“When we free ourselves from the false promise of reward, we often find the thing we were seeking happiness from was the main source of our misery.” – The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Food and Your Feelings
Many times we don’t consider why we are actually eating. Meals become habits and can often have more to do with cultural milieu than sustenance. Modern biology and the science of nutrition indicate that most of our favorite foods aren’t exactly good for us. This is especially true in developed countries where there is an abundance of food. Much of the diet of modern day humans consists of novelty foods eaten for pleasure.
It’s much easier to buy fast food or processed foods that are cheap and taste great yet lack nutritional value. What most people don’t realize or care to acknowledge is that our diets have a very significant impact on the way our pleasure systems work. The way we experience pleasure has a blanket effect on our lives, affecting everything from our moods to our habits and tastes.
Is it Food or Fun?
A lot of the time eating is an emotional event. At special events, parties or even standard lunch breaks most of us expect to have a pleasurable meal. Often people don’t take into account what effect this will have on the structure of our brains. It’s obvious that alcoholics or drug addicts indulge too much, this is not only harmful to the body’s vital systems, it creates a feedback loop with how they experience and understand pleasure.
Neuroscience has shown that biological mechanisms of pleasure are dominated by two chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. A drug addict’s brain will stop producing the same levels of serotonin and dopamine because their body expects to get it from the drug. As tolerance builds the pleasure derived from the drug lessens over time.
When we eat food we get a rush of those same two chemicals. True it may not be quite as much of a pleasurable experience as say doing cocaine or the feeling you get from winning the lottery, but it still has the same effect on our brain. Without getting your “fix” of morning coffee and donuts every morning, you might just find yourself feeling irritable, cranky and unable to focus, like there is something missing.
The Fugazi of Food Culture
You are willingly putting yourself into a cycle when you decide to favor pleasure over the actual food content. It’s kind of like when you have poor sleep hygiene, your body will adjust to the behavior. Sleeping too much can cause you to be tired all the time. This goes the opposite way as well, exercising to exhaustion can raise overall energy levels. This is what’s known as the hedonic treadmill. Your brain will adjust to what it expects.
While it’s much easier to fall prey to marketing gimmicks (I still wonder why people think it is okay to push the 3 meals a day thing) and misinformation, it’s worth it to consider the benefits of a healthy diet. Even the official US food pyramid was rampant with misinformation and still is, overprescribing dairy, meat and cheese mostly do shady deals between government officials and the dairy farmers associations.
I am as critical of conspiracies of the next person but recommendations from the USDA on diet is a serious Fugazi. The history of the food pyramid is a sordid tale. Nationally recommended dietary guidelines have been getting better in recent years but they wreak of corruption and greed. It’s not necessarily that companies and agencies want people to be unhealthy, they just want to increase profit margins. This doesn’t always lead to the most responsible decisions. So naturally if consumers are buying bad food, food companies won’t hesitate to produce more bad food.
Great Taste at a Price
Food scientists and chefs of all abilities are able to do amazing things with flavor. You can often find a balance between good taste and nutritional value, but let’s be honest, some of the most tasty things on the planet are down-right bad for your health. Bacon, fried chicken, deep fried Twinkies, ribs, sugary drinks, all the different interpretations hydrogenated corn syrup are all tasty treats that can cause an imbalance in your blood glucose level, raise cholesterol levels and dry out your arteries. The fact that the worst foods general have the best flavor is almost like a cruel joke played by Mother Nature.
The thing is, the human body evolves at a much slower rate than culture does. Not too long ago (a few hundred years) it was beneficial for us humans to crave salty, sweet and fatty snacks at all times, because these things were few and far between. Nowadays these cravings can lead to over indulgence since it’s so convenient get these sultry snacks.
Breaking the Cycle
Consider how different it is to live untethered by desire for foods that aren’t healthy for us. An unhealthy diet is a tradeoff between short term pleasure in exchange for long term health problems and mood dysregulation.
I found that when I keep a balanced diet that mainly consists of whole foods and smaller portions I feel dramatically different. It’s like stepping out of a cycle of low grade drug abuse, which is a biologically similar process. Sure you can have a full, happy life and still have a sub-par diet, but you aren’t exactly doing yourself or any favors.
Feeling the Difference
It’s about much more that physical health when it comes to eating right, it’s about the structure of your brain and how you feel. When I eat clean this habit bleeds over into every aspect of my life. I feel more self-control, my body is healthier and I have more energy, I can grasp difficult concepts easier because I am less distracted, and I am more apt to find other ways to get those happy chemicals my brain loves.
Things like exercise, social interaction or completing projects. Overall, freeing myself from the more popular manic depressive meal cycle tends to lead me to a more fulfilling life. Try it out yourself and feel the difference! Even if it doesn’t cause a permanent change in your habits it’s a very insightful experiment.
About the Author:
Justin Arndt is an avid health, nutrition, and fitness enthusiast. He is a husband, father of two, and a full-time college student. He is the author of the upcoming book, Lose Weight Fast, and the owner and operator of the men’s health website, Elite Test 360.