I recently remembered something Mary Tyler Moore once said, “Diets are for those who are thick and tired of it.” And I think it’s true. People who are overweight are freaking tired of the social stigma they face. They are tired of having their willpower questioned, of being told that if they just “ate a little less” their problems would be solved.
Unfortunately, for some of us, our eating habits may be more difficult to improve due to the way our brain works.
The other day I happened to stumble upon a HuffPost article which featured Dr. Howard Rankin and he says, “What drives our behavior is not logic but brain biochemistry, habits and addiction, states of consciousness and what we see people around us doing.”
Consider for a moment how much advertising affects what we eat. The National Center for Biotechnology found that “Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences.”
Another part of the problem is our own emotional state. The HuffPost article continues, “Dr. Rankin also has a healthy respect for people’s extraordinary ability to rationalize almost any behavior. We can persuade ourselves to do almost anything we want to do — especially when the behaviors are ones that our brains are used to doing. But trying to persuade ourselves to do things that we don’t really want to do — behaviors our brain is not used to — is not easy. We are very adept at making wonderful (and plausible) excuses as to why we can’t do what we don’t want to do.”
Some who struggle with emotional eating have gotten help from a psychologist. The American Psychological Association lists some common, unhealthy beliefs that many patients share: “having to clean off their plate; needing dessert after meals, and feeling like a failure when weight loss stalls. Some typical behaviors include: eating whatever they want after exercise; using food to cope with feelings of boredom or stress; and continuing to eat when they are no longer hungry.”
And then, to compound the problem, we have food addictions. It’s real, folks. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “In animal studies, sugar has been found to produce more symptoms than is required to be considered an addictive substance. Animal data has shown significant overlap between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, cross-sensitization, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward and opioid effects.”
So now we create a vicious cycle. We eat sugar, we get addicted to sugar, we crave sugar, we eat sugar. As if your brain doesn’t have enough to do trying to resist unhealthy food advertising and control the urge to eat out of stress or boredom, now it has to battle addiction, too???
No wonder weight loss is so challenging. Unknowingly, we can create habits that undermine our hard work. How do we break the cycle?
The American Psychological Association says, “Understand the things you associate with food.” This has to do with conditional reasoning. For example, I can’t stand eating cough drops. When I was little, I ate them whenever I felt nauseous. Now, when I eat them, I feel nauseous even if I’m not sick. Weird stuff. The point is, if you associate eating with a certain activity, you may be so used to this habit that you eat just because you’re doing that activity, and you may not actually be hungry.
Don’t eat just because you’re bored. Read a book, take a walk, or engage in some other activity that takes your mind off food. Over time, you’ll be able to distinguish when you’re legitimately hungry and when you’re just bored hungry.
Try to reduce your sugar intake. As mentioned above, sugar is one of the most addictive foods you can eat. If you’re craving something sweet, opt for a healthier snack, like a handful of berries or an apple.
Although we face constant psychological and environmental factors that can influence our eating habits, we have the power to break those habits and to form better ones.