same time. It’s okay to feel a little guilt and shame if you make a mistake; like if you touch a hot stove, you’re just supposed to figure out, “Well, how did I touch the hot stove, and how do I avoid it again?” You’re not supposed to say, “I’m a compulsive hot stove toucher and I’m pathetic and I’m horrible.”
What I’ve discovered is that you have to present these rules to your inner pig, to your lizard brain, as if they are set in stone in the same way that you would tell a two year old that they can’t ever cross the street without holding your hand. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, even though you know in five or six years you’re going to teach them to look both ways and do it by themselves.
And so, I really was trying to swing the pendulum from this squishy idea of having a fuzzy bullseye, and just doing the best you can and not really having clearly defined goals and commitments, to understanding the dual mindset that was necessary to really improve your reading.
I don’t binge anymore. I’ve made mistakes over the years, they’re usually at another level, but I don’t ever lose control and just feel like I can’t stop eating. If I make a mistake I realize it’s a mistake right away and I get right back on pretty quickly. I stay within an eight pound range or so, depending if it’s winter and I’m exercising a lot or not, I sometimes allow myself a little bit more to eat in the winter. I don’t binge. I really don’t ever binge again. I work with a lot of people who never binge again around certain key areas.
Someone will say they never have chocolate, I haven’t had chocolate in, God, I don’t even know how long. It’s got to be three, four years now. I haven’t had chocolate in the longest time. There are a lot of things that people really can say, I’m never going to do that again and they just don’t. Think about people who make a decision to go Kosher. They decide they’re not going to have pork, or seafood, or whatever it is, and they just don’t. So, it’s within us to do that.
My argument is that we need to harness that part of ourselves, commit with perfection but forgive yourself with dignity.
Robyn: It does not serve to beat yourself up. I’ll tell you what, if I’ve got five pounds to lose or eight pounds to lose or whatever, I don’t lose it as long as I’m pounding on myself, criticizing myself, feeling negative. It’s only when I’m like, “Hey, I ate so healthy yesterday and I am feeling so good, I want to keep that going.” That kind of lifting myself up and praising myself …
Glenn: You can choose to cultivate an identity of success or you can choose to cultivate an identity of failure. It has to do with the kind of evidence that you collect. In every binge, even the worst one, if you look at it carefully, there’s some evidence of success. Maybe five cupcakes didn’t turn into 15. Maybe you stopped it sooner, maybe you got back on quicker, maybe you learned something nutritionally because you looked something up afterwards. Whatever it is, you can collect evidence of success and choose to build a success identity.
You also have to understand that that negative voice is the pig in-and-of itself, because if the pig can convince you that you’re weak and pathetic, then you’re going to feel like there’s no point in resisting the next binge. The negative voice is binge motivated.
Robyn: So tell us a little about your book, where we can get it and where we can learn more from you?
Glenn: Best thing to do is to go to neverbingeagain.com and click on the big red free bonuses section to get on the reader’s list. We’ll send you a free copy of either the Kindle book or a P.D.F. version. If you want the physical versions, we’ll show you where to get that too.
More importantly: we’ve talked about this a lot in the abstract today, and I recorded a whole bunch of coaching sessions so you can hear people actually going through this and reclaiming their enthusiasm and power, and I created a set of food plan starter templates for whatever diet you happen to be on. So, paleo, low carb, vegan, macrobiotic, point counting, whatever it is, we have a set of rules that might get you started. Don’t take my rules, adopt them, change them for yourself. That’s really important, otherwise your pig will just criticize me and say they don’t work.
It’s all at neverbingeagain.com, click the big red button and you’re good to go.
Robyn: Okay, well thank you so much for being with us today Dr. Glenn Livingston.
Glenn: Robyn, it was great, I enjoyed it.