Ep. 348 Bright Line Eating: Exploring the Complexity of Food Addiction with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson

Your trusted source for nutrition, wellness, and mindset for thriving health.

I am honored to connect with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson today.

Dr. Peirce Thompson is an adjunct associate professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and an expert in the psychology of eating. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of Bright Line Eating.

In our conversation today, we dive into the complexities of food addiction, exploring why it is even more challenging than drug or alcohol addiction, the importance of awareness around food addiction, and the impact of genetics and trauma. We discuss the addictive properties of sugar and flour, the bliss point in the processed food industry, and misconceptions surrounding artificial sugars. Dr. Peirce Thompson also shares her journey of addiction and recovery, offering invaluable insights on breaking the cycle of addiction and reframing our relationship with hunger. 

I am confident that today’s discussion with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson will provide valuable insights and provoke thoughtful reflections. Join us to learn how to break the cycle of addiction and reclaim control over your relationship with food.

“People are respectful when you say I don’t drink, I’m a recovering alcoholic. But when you say I don’t eat sugar, and you’re at the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, it doesn’t go well.”

– Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson


  • Why food addiction is more challenging to treat than other addictions
  • What are the signs of food addiction?
  • The role of genetics in obesity and food addiction
  • How trauma can lead to food addiction
  • Why hyper-palatable processed foods are so addictive
  • How sugar impacts the brain
  • Why it is best to avoid high fructose corn syrup and all artificial sugars
  • How food companies use the bliss point to make their products addictive
  • Why structured eating is essential in modern society
  • Why hunger is not an emergency

Connect with Cynthia Thurlow

Connect with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson


Cynthia Thurlow: [00:00:02] Welcome to Everyday Wellness podcast. I’m your host, Nurse Practitioner, Cynthia Thurlow. This podcast is designed to educate, empower, and inspire you to achieve your health and wellness goals. My goal and intent is to provide you with the best content and conversations from leaders in the health and wellness industry each week and impact over a million lives.

[00:00:30] Today, I had the honor of connecting with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of Bright Line Eating. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and an expert in the psychology of eating.

[00:00:46] Today, we spoke at length about why food addiction is harder than drug or alcohol addiction, awareness around food addiction, the impact of genetics, the role of trauma, why sugar and flour are so addictive, the bliss point in the processed food industry, how artificial sugars are no better than sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, her profoundly impactful story of addiction and recovery, how to break the cycle of addiction and why hunger is not an emergency. I know you will enjoy this conversation as much as I did recording it. 

[00:01:24] It is such a pleasure to connect with you. I’m a huge admirer of your work. Welcome. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:01:28] Thank you, Cynthia. It’s great to be here. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:01:29] Yeah, I thought we could really start the conversation helping listeners understand what differentiates food addiction from other types of addictions. And you speak a great deal in your work about why food is so different. Because we need food to survive versus, we don’t need cocaine, we don’t need porn, we don’t need gambling and that differentiator can make food addiction much more challenging to treat and address. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:01:55] Yeah, food addiction is different, and I’ve been addicted to lots of things. I found food to be the hardest and it’s not the hardest because it affects the brain more intensely. The dopamine surge from glucose and fructose is greater than cigarettes, comparable to alcohol, not quite as much as methamphetamine or crack cocaine or heroin, but it’s significant, and it downregulates the same neurotransmitter systems, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endocannabinoids, as other drugs of abuse. It causes the same deficits in impulse control, the same heightened Q reactivity, especially in early abstinence, causes the same memory changes and challenges the same learning issues. So, it’s got the same brain profile as other drugs of abuse. And so, neurologically, it looks really pretty much just like cocaine or heroin or alcohol in the brain. But behaviorally speaking, when you try to recover, it’s a whole different ballgame.

[00:02:58] And one of the biggest issues is what you just said, that you have to eat to live. Now, you don’t have to eat donuts to live, [laughs] but you do have to eat to live. So, in some ways, it’s comparable to alcohol, right. You have to drink to live, but you don’t have to booze to live. So, why can’t you just stop eating sugar, flour, and processed foods and be fine? Well, it turns out that the line between what’s going to trigger a food addiction and what’s not is not obvious or clear at all. Excess quantities trigger food addiction, trigger a binge, artificial sweeteners absolutely do. That’s easy. You can abstain from those. But rewarding foods include fattier foods, peanut butter, bacon, those can be triggering. So, it’s not just necessarily foods with sugar and flour in them.

[00:03:47] And so just not knowing where to draw the line, literally not knowing whether you’ve taken the first drink of alcohol. With alcohol, you’re pretty clear whether you’ve had the first drink, unless you’re thinking about Benadryl for medicinal purposes or NyQuil or something like that. I was once binging on cookie dough, and I’ve been clean and sober from drugs and alcohol for coming up on 30 years. So, I had a near panic attack when I realized that the vanilla extract I’d put in my raw cookie dough, I wasn’t trying to break my alcohol sobriety. I knew I was breaking my food sobriety. But so, sometimes you’re not clear about whether you’ve had the first sip of alcohol, but usually you’re clear. But with food, it’s just much harder. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

[00:04:29] I mean, the reasons that food is harder actually go way beyond that. I think one of the biggest reasons is the social pressure to eat, which is ridiculous compared to alcohol or cigarettes or certainly when you quit smoking crack or shooting heroin, no one wants you to go back to it pretty much, except your old using buddies, who you don’t want to be associated with anymore anyway. Alcohol has gotten a lot better. Like I said, I’ve been sober about 30 years. On New Year’s Eve, people trip over themselves to get me Sparkling Seltzer so that I can have a toast with everybody. People are really respectful when you say, “I don’t drink, I’m a recovering alcoholic.” They’re good with that. 

[00:05:04] But when you try to say, “I don’t eat sugar,” and you’re at the neighbor’s house, for Thanksgiving dinner, it doesn’t go well. “Come on, it’s Thanksgiving. You can’t diet on Thanksgiving. Live a little.” Like, you really start to get pressured. So, there’s that. There’s also the fact of the multibillion-dollar food industry that’s trying to keep you hooked in all the cues in our society with the billboards and the commercials, and there’s no shame. They market the stuff straight to kids with cartoons on the cereal boxes. So, there’s that whole issue. Then there’s the fact that really, the circuitry that’s being hijacked in addiction evolved anyway to make the procurement of food its primary concern. So, it’s really food-oriented circuitry. 

[00:05:51] And yes, it can be hijacked by cocaine and so forth, but the scouting and assessment and consumption of hyperpalatable food is that circuitry’s number one job. And so, food obsession really is second to none in the brain. The brain just knows how to do the food obsession game like nothing else. And so, yeah, I mean, I could keep going. The age of early use and addiction is like nothing else. We’re feeding our kids formula. A lot of kids are on formula, which is just an ultra-processed sugar concoction first of all, even breastfed babies at six months are started on an ultra-processed flour-based cereal at six months old. And then they’re using every day after that. Research shows that over 80% of one-year-olds in the United States are eating sweets every day, like, every day. 

[00:06:45] And by two years old, it’s up to 97% of kids are eating ultra-processed sugar and flour foods every day. And these days, you can’t even bring a kid to a restaurant and get them a kid’s menu without it just being an invitation to eat nothing but ultra-processed foods. Two-thirds of the calories that our kids are eating are ultra-processed foods. And if you feed that diet to rodents, they will stop eating rat pellets. They won’t even eat them anymore. They will starve themselves to death before they’ll eat a rat pellet again, after they’ve been exposed to Froot Loops and sausage. So, there’s a reason why people come into food recovery and then they can’t even eat vegetables anymore. They’re like, “I don’t eat vegetables. I don’t like them, I can’t tolerate them, what do I do?”

[00:07:28] And I say, well, you’re not a rat, [laughs] so you’re going to have to suck it up and relearn, your brain will relearn, but it’ll take a while, and you’ll hate your food for a while. I’m sorry. So, anyway–

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:07:38] I think these are really important points. We know the average person in the United States, I think 70% of us eat ultra-processed foods every day. You’re correct that kids are starting earlier, earlier, and earlier. And I think for a lot of parents, perhaps they aren’t even aware the foods they’re feeding their children. And I have parents that will share with me, my four-year-old, my five-year-old, my six-year-old will only eat chicken nuggets and French fries. And I remind them, I think if I recall properly, when my teenagers were younger kids, sometimes you have to give your kid a vegetable 10 times, 15 times before they’ll actually enjoy it, like it, consume it. And I think for a lot of parents, they’re disconnected, they’re busy. They just want their kids to eat. 

[00:08:18] They want them to eat anything as opposed to not eating at all. And the one thing I’ve learned about kids is they will self-regulate. Like, if they gotten plenty of food, oftentimes they will stop eating, or maybe one day they don’t eat a whole lot, and the next day they eat a lot. But I think we, as parents, are sometimes so fearful our kids are going to starve that we are apt to give them exactly the foods that are feeding this early addiction to hyper-processed foods. And so, I think just the sugar piece alone, like, just being conscientious about condiments and fruit juice and cereal and just things that we think of as being benign and innocuous because the processed food industry has convinced us it is.

[00:08:59] Just that awareness of what we’re feeding our children really helps us understand how early we become sensitized to hyper-processed foods, salt, and sugar. I think the book Salt, Sugar, Fat was the first book that made me realize how the processed food industry does everything it can to make foods light up our brains, hit that dopamine signaling, make us want more and more and more at an accelerated pace. And then we’re thinking about these foods as we’re going about our day, as opposed to eating something that’s a nutrient dense whole food that will allow us to feel full and be able to push our plate away. I know some of the things that are helpful in terms of assessing food addiction, because there are probably people listening, they’re saying, “How do we go about determining whether or not I just have a craving for food versus being [unintelligible 00:09:45].” And I believe it’s the Yale Addiction Scale is helpful.

Obviously, this is your area of expertise. But if someone’s listening and they’re concerned that they might have an unhealthy relationship with a food or foods, how are they able to differentiate a craving, like I like dark chocolate, versus something that they can’t turn off. Like, if they eat one, they eat a whole box. If they have a scoop of ice cream, they’re having two gallons of ice cream. What are some of the kind of differentiators to help navigate the awareness around food addiction? 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:10:14] Yeah, well, that symptom right there is, I think, one of the cruxes of the issue, which is losing control over how much you eat once you start. And the Yale Food Addiction Scale can be helpful. It’s not that easy to take or score on your own. I recommend a simpler instrument. It’s the food addiction susceptibility quiz. And it’s just five questions. It’s very easy. You can get it at foodaddictionquiz.com. And what those questions will do is they’ll ask you, if you think back to your worst time of eating, not a day, but like, a three-month stretch of time when your eating was at its worst. And the reason you have to think back to when your eating was at its worst is that once you’ve wired that into the brain, you will always have to be more vigilant. 

[00:10:57] Even if your eating has been not as bad lately, you’ll still need to be vigilant like someone who’s had that level of problem. It’s just unfortunate. It is true. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. The brain never forgets. So, if you think back to when your eating was at its worst, how often did you lose control over how much you eat once you start. How often were you obsessed with what you’ve eaten or not eaten? Whether you’re on your plan or off your plan, how many miles? How many calories? How many pounds? That obsession with weight and food is a hallmark of addiction. 

[00:11:27] Another one is, how often were you satisfied by a normal amount of food? If you ate a reasonable meal, did that do the trick? or did you have a more insatiable feeling, hunger, where a regular meal didn’t really do it, you wanted to eat more. And cravings, how bad were your cravings, like there but mild or would you actually drive across town for that specific piece of chocolate? or would you wander up and down the grocery store aisles looking for what would hit the spot? or stare into the fridge endlessly, looking for the bite that would hit the spot. That’s a craving. It’s a nonspecific craving. It’s not a craving for a specific food, but it’s a craving nonetheless. The craving for what’s going to hit the spot, that’s the sign of addiction. It’s when the longing for food, the yearning, the wanting has gotten really big. But then once you eat the food, it doesn’t really satisfy it. So, you just need more and more and more. 

[00:12:19] And then the final question is about binges. And do you binge or when you were eating at your worst, were you binging? How bad were the binges? How frequent were they? Those are some of the questions. Now, if you have some of the symptoms of food addiction, but overall, it hasn’t contributed to a pattern of behavior that’s like it’s causing clinically significant distress or dysfunction, then you might be among the majority of people in our society who have some symptoms of an addictive relationship with food, but not food addiction. It’s got to produce clinically significant distress or dysfunction. In other words, it’s got to bother you a whole lot, or it’s got to be disrupting your functioning in your work, your life, your relationships, your ability to do what you need to do as a human being. 

[00:13:11] And so a lot of people have an addictive relationship with food without having food addiction. Tricky nuance there, but most people these days have an addictive relationship with food, and it will keep them from losing the weight they want to lose. But if it doesn’t bother them enough, then it’s not food addiction. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:13:28] Yeah, it’s an interesting distinction because I think about family members. I have one in particular who I talk about on the podcast, who’s an alcoholic. I have another that ate in secrecy, had a maladaptive relationship with one of their parents, eats in secrecy, is forever fixated on their weight. But when you visit them, they have a stash. They call it their stash and they’ll never eat it in front of you, but they will keep it. And family member that lives with them will mention, oh, when everyone goes home, they’ll self-soothe. Like, they’ll open up the cabinet and they’ll spend an hour or so binging on some of these foods. And so, I’m curious if there’s any familial susceptibility, like if a parent had an addiction to alcohol or had a food addiction, are the offspring more likely to develop these propensities as well? 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:14:18] Yeah, absolutely. So, addiction is addiction. It runs in families. It’s highly genetic. Well, it’s not highly genetic. It’s moderately heritable on the order of IQ or extroversion, moderately heritable. If you look at family trees. Absolutely, you’re looking for the alcoholics, the addicts, the smokers, the people with obesity. I want to say that food addiction is correlated with, but separate and distinct from obesity. So, there are genes that make someone likely to suck on weight. And then given the same amount of eating, some people won’t be gaining a bunch of weight, but they may be mad as a cut snake when it comes to their food. 

[00:14:58] So, they may be in a slender body and obsessing about food nonstop, have cravings that are wicked beyond the beyond and running 10 miles so that they can justify the half a cup of non-fat frozen yogurt they’re going to allow themselves after that run. Now they have food addiction, but their BMI is absolutely normal, and they’re fitting into their size 6 jeans. So, there’s actually a shocking number of those people. So, food addiction is slightly correlated with BMI, but not as much as you might think. The weight gain issue has more to do with just what the genetics of your physiology have to say about basal metabolic rate and propensity to put on weight. But addiction is– the alcoholism and the smoking in the family. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:15:43] Yeah. It’s really interesting because I would imagine people that are listening make the assumption that if you’re food addicted, you have to be obese or overweight. And what you’re saying is you can be what’s considered to be a healthy body mass index and have an unhealthy relationship with food of a quite significant one. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:16:00] Yeah. Absolutely. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:16:01] And then, in terms of things that I think about that contribute to our likelihood of developing a food addiction, how much does trauma play a role? Like, whether it’s “big T” Trauma, “little t” trauma. Clinically, I’ve seen a lot of women that develop unhealthy relationships with food as a response to things they have endured as a child or a young adult. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:16:22] Yeah, absolutely. Well, addiction in general has a strong relationship to trauma. And we see this even in rodents. If you take genetically non-addictable rats and you rear them under stressful conditions, whether that’s food insecurity or isolation, some percentage of those baby rats will grow up to be addictable rats just from the childhood trauma. Absolutely, trauma plays a role in addiction and it can happen that healing the trauma can produce recovery. But also, once addiction is wired in, like I said, you’re always going to have to be more vigilant with your drug of choice. It’s just the way it is. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:17:00] And do you find that individuals that have food addiction, is it in your work, you speak a great deal about sugar and flour, and I would 100% agree that when I’m working with patients and clients, and certainly I work with women in perimenopause and menopause, when they talk about the foods that they need to abstain from. Because my prevailing philosophy has always been, if you can’t moderate, you eliminate. And so that’s found to be very helpful for me because there are a lot of people on social media, they’ll say, “Oh, moderation, not deprivation.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s different if you can truly moderate.” Like, I can eat a piece of chocolate and put it away, but don’t give me a gluten-free brownie, don’t give me a piece of cake or a piece of gluten-free pie. It is much harder for me to moderate. 

[00:17:41] So, I just don’t keep those things in my house. It’s like kryptonite. I know you talk about cookie dough as your kryptonite. For me, those baked goods, for whatever reason, maybe it’s the flour. It’s like mainlining cocaine. It goes right into my bloodstream, lights up my brain. I’m like, I want more and more and more. But when you’re working with people, do you find that sugar and flour, one is probably not worse than the other when you’re working with people. But do you find that those are two of the biggest triggers for the individuals that you’re working with? 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:18:08] Yeah, if you eliminate sugar and flour, you’ve eliminated the vast majority. I’m going to just take a wagon, say 95% of the addictive foods, and it’s pretty hard to make something addictive without that. Now, there’s just a little asterisk there, which is there are some processed, deep fried, or certain carbohydrates that we put under the flour category, and those are deep fried potatoes, like French fries. The inside of that white potato is identical molecularly to flour. So, that’s just glucose unmitigated by fiber. So that’s flour. Popcorn is flour. So, potato chips, that’s flour. So, with that asterisk in place, you’ve pretty much captured it. 

[00:18:49] I mean, like I said, peanut butter, bacon. There are some things that are going to trigger people that aren’t sugar and flour, but bacon’s got sugar in it almost pretty much all bacon has sugar in it. So, you got to get rid of that too. Most peanut butter has sugar in it. It becomes less addictive if you’re having pure peanut butter, even still pretty addictive for most people. Yeah. So, sugar and flour mostly capture it. Thinking of ultra-processed foods is another helpful thing, but you just don’t find many ultra-processed foods left to eat [laughs] if you’ve taken out the sugar and flour. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:19:20] Absolutely. And it’s interesting when you’re looking at what these substances actually do in our brains. And I know you touched on the dopamine, the neurotransmitters, but the net impact on making new– neurogenesis, so making your neurons, and I think for a lot of people listening, you think that we are born with all the neurons that we’re going to have in our bodies. And actually, sugar can impact the health of our brain. It can impact the hippocampus. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on when our brain gets hijacked and we struggle to be able to limit, eliminate, stop thinking about, ruminate, having all these feelings around certain types of foods or many types of foods. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:19:58] Yeah, totally. And I love that you talk about what I would call it as a Bright Line for these foods, elimination, right? It’s so important that people realize that this needs to be one of the tools in the toolbox, because for some things and some people, having a little, scratches the itch, and for other substances for other people, having a little makes it itchier. It doesn’t scratch the itch. It doesn’t actually satisfy it. And so, yeah, it’s like, know thyself, right? Just know thyself. It’s so important. What’s going on in the brain is there’s two separate things here. You’re talking about both of them. You’re talking about both the health, neurogenesis, growth side, which is deep in the hippocampus, some other areas too. But really primarily in the hippocampus, you’ve got neurogenesis happening, which is the birth and creation of new neurons in the brain.

[00:20:50] And these go on pretty quickly to join serotonin systems that are really supportive of mood, of memory formation, protective against Alzheimer’s, really critical areas of the brain. And this is where all the things that we think of as not being healthy slow-down that process. Smoking slows it down. Alcohol slows it down. Being entirely sedentary slows it down. Sugar slows it down. Processed foods slow it down. A week could go on, right? And conversely, there’s all these studies showing blueberries speeds it up. Drinking healthy amounts of water speeds it up, good amounts of exercise speeds it up. All the things you think of as healthy, that’s what it’s doing, is it’s increasing neurogenesis in the hippocampus. 

[00:21:35] Now, not too far away in the brain also deep in the brain, you’ve got the mesolimbic reward pathway, which the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens. This is where addiction wires up in the brain. These didn’t really evolve to be addictive structures. They evolved to be motivational structures. They were responsible for giving us the oomph, the drive, the gumption to just get up and do the things we had to do to build a hut, to find a mate, to get enough food to eat on a daily basis. It was so critical that we have the motivation, the drive to stay active doing those things. And so, it’s a search, seek, find, reward-based system where you’re hunting down, finding something that’s good, and then the brain like lights up when you find it. 

[00:22:26] And then it’s the brain part that says, “More, do that again. You need more of that. That was it. That hit the spot.” And it’s a circuit that’s really hijackable. Like, you can just trick it with pornography, with donuts, with a shot of tequila. Super cute, so and so walking in the door, giving you a wink, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’ll do.” And you just need a little more of it. But ultimately, originally, it evolved to just make sure that you had the motivation to seek and find and get the things that you wanted. And it’s very future oriented. It’s never satisfied. Its job is literally to keep you in perpetual motion, getting more. And that’s what these food companies know about you. And they’ve got people in fMRI scanners right now making sure that their latest commercials and snack formulations are lighting up that part of the brain optimally, with what they’re pumping out for you to purchase. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:23:22] That’s scary. The bliss point is what I was left with when I was understanding how food scientists specifically figure out exactly how much sugar you need in an item, as an example, to light the brains up and make people continuously want more and more and more. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:23:37] Yeah. There’s a fascinating fact that soda pop actually exceeds that bliss point by quite a bit. It’s got too much sugar in it, which is why at rest, flat, warm soda pop is nasty. Taste flat, warm soda pop, it’s too sweet. It’s toxically sweet. It exceeds that bliss point. But when the system ingests a bolus of sugar that big, what happens is that the taste buds and the brain wire up to prefer that flavor, that particular flavor. So, in order to get you hooked on their brand, the Diet Pepsi, as opposed to the Diet Coke, or I guess not diet. In this case, we’re talking about actual sugar. So, the Coke, as opposed to Pepsi or Dr. Pepper.

[00:24:23] What they do is they pump in extra sugar, and then they make it carbonated and extra cold, which together blunt the taste of the sugar and sneak it past, get it into the stomach to make you prefer that flavor. Which is why the commercials are always talking about the ice-cold coke. Because they know that you won’t like it if you drink it warm. So, they have to make sure that you will drink it ice-cold so you don’t notice how terribly sweet it is. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:24:49] And it’s interesting, my teenagers had friends over, and I walked out to our refrigerator in the garage, and I realized that someone had brought over soda. Because I don’t have soda in the house. It was a regular coke. And I looked at my kids and I said, “Did you guys want to drink this?” They’re like, “No. So and so brought it over,” and I said, “I think if you were to drink that, you would be surprised at how sweet it was.” Because even if my kids went to a party, they probably would– not that I love Sprite, but they probably would pick something like that or Fresca. But out of curiosity, when we’re talking about high fructose corn syrup versus sugar versus artificial sugars, like aspartame, sucralose, saccharine. In your estimation, are they all as addictable as one another? Do you feel like that there is differentiators. 

[00:25:34] I know high fructose corn syrup is different molecularly than regular sucrose, and it’s different than the artificial sweeteners. But I know, looking at research, that some of the artificial sweeteners have a huge net impact on the gut microbiome as well as glucose tolerance and things like that. But in your research, are they all about the same? Are they all necessarily equally harmful? Or is one worse than the other? 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:25:58] Okay, so quick answer and more nuanced answer. They’re all terrible. Avoid them all like the plague. They’re all poison. They do nothing for you. And pretty much, I would say for every human being, a 0% consumption rate would be ideal. Now, the more nuanced answer, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose. They’re made differently, but really, in terms of addictable impact, they’re the same. One’s a lot sweeter than the other and cheaper, really cheaper is the issue. Per dollar high fructose corn syrup is way, way, way cheaper. So that’s why it’s preferred by the food industry. But your brain isn’t telling the difference there. Artificial sweeteners keep you fat, so don’t be fooled there. They keep you fat by impacting insulin levels, even stevia, and especially downstream in the couple of meals that you eat afterwards, you will end up eating more, and you will end up gaining weight on artificial sweeteners. 

[00:26:58] So, they’re not going to make you thin. What they also do is they break the trust, if you will, between the gut and the brain. Because basically you’re drinking or eating this thing, and the taste buds are screaming down to the digestive system, big bolus of sugar coming up, and then it never arrives and just like the boy who cried wolf, after enough of this, the system goes, I don’t believe you. And the gut and the brain stop communicating with each other, and this breaks your ability to discern how much you need to eat, when’s enough, when is it time to stop? And that’s the last thing that you want or need in this world. 

[00:27:39] You’re right. Your kids still have the ability to regulate, meaning the ability to regulate caloric consumption based on body weight needs. And adults almost all have stopped having that ability. I would say 70% of adults have lost that ability. And a lot of that has to do with the presence of artificial sweeteners in our food supply. But you’re right, there’s a whole bunch of other issues with it too. Dysregulation of the gut microbiome, which leads to disruption in glucose and insulin signaling, leads to excess weight gain, leads to depression, leads to all kinds of things. They’re pretty nasty, and they do things differently than sugar, but I would say, in my opinion, equally bad. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:28:20] Yeah, it’s interesting. I spoke at an event, I believe, last year, and one of the questions that came up from the audience was, what are my thoughts on stevia, monk fruit, erythritol? I mean, it was like every contrived option, a variation. And the panel and I both agreed and said, if you are looking for an alternative, like, I understand intellectually that people are always looking for a healthier option. But ultimately, if you’re sugar addicted and I think many people are. I think the first acknowledgment is that you’ve got a problem and you’re looking for a solution, when, in essence, what you really need to is examine your relationship with those types of foods. Because, as an example, I was in Whole Foods last night trying to find a ketchup that had no sugar in it, and it was hard in Whole Foods. 

[00:29:03] And you just make this assumption, it’s in Whole Foods everything should be healthy. That’s really not the case. And so, I was showing my husband, I was like, the least amount of sugar I could find was 2 g per serving. And how many people use one tablespoon of ketchup when they put ketchup on a meal? Very few. So, I’ve just gotten to the point now where I’ll mash up some avocado and I’ll use that as my ketchup when I’m having a burger. Because to me, I’m definitely attuned to how sensitized my palate has become to sugar, that when I have it, I will notice, especially, as you mentioned, around the holidays, and I have an Italian mother, and she loves to have my kryptonite foods around. And I’ve just gotten to the point where I just politely say, I know that you bought this or I know that you made this for me. Please take this to the church. Please take this to your friends. 

[00:29:49] I was like, “Please don’t bring it here, because I’m either going to donate it or bring it somewhere else, because if I eat one, I eat 10. And it’s just much easier to not keep these things in my house.” And I’m aware enough, even as a healthy person, that some foods I just shouldn’t have and I shouldn’t have in my presence. I think I was watching a podcast that you’re on, and you were talking about your daughters and how you don’t make cookies with them, and you were explaining, like, “This is why I don’t. Those cookies are my kryptonite.” And it’s just much easier for my husband to do this activity with my daughters because to me it’s really challenging to be around this food and be constant– the flour and the sugar and all these things, when I know that it’s a slippery slope for me. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:30:29] Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I still don’t bake cookies with my kids. My mom does, my husband does, their grandpa does. They get plenty of baking opportunities. And actually, two of my three kids love to bake. But, yeah, it’s not my food. I got no business being up to my elbows in cookie dough. And some of that has to do with my story. Your listeners haven’t heard where I come from, but I come from pretty deep depths with this stuff. Like, I’m not virtuous or strong willed or anything of the sort. I really do what I do in my life out of necessity, and I’ve learned my lessons the absolute hardest way I think that’s possible to learn them. And so, I just don’t play with fire. I just don’t. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:31:08] Yeah. And perhaps explaining a little bit about the trajectory of your life, because your story is really incredible and powerful and allows you to speak very authentically from the perspective of someone that’s dealt with addiction, with drug addiction, food addiction, etc., and really speaking to it as someone who’s really come full circle, like you have walked through fire to get where you are and serving, as an example, not only to your community, but to so many of us. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:31:33] Yeah. When I was my kid’s age, I just loved to bake as well. And it was just all, I would say, typical. I was a little overweight. Like, I weigh less now than I did when I was 11. So, I had already started to develop a little bit of a weight problem. And when I found drugs when I was 14, the first drug was psilocybin mushrooms which in 1988, Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no campaign” was all the rage. And it’s so too bad that hard drugs, which I turned to later have the same word as mushrooms drugs. And basically, I did mushrooms. I was like, “Oh, drugs aren’t bad, they’re good. This is amazing.” I had a true spiritual experience. It was incredible. And I just committed myself to doing drugs every chance I could get my hands on them. 

[00:32:19] And the mushrooms turned into acid and pot and alcohol. By the age of 16, I was doing crystal meth, and I got really hooked on crystal meth, and I dropped out of high school. I quit that after a couple of years, but within months found cocaine and then learned how to free base it. And then by the age of 19, I was just on the streets smoking crack and prostituting in loops just out to buy crack back into the crack house to smoke it up. And I had my moment of clarity in a crack house when I was 20 years old, I just had my 20th birthday, and I just knew that if I didn’t get up and get out of there right at that moment, it was all I was ever going to be in this world. 

[00:32:59] And that night, by a fluke, I got taken to a 12-Step meeting for drug and alcohol rehabilitation on a first date with a cute guy that I’d met at a gas station at three in the morning earlier that week. And I got a 24-hour coin and I haven’t had a drink or a drug in almost 30 years. But I got fat really fast, whacked on a lot of weight, and just started binging. Instead of smoking crack, I just went straight to Häagen-Dazs and Taco Bell as a substitute. Cigarettes, I picked up cigarettes. I was a nonsmoking crack smoker, I just need to say. And I picked up cigarettes in early recovery because everyone was smoking cigarettes and it was a social thing to do. 

[00:33:36] So, then it was just cigarettes and food for a while and I gained a lot of weight. And then I marched myself down to a 12-Step food program, of which there are many. But in 1995, there weren’t that many. So, I went down to the major 12-Step food program. That started eight years of yoyoing with my weight and trying to figure out again where the Bright Line was between what to eat and what not to eat. I couldn’t figure it out and the program didn’t really give me clear guidance on that. But in 2003, when I was 28 years old, I put down sugar and flour and I started to weigh and measure my food and I lost all my excess weight. I went from Class 1 obesity to slender in six months, and I’ve been maintaining that weight loss ever since. 

[00:34:16] So, I’m a US size 4 now. I’m 5’ 3.5”. I weigh 118 pounds that fluctuates by 5 pounds, but that’s it. And I’ve been at that weight now for 20 years. So that puts me in the fraction of 1% of weight loss maintainers. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to go from obese to slender and keep it off for decades. And so, in the meantime, I went back to community college. I did well there. I transferred to UC Berkeley, got my degree in cognitive science and got straight As and spoke at the graduation and got into all the grad schools I applied to and ended up with a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. And now I’m a Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. 

[00:34:56] And for about eight years, I taught a college course on the psychology of eating. And now I just spend my time on the Internet teaching people about the neuroscience of food addiction and what the elements of sustainable weight loss actually look like, from a neuroscientific perspective.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:35:12] Your story is so incredibly just impactful because you’ve walked the walk, you’ve gone through every stage of addiction, recovery, and now in a position where you can help inspire others. So, let’s talk about how we break the cycle of addiction. Because I think this is important for people to understand that there is a way out. And I think one of the things I’ve really, from reading your work, is how important structure is, especially as you’re trying to make your way navigating away from addiction to food or any other substance. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:35:44] Yeah. Structured eating is so critical, and our society has gotten completely away from it. Most people wake up with no idea of what they’re going to eat that day. They’re eating out of vending machines or quick marts or drive-thrus, or they’re just deciding what’s for dinner in the moment. And of course, then they’re ordering takeout, or– It’s not the way it used to be and it’s not the way it needs to be to be successful. And the reason is that the part of the brain that makes good decisions in the moment with respect to food, the part of the brain that resists temptations and helps us to make decisions that are in alignment with our goals, gets fatigued very easily in an almost nonstop state of fatigue in modern life.

[00:36:25] It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex and it gets fatigued by making decisions, resisting temptations, regulating emotions, regulating our task performance. So, 15 minutes, checking email and it’s already shot. And then you expect yourself at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, after sitting in traffic with the kids clamoring around you to make a good decision about what to eat for dinner, is not going to happen. So, structuring your eating by planning it out the night before, writing it down, having a specific kind of food plan that’s automatizable. I think I coined this term. But automatizability is really critical. And most food plans are not. Counting calories is not automatizable, counting macros is not automatizable, like trying to be keto is not automatizable. These things are not automatizable. 

[00:37:11] What’s automatizable is a structure of eating a certain number of meals a day with a certain category of food in a certain quantity. So, for example, dinner is 4 ounces of protein, 6 ounces of cooked vegetable, 6 ounces of raw vegetable, a tablespoon of oil that’s automatizable. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are automatizable. Eating more times a day is not, and I can prove it to you. If you brush your teeth twice a day, like 95% of people do, without a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind you, without needing to be in the mood or motivated, you just brush your teeth before you collapse in bed. That’s automaticity. It just happens automatically. Whether you’re traveling, whether you’re sick, whether you feel like it, it happens right, the part of the brain that executes that is the basal ganglia. 

[00:37:53] And if you just imagine what would happen if at your next dentist appointment, your dentist said you’ve been doing great with your brushing and flossing, I now need you to do it six times a day. According to the latest research, six times a day is really what’s necessary. Just picture six months later how you would be reporting to your dentist that you had done with brushing and flossing six times a day. And I’ll tell you right now, you would not be successful at it. And the reason is that wiring things into a morning routine and an evening routine is automatizable. There is still a midday pause to eat something that makes lunch automatizable. Any other eating is not automatizable. 

[00:38:34] There’s no location-based, time-based, script-based cues as the day is unfolding to make sure it happens in the right way at the right time. So, I teach people to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I teach people to weigh and measure their food, not because they’re eating tiny portions, so that they will eat enough, they will not eat enough vegetables, they will not eat enough to get from lunch to dinner without me telling them they’ve got to weigh and measure their food. And it’s structured and it produces shockingly brilliant results, like as good as Ozempic and Wegovy, but without drugs. And it produces sustainable results and people feel free. Their food cravings go away, their hunger goes away, and they lose a tremendous amount of weight. And their peace and serenity with food goes up, it goes up, not down. It goes up. They stop craving the stuff that they’re not eating. So that’s what I teach people to do. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:39:23] I think that there’s so many good messages here, and I love the new word that I will credit for when I utilize it, but I think helping people understand that they can have a healthy relationship with food that doesn’t involve snacks and mini meals, because I would be the first person to say, as a clinician, that’s what we taught our patients, that they needed to have snacks and mini meals. They were eating every two to three hours, which contributed to a degree of blood sugar dysregulation. They were never eating enough food to keep their blood sugar regulated. And the addition of making sure they’re consuming enough fibrous vegetables, that they’re having some healthy fats, that they’re focused on protein. 

[00:39:58] I think these are all very important because I think many people were never taught how to eat because certainly the clinicians didn’t know how to instruct our patients on how to eat. I think we have essentially taken a lot of our nutrition and been convinced by the processed food industry that they have the solutions to our problems. But in essence, they’re perpetuating a problem because we’re never learning how to be self-sustaining. And I love that you were talking about planning to succeed. In my house, I have two teenage boys. If we don’t meal prep, we don’t eat. And so, over the weekends and twice a week, we sit down and we make a bunch of– my kids eat a lot of meat, but it’s like, a lot of meat prep. 

[00:40:36] The kids eat a lot of rice, they eat a lot of vegetables, but making sure everything is prepped so that everyone can eat. And for me, I’ve gotten so accustomed, we eat almost exclusively at home and we occasionally eat out, but at least here we can control what’s in our food. And I think that’s significant. Now, I know there are some other components of Bright Line eating. It’s not just the structure in terms of three meals, weighing your food. There’s also these tenets around sugar and flour that I think are important. And especially for individuals that suspect that they have a disordered relationship with food. If they feel like they feel food addicted or they have no power over food, eliminating sugar and flour gets rid of most processed foods.

[00:41:16] I’m curious what your thoughts are, because when I mentioned to my community that we were connecting, they wanted me to ask, and I probably already know the answer, what are your thoughts about when you travel? Like, let’s say you’re on an airplane and the airplane’s serving packaged crap, because that’s what most airplanes serve these days. In terms of, are there portable things that you will bring with you? Do you bring beef jerky or a cut up piece of fruit, or do you bring vegetables? What are your thoughts on shakes and protein bars? I can almost guarantee I know the answer to this question, but I was asked several times, and so I decided that I would make sure that this question was asked of you, how do you navigate travel? 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:41:53] So, I had the joy, the privilege of taking my daughter Maya recently to the Super Bowl. And we flew into Vegas and we flew out. We’re huge Niners fans. And in my carry-on suitcase, carry on, on the plane, I brought seven meals. I did eat one meal in a steakhouse on the Vegas trip on Saturday night with Maya. But Saturday morning, breakfast and lunch, Sunday breakfast, lunch and dinner for the Super Bowl day, and we flew home on a red eye. And I had Monday breakfast and lunch. And those meals were in plastic snap top, leak proof containers. There was protein and cooked vegetable with a tablespoon of olive oil drizzled on in each of those containers. And then a Ziploc baggie with cut up jicama, cut up carrots, cut up radishes, cut up celery, things that would last. No refrigeration. Everything lasted. I flew there, I flew back. I had all seven meals.

[00:42:49] Breakfast was nuts and a shaker bottle. Yes, shaker bottle of– I use complement protein powder, which is no sweetener in it whatsoever. Not artificial sweetener, no monk fruit, no nothing. It’s just made out of, I think, like pea protein, pumpkin seed, chia seed, flaxseed. It’s all plant based and it’s just seeds and nuts and pea protein. So, that’s okay if it’s got no sweetener in it, but you won’t find it in the grocery store and you won’t find it in most places. A protein powder with no sweeteners. And there’s no bar that has no sweeteners in it. So, the bars are a no. And you don’t need them, right. Because you can pack a cheese stick, you can pack a hard-boiled egg. 

[00:43:32] I don’t mean a, you can pack a couple of cheese sticks, a couple of hard-boiled eggs. You can pack a baggie of nuts. You can pack– I use Pumfu, which is this amazing stuff these days, that it’s made out of pumpkin seeds. But it’s like tofu, 17 g of protein in a little lock of it, tastes good hot or cold. It’s amazing. So, pack your food. Pack your food and travel with vegetables and fruits. Oh, so breakfast was nuts, a protein powder shake, oatmeal, which I put in a little baggie. And then I used the kettle or the coffee maker in the hotel room to heat it up. And some ground flaxseeds and chia seeds that I brought with me and an apple that I brought with me, that’s breakfast, yeah.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:44:13] That sounds great and sustainable. And how fun that you’re able to go to the Super Bowl with your daughter. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:44:18] We had a blast. We had a blast. And she doesn’t eat the way I eat. So, I went to In-N-Out Burger with her, she ate, that’s a treat. We don’t eat fast food at home, but when we go to the West Coast, she likes In-N-Out Burger. We go there. So, parenting with food is the hardest. And toeing that line between I’m with you, we try to eat most of our food at home. I want to circle back to this topic because I have three kids and just huge love and compassion to all the parents out there. It’s impossible. I mean, unless you’re going to live in a commune somewhere where there’s nothing but brown rice and kale.

[00:44:50] Like, your kids are going to get exposed to birthday cake, to pizzas at every birthday party, and they’re going to know that that food is delicious. They’re not dumb. Their brains are just like yours. They know that it’s amazing and it’s better than the food that they get at home according to their taste buds. And you’re going to be in a war. With our food culture, it’s just not comfortable for anybody. But what I do is I eat incredibly well. I don’t pressure my kids about food, but I model good eating, and we cook food at home together, and it’s the best you can do. I don’t force Bright Line Eating on my kids. They don’t need Bright Line Eating right now. And if they want to choose it later as adults, then great. But so far, all three of my kids can regulate their food, and I don’t sweat it. So, I’m not the food police with my kids, but I do model good eating. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:45:40] I think this is an important distinction to make. I’m known in this metabolic health space, intermittent fasting. And people will ask, “Do your kids fast?” I said, “Heck no.” I have two athletic teenage boys who eat two dinners, two breakfasts, two lunches. They bring their food to school. They like to do that. And occasionally they do eat out. Like, my 18-year-old is now dating. He has a girlfriend, and he knows that if he eats, for example, Chick-fil-A and I always tell him, “Please don’t tell me when you do.” Just breaks my heart. [Susan laughs] It upsets his stomach. He’s like, “It tastes good going down. And then I know what it’s going to do to my digestion, and I just have to suffer through it.” 

[00:46:14] And he said, “So, I try to navigate making better choices,” but he’s starting to put those pieces together and building [unintelligible 00:46:22]. Like, my kids love ice cream. We buy organic ice cream for them. That’s what they love. That’s what they enjoy as a treat. And in our house, we try to make sure that we navigate focusing on the protein and the vegetables and fruits. And my kids eat quite a bit of carbohydrates because they’re both very athletic, and that works for them. And I’m in a different stage of life, so I have to be a little more conscientious about what types of carbs I eat. But I think to round out the conversation, I know we didn’t touch on hedonistic hunger and hunger a little bit earlier, but in your latest book, you talk about hunger is not an emergency. 

[00:46:53] And so I think for a lot of people that are new to navigating a sugar free or a flour-free lifestyle, it’s getting reacquainted with some of those intrinsic hunger cues within their body. It even happens in the fasting community. Sometimes, they can’t differentiate true intrinsic hunger versus boredom versus, I just kind of sort of have a craving. So, let’s run out the conversation talking about why hunger is not an emergency and helping people get a little bit more reacquainted with the true intrinsic messages that our bodies are trying to communicate to us. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:47:29] Yeah, totally great, great topic. Hunger is such an incredible topic. Well, the phrase hunger is not an emergency really comes from, I teach people to eat three meals a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And for most people, it’s really a stretch to not eat anything between meals. And eating between meals is not healthy. It’s like opening up a washing machine when it’s going and throwing more dirty clothes in, in the middle of a cycle. Your digestive system does not want you to do that. It wants you to keep the lid shut till the whole job is done. And when we feel like we’re hungry between meals, and it may be that our stomach is growling, it may be that we just feel like we want to eat. The reality is, we have to remember, nobody ever starves to death between lunch and dinner. Nobody ever starves to death between meals.

[00:48:15] And our bodies evolved to be able to fast for long periods of time. Not eating for long periods of time is not an emergency to our brain or our body. Like, it knows how to do it. And so, just as an example, I just took Maya to the Super Bowl and there was no food or drink allowed in the stadium. I knew they were going to have nothing in that stadium that I could eat. I had my lunch and my dinner packed. But the stadium opened at 11:30 and Maya and I wanted to be in there the minute it opened. So, I ate my lunch at 11:00 AM pacific time, the game started at 03:30, the game ended at 08:00, I wasn’t back at the car until 09:00, and I ate dinner in the car at 9 o’clock which means I ate lunch at 11:00 and dinner at 09:00. Now, do I usually allow 10 hours to go between lunch and dinner? I do not. I keep it between four and six hours. This was an unusual circumstance. And did I have a part of me that felt a little panicked in advance at the thought of not eating all that time? I did. I had a part of me that went, “Oh, my God, I like to eat dinner at 04:00 or 05:00 PM. I can’t eat until after the game is over. What am I going to do?” And I just took a breath and I said to myself, Susan, hunger is not an emergency. What you’re going to do is you’re going to wait and eat your dinner when the game is over. 

[00:49:27] And the truth is, it was the last thing on my mind. My team lost in overtime. I was not thinking about food. I was crushed and gutted, and I was living my life instead of focusing on the food. So, I just also need to say there’s a different kind of hunger people are dealing with when we talk about hunger. There’s something I call insatiable hunger. And it’s not the hunger born of not having eaten in a long time and needing fuel to live your life. It’s the hunger born of a brain that’s hijacked by leptin resistance. So, leptin resistance is when the brain can’t see the hormone that tells it it’s full. And you never ever get satiated. You never feel satisfied. You never feel like you’re done eating and not everybody experiences this.

[00:50:13] I would say in our society, it’s maybe a third of people who have this. They finish a dinner. They don’t feel full. As a matter of fact, they still feel quite hungry. They’re eating a bag of chips now. The bag of chips is gone. They’re eating ice cream. They’re in front of Netflix, they’re in front of the TV. They keep eating. If they ask their stomach, their stomach does feel stretched out, they do not feel hungry in the traditional sense. They know they’re stuffed, but the elbow still wants to bend, the mouth still wants to chew. The brain needs more food, and that’s leptin resistance. 

[00:50:42] And what we do in Bright Line Eating is we get rid of that within the first few weeks by bringing insulin, triglycerides, and inflammation coming way down really fast, which allows leptin to get back on board. And that’s the hormone that tells the brain, “You’re full, you’ve had enough to eat, you’re satiated, you’re done eating.” So, if people are experiencing hunger all the time for no reason, when it’s not physiological, they might have leptin resistance on board. And the only way to do that is to heal their blood from the high triglycerides, high insulin, and high inflammation that are going on. And the way to do that, shocker, [laughs] all roads lead to Rome, right? is to get rid of sugar and flour. You got to get rid of sugar and flour. That’s what heals the blood. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:51:26] Well, it’s such an important message, and I would agree with you that these hormonal imbalances not only drive behavior, but they also contribute to a lot of metabolic health issues. Please let my listeners know how to connect with you on social media, how to get access to your amazing books, and how to participate in your programs if they’re interested.

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:51:45] Yeah, sure. I would just send people to brightlineeating.com. So that’s brightlineeating.com, and we’ve got the Bright Line Eating boot camp that’s available. It’s a 10-week program, and people lose twice as much weight in those first couple of months as people would on Ozempic or Wegovy without any drugs. And in the first two years of Bright Line Eating, people lose as much as a prescription for Wegovy without any drugs, and they keep it off. We’re publishing six-year data as we speak now. It’s the most successful weight loss program on planet Earth by the published numbers, so, yeah.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:52:22] Congratulations on that and making a big impact, because sustainability is really where it’s at. 

Susan Peirce Thompson: [00:52:28] Yeah, totally. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:52:31] If you love this podcast episode, please leave a rating and review, subscribe and tell a friend.