“Why we eat is more important than what we eat” – Unkown
Healthy eating. It’s something everyone knows they should do, but few of us do as consistently as we would like. I for one don’t have a perfect diet (honestly I eat for survival haha). Now, the benefits of good nutrition are fairly obvious to most of us. You have more energy, your health improves, and your productivity blossoms. Healthy eating also plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy weight, which means a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart problems, high blood pressure, and a host of other health ailments. (Genetics also plays a significant role. I’m not some crazy person who thinks genes don’t matter.) I strongly believe that direction is more important than intention, which makes it hard to make better health choices.
So if there are so many good reasons for healthy eating, why is it so difficult to actually do? To answer that question, we should start by learning why we crave junk food. Dr Steven Witherly published a report titled Why Humans Like Junk Food which you can read here.
According to Witherly, when you eat tasty food, there are two factors that make the experience pleasurable.
First, there is the sensation of eating the food. This includes what it tastes like (salty, sweet, etc.), what it smells like, and how it feels in your mouth. This last quality — known as “orosensation” — can be particularly important. Food companies will spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip. Food scientists will test for the perfect amount of fizzle in a soft drink. These elements all combine to create the sensation that your brain associates with a particular food or drink.
The second factor is the actual macronutrient makeup of the food — the blend of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains. In the case of junk food, food manufacturers are looking for a perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that excites your brain and gets you coming back for more. Spooky right? I know.
There is a range of factors that scientists and food manufacturers use to make food more addictive.
Dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast refers to a combination of different sensations in the same food. In the words of Witherly, foods with dynamic contrast have “an edible shell that goes crunch followed by something soft or creamy and full of taste-active compounds. This rule applies to a variety of our favorite food structures — the caramelized top of a creme brulee, a slice of pizza, or an Oreo cookie — the brain finds crunching through something like this very novel and thrilling.”
Salivary response. Salivation is part of the experience of eating food, and the more a food causes you to salivate, the more it will swim throughout your mouth and cover your taste buds. For example, emulsified foods like butter, chocolate, salad dressing, ice cream, and mayonnaise promote a salivary response that helps to lather your taste buds with goodness. This is one reason why many people enjoy foods that have sauces or glazes on them. The result is that foods that promote salivation do a happy little tap dance on your brain and taste better than ones that don’t.
Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories.
Sensory-specific response. Your brain likes variety. When it comes to food, if you experience the same taste over and over again, then you start to get less pleasure from it. In other words, the sensitivity of that specific sensor will decrease over time. This can happen in just minutes.
Junk foods, however, are designed to avoid this sensory specific response. They provide enough taste to be interesting (your brain doesn’t get tired of eating them), but it’s not so stimulating that your sensory response is dulled. This is why you can swallow an entire bag of potato chips and still be ready to eat another. To your brain, the crunch and sensation of eating Doritos is novel and interesting every time.
Memories of past eating experiences. This is where the psychobiology of junk food really works against you. When you eat something tasty (say, a bag of potato chips), your brain registers that feeling. The next time you see that food, smell that food, or even read about that food, your brain starts to trigger the memories and responses that came when you ate it. These memories can actually cause physical responses like salivation and create the “mouth-watering” craving that you get when thinking about your favorite foods.
These factors all combine to make processed food tasty and desirable to our human brains. When you combine the science behind these foods with the incredible prevalence of food (cheap fast food everywhere), eating healthy becomes very hard to do.
How to Make Healthy Eating Easier
Most people say that building better habits or changing your actions is all about willpower or motivation. But the more I learn, the more I believe that the number one driver of behaviour change is your environment.
Your environment has an incredible ability to shape your behaviour. Nowhere is this more true than with food. What we eat on a daily basis is often a result of what we are presented. Anne Thorndike and her team utilised a concept known as “choice architecture.” Choice architecture is just a fancy phrase for changing the way the food and drinks are displayed, but, as it turns out, it makes a big difference. An example is like putting all your snacks on a top shelf and your healthier options on the eye level shelf. This means when you open your pantry you see the healthier options first.
Choice architecture is even more important when you’re already stressed, tired, or distracted. If you’re already worn-down, you’re probably not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab or do whatever is easiest.
That means that if you take just a little bit of time today to organise your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, then that adjustment in choice architecture can guide you toward better choices even when your willpower is fading.
Here are other tips to help you eat healthier:
- Use smaller plates
- Drink from tall slender glasses than short fat ones
- Wrap unhealthy food in tin foil and healthy food in plastic wrap so you can see it
- Keep healthy foods in larger containers and unhealthy food in smaller containers
- Eat more greens and eat a variety of foods so your mind doesn’t get bored
- Whenever you eat an unhealthy meal, follow it with a healthy one(never miss a healthy meal twice)
- Address the root problem of unhealthy eating such as stress
- Avoid temptation. Tell yourself “I don’t eat this rather than “I can’t eat this”
Hope this post helps you make the right choices with regards to the food you eat. And remember, top performers make mistakes like everyone else, but they get back on track faster than most people. That’s what you need to try to do with your diet. Don’t worry about having fun and trying to enjoy life, but also guide yourself back toward a healthy diet as quickly as possible.