What is about chocolate, pizza and sweets that make it so hard to stop at “just one”?
You know these foods aren’t good for you in excess, so why do you indulge?
Is it the forbidden fruit mentality? You want what you can’t have?
For starters, your brain loves junk food.
Junk foods are energy dense (i.e. high in calories). Good news if you’re a hunter-gatherer and nutrients are scarce, but bad news in today’s society of endless food at your fingertips.
But what’s happening inside your brain that drive this response?
Stephan Guyenet referenced several studies in an article on Examine.com, which show your mouth and small intestine detect the base materials in sugar, fat, and protein and send a signal to the brain that releases dopamine.
And the more concentrated the nutrients (think junk food) the greater the surge in dopamine.
Essentially, your brain is doing its job by encouraging you to pursue calorie dense foods that would help your distant ancestors stay alive or survive periods of famine. But your brain chemistry simply wasn’t built for the world you live in today.
You need simply take a passing glance at that timely pizza promotion in your mailbox and crave it because the sensory cues are so innate. Then, with a few clicks on your smartphone, that cheesy delight arrives at your doorstep.
How can you avoid these temptations? Plan ahead. Prepare wholesome meals to bring to work with you so you aren’t starving and accidently on purpose reach for that donut in the lunchroom. Download this handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” to set yourself up with a nutrition plan for success. I.E. Opt for a filling quinoa salad with a variety of nutrients over a Unicorn Frap from Starbucks.
Further still, some junk foods combine calories with drug-like effects.
Guyenet writes about chocolate’s mix of calories and a drug called theobromine. Much like its cousin caffeine, theobromine is a mild stimulant. This drug accentuates fat and sugar’s natural ability to spike dopamine signaling, which in many people results in powerful cravings and addictive-like behaviour.
Do you remember the first time you drank coffee or beer? You likely didn’t love the taste.
But coffee has caffeine and beer has alcohol, two drugs that your brain gets a reward from.
So, in turn, your sensory cues tell you to pay $6 for that Frappuccino and elbow your way through a crowd to get to the bar.
Our society also associates eating with pleasure at every turn.
At the movies, you’re expected to get a big popcorn and coke.
You can’t watch that ball game without a big bratwurst.
Poker with the guys? Round of drinks and wings for all.
Those are powerful social cues to overcome. But it’ll take replacing old habits with new, healthy ones to buck those trends.
Bring a protein bar in your pocket to the theatre.
Eat a filling, healthy dinner before you head to the game.
Set some ground rules for that poker night (like a drink limit).
And, yes, you may have to overcome peer pressure and stick to your guns.
So is it futile to try to attempt another diet?
How to re-program your brain:
- Eat more whole, fresh, minimally processed foods with a balance of macronutrients, protein, carbs and fats so you aren’t “shortchanging” your brain from much-needed nutrients (i.e. limit cravings)
- Eat slowly and mindfully. No matter what you eat, slowing down will help your digestive system do its job and also help your brain get the signal from your gut that it’s full
- Keep temptations out of sight. Easier said than done, but work to control your home environment. Don’t buy Costco-sized ice cream or sweets – only indulge in controlled amounts. I.E. Opt for a kid sized McFlurry on the way home instead of buying a two-gallon pail of ice cream at the store. If tempting, unhealthy foods aren’t within arm’s reach, not only will they be harder to eat, but you’ll be less likely to crave them.
- Get this handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” cheat sheet to set yourself up with a nutrition plan
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