It’s everywhere……. confusing and often contradictory information about what we should eat and what we shouldn’t. Everyday on social media, the news, magazine headlines….. Gluten or no gluten? Vegetarian or meat? Vegan? Sugar or no sugar? Carbs, ketogenic??? There will always be an argument for and against nearly every diet related topic. Despite all this, we kind of know the basics: fruit, vegetables and whole foods are good, processed food is bad. So why aren’t we just simply eating all of the good stuff and none of the bad? Why is obesity and diabetes on the rise? If we are so smart and can navigate complex issues in our daily lives, why can’t we follow something so simple?
The culprit- the reward centre of our brain. When you repeat a behaviour, it becomes a habit. A habit is a result of our brains neural pathways that have formed creating an automatic response to a situation. When you do something different, it feels uncomfortable. For instance, when you see or think about a sweet treat your brain releases a very pleasant chemical in your brain called dopamine, which is responsible for reminding the reward centre of your brain that you once liked this – and so there is the ‘craving’ you experience. Succumbing to these cravings provides a short term sense of satisfaction, but is often followed by feeling of guilt and frustration. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we tend to lose motivation to make better choices and so the vicious cycle continues.
How do we break this cycle?
There are a few ways you can help yourself out of a bad food choice rut and take back control of your choices.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
-When you’re not feeling great, before automatically reaching for your comfort food stop for a second and think – why am I feeling this way? Is there another way I can shake off this unpleasant feeling other than food? Sometimes something as simple as going for a walk outside, calling a friend, putting on some music or going to the gym can activate your pleasure centre of your brain more effectively than food. The challenge is to intercept your habit and change your response.
2. Eat only when you’re hungry
Tune into your body and only eat when you experience hunger. This is harder than a lot of people think, and it’s a great habit to get into. Look at food as fuel and nourish your body with quality food when you are hungry.
3. Prepare for your ‘triggers’
If you know that you’re likely to reach for the unhealthy stuff when you’re home alone after work, or tired and stressed/emotional, preparation is key. Stock your cupboards and fridge with healthy, easy go-to food that you know you will enjoy. This too will become habit after awhile. If you have to, get someone to hide the bad stuff or don’t have it in the house!
4. Maintain the pleasure principle
Often eating is just our bodies’ way of seeking pleasure…… so bring more pleasure into your life! What else do you enjoy? anything that makes you feel good can help counteract your first response to reach for a food reward.
The good news is, thanks to a very clever thing called ‘neuroplasticity’ our brains can actually start to rewire and perform these habits automatically after a bit of practice. Consistency is key and with a little bit of patience and effort you will start to see changes. What will you do today to break your emotional eating cycle?