When the brain tells us that what we are putting into our mouth is a poor, maybe even an unhealthy choice, why do we go ahead and bite? Some suggest that eating is not as much about what we know as it is about how we feel. The brain is sending one message and the emotions another and, all too often, feelings win the day. Is there a way to change the way the discussion ends? Experts say yes, but it requires that we intentionally direct our food-associated emotions in the directions we want to go.
Our emotions tell us that a large serving of ice cream will bring us pleasure. That is because many pleasurable experiences in the past have created an association between eating ice cream and feeling good. Maybe birthdays or romantic dates or sharing ice cream with our children – whatever the cause – ice cream triggers an expectation of pleasant feelings anytime it is presented. Now, even though it is 10:00 p.m. and you know that it is not a wise choice, your drive for pleasure overrules your better sense. Everyone who has ever dieted understands the argument which transpires between the head and heart over what goes into the mouth.
Of course, the truth is that your pleasure center is located, not in your heart, but in your brain. Fudge sundaes, pizza, greasy french fries, you name it, the foods you associate with pleasure are seen as desirable because of chemical reactions within the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for creating sensations of delight. The trouble is that once we know what triggers the brain’s release of dopamine, we tend to want to go back again and again and pull the lever. This is how ice cream goes from being an occasional treat to a harmful habit.
The habit of using food to gain pleasure is akin to many other forms of addiction. Over time, it will take more and more food to create the sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Drug addicts take more substance as their tolerance grows and food addicts will do the same with portion sizes. As with overcoming other types of addiction, the person who abuses food will need to find a sincere desire to change their relationship with food. Attempting to change behavior without changing how we think is rarely successful.
Once a person is truly ready to change how they relate to food, they need to evaluate why they eat what they do. Does the food make them feel contented? Relaxed? Comforted? In order to change the desire for food that provides a positive association, a person will need to create a new, negative association. It could be that the person thinks of ice cream as keeping them from enjoying sports with a spouse or children, or is endangering their health (which can often be true for food addicts). Educating yourself about the unhealthy aspects of particular foods can also help to change the brain’s associations with that food.
Finally, be proactive about making a positive association with avoiding food. Your brain will lead you to make choices which produce a pleasant response. Look for ways to reward making healthy food choices. It can be quite simple, but develop the positive associations with the desired behavior.