It’s a conundrum. You want an amazing body, bundles of energy, beautiful skin and hair. You want to wake up feeling alive and uplifted every morning. But you also want to have your cake (and eat it all).
If you are reading this, chances are you have probably experienced the following inner monologue on multiple occasions that goes like this; ‘I feel so fat, I wish I hadn’t ate that. I’m sick of this, from now on I am going to eat healthy food and cut out the crap.’ – You make this decision with great conviction and you feel really good about your new found healthy attitude. So how come you continually succumb to the allure of that packet of crisps or bar of chocolate just a day or two later?
The hot-cold empathy gap
In psychology there is something known as the hot-cold empathy gap. When we initially make the decision we are in a psychologically cold place. Having recently ate the food we wish we hadn’t we feel guilty and have no desire for the food. The empathy gap comes about once the feelings of guilt and disgust have dissipated and you are once again in a tempting (psychologically hot) situation.
The first few hours after making the decision to be healthier are pretty easy. Simply thinking about being healthy makes us feel good. Once we have stopped feeling bad about ourselves and we have begun eating a healthier diet we will soon find ourselves in a tempting situation. Perhaps you’re hungry at work and the nearest food is the crisps and chocolate in the vending machine or your spouse suggests ordering food from a greasy pizza place.
This is a psychologically ‘hot’ decision, do we go for a healthier option or give in to temptation and order the biggest pizza on the menu with all the sides.
Unfortunately the choice for most people is often the latter. Nothing about us has actually changed from the previous time we gorged ourselves into a food coma and even though you can logically reason why you should choose a healthy meal, our brains are wired in such a way that we can also justify the junk.
The many voices in your head
Different parts of our brain evolved at different times. How these parts of the brain interact will ultimately decide your behaviour and choices.
In the Triune model of the brain, Paul D. MacLean explains different parts of the brain are specialised to specific tasks such as eating, decision making and logic. The limbic system is the part of our brain that holds the emotional impulses of our animal insticts. It wants you to eat whenever there is food available and it is stuck in the past. It doesn’t know there is an abundance of food for everyone. It is also very powerful and aggressive. Dr Steve Peters describes this part of you as a chimp inside your head that means well but can’t control his or her emotions.
The Neo-Cortex is the part of our brain that allows our logic. It allows us to hold models of the world so we can predict the outcome of our actions without having to carry them out. While you might think this allows us to always make the best decision, it’s not quite that simple. We have an amazing ability to rationalize even the most irrational decisions. This is one of the reasons brain damage patients can go on acting as if nothing has changed.
These two parts of the brain recieve automated information from cues in different parts of our brain (the ‘reptilian’ part of our brain, completing our triune brain) and stimuli from the environment and must work together to decide the best action based on what they know.
Let’s use the case of the wanting to gorge on junk food to see how they work together. Because of modern technologies, a lot of the food we eat is highly addictive. We are programmed to enjoy high fat, high sugar foods, so scientists have found a way to make food far higher in fat and sugar than anything that would be found in nature. When debating whether or not to eat the food the decision will ultimately be made as a result of the communications in your brain. Heres how it goes:
Reptilian brain is impulsive and just wants to enure survival, it says,- ‘Eat anything that restores our blood sugar and keeps us alive. The last time we ate that we stayed alive so eat that.’
Chimp brain is emotional and wants maximum satisfaction – ‘That food is really nice, eat as much of it as you can while it is there, it might not be there later.’
Human brain first tries logic, as it has our future selves in mind – ‘There are probably a lot of far better choices available if I think about it. Eating this food will ultimately make me fat and could harm us.’
Chimp Brain uses implicit memory from previous similar situations – ‘But the reptilian brain said it was fine last time, it will probably be okay again.’
Human Brain uses reasoning to giving in to temptation and assumes our future self will be better prepared to deal with it – ‘I’m going for a run tomorrow so I’ll burn it off. I’ll have it this time and next time I’ll choose the healthy option.’
So we eat these foods and the chimp inside our heads says ‘Eat more, eat more’, and before we even have time to think about the consequences we are on our second and third helping. Our human brain has been influenced by the more powerful chimp and has used it’s ability to make sense of any world view to justify an illogical decision. Let’s be clear here; the decision to eat junk food is as illogical as the decision to smoke a cigarette. In the third world there is an abundance of healthy, natural food available for all of us. This food nourishes our cells and keeps our emotions in check better than any junk food ever could.
In an ideal world our human brain would ignore our chimp in these situations and we really would be able to eat healthy food all of the time and never be tempted. The good news is that there is a way to break out of this cycle. Understanding why we do it is a good place to start and just by reading this article you are better placed to deal with similar situations from now on.
If you’d like to me to write part 2 of this post; How to stop eating the food that makes you fat please like, share, comment and retweet this post. If this post reaches 50 Likes, shares, comments and retweets I’ll write part 2. Follow me to find out more @GGreenFitness.