How much thought do you put into the food you’re about to put into your mouth? There’s a good chance if you are health conscious you are choosing foods which are healthy, meaning they are unprocessed, mostly plant based and includes some lean meats and whole grains. If you’re not so health conscious you’re probably selecting foods which you have always eaten and you choose these foods based on taste first and as habit second.
The foods we eat are based on a range of reasons. The most common reason is for the taste. Foods which taste nice make us feel good; the feel of the food in our mouth further enhances the enjoyment we get out of the food. Research has found humans are more drawn to foods that have a combination of sugar and fat (Haighs chocolate freckles anyone?) in them as this combination stimulates the pleasure centre in our brain which causes the release of the feel good hormone dopamine.
But this pleasure response can also be our undoing if we are really trying to make the effort to improve our health and eat a balanced, healthy diet. This is due to two factors which drive us to eat certain foods. First is our association with these types of food. If you have a positive approach to eating these types of foods then you can eat them, enjoy the experience, the flavours and mouth feel of the food. Once the food is finished there are no afterthoughts of stress, guilt or shame from eating this food and you carry on with the rest of your day.
If, on the other hand, you place a negative approach to these types of foods and associate these foods as bad and eat them during times of stress or anxiety, then the thoughts once you have finished the food will be one of happiness and enjoyment from the dopamine response, but once this subsides, then feelings guilt, shame or just not feeling well will kick in.
Have you ever wondered why when you go to eat your favourite high sugar and fat food that you feel the need to eat the whole packet and find it hard to stop at one or two cookies or chocolates? Well, the reason is a logical one. By eating the entire packet you are removing the temptation so the next time you feel the need to eat these foods there is nothing to eat. That is at least, until you visit the supermarket again and find your secret stash.
If you are a health conscious eater there is a good chance you are making food choices which are sustainable in the long term so once you are older, let’s say over 40, you have managed to reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. I believe very few people are thinking about the health consequences of tucking into their second Big Mac for the day and washing it down with a supersized Coke. It’s only when a health scare occurs that this is a big motivation to change habits. The same can apply to those who turn to high fat and sugar foods during times of emotional stress and overeat these foods. That additional energy can contribute to weight gain and in the long term impact health.
It is important to keep in mind it is the consistent eating patterns over many years which will impact our overall long term health and making healthier choices at a younger age is key to living a long life in a healthy state. So what can you do to start eating healthy now and reap the benefits in the long term? Work on the below strategies.
- Change the way you refer to foods, remove words like bad, guilt free or clean foods to occasional or sometimes foods. This change in mindset to how you think about certain foods will help remove the fear, anxiety, guilt and shame you feel when you eat them.
- Balance your plate with plenty of vegetables, lean meats, wholegrains, a few serves of fruit each day and dairy foods to help keep your calcium and protein levels high. Research doesn’t lie, consuming these foods consistently will improve health.
- Break free from restricting foods and then binging on them. Most people will get the dopamine high from eating much less and at the same time will eat less energy. Enjoy the flavour, taste and mouth feel of these foods rather than shovelling them down.
- When making food choices, think about the nutrient density of the food. High nutrient density foods like fruits and vegetables provide plenty of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals and are low in energy but protective against disease development.
- Give yourself a break. Accept that is okay to have those high fat and sugar foods occasionally, just keep the serving size down and enjoy the treat.
- Seek further help, especially if you’re confused by all the different messages on nutrition or simply don’t know what you should be eating. Restrictive dietary practices or overeating can result in a range of psychological and physiologically damaging outcomes and getting help from qualified health professionals is the first step.