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  • Writer's pictureGuest post by Frances O’Neil, MSW, RDN, CDE

The Challenge of Choosing Healthy

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

hands holding an apple and a donut

Think back to the last time you gave in to a treat. Did you try to resist? How difficult was the struggle? A woman once told me of changing her driving route to avoid driving past certain restaurants. Another woman who struggled with sugar cravings once admitted to eating sugary foods until she felt sick and depressed.

Why is it so difficult to choose health?

Genetically, we are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. For people living in the western world, food has become one means to achieve this end. In the US, highly-processed food is cheap and abundant. It is often nutritionally inferior and contains high concentrations of fat, sugar and salt in various forms.

For those of us in the business of helping people change eating behavior, the odds seem to be stacked heavily against our clients. Let’s look at some of the reasons why this is.

In the book, “Training Your Brain to Adopt Healthful Habits,” behavioral neuroscientists Trafton, Gordon and Misra explain how neurotransmitters act as messengers between brain cells and are responsible for much of our behavior. The authors highlight dopamine, which they describe as the neurotransmitter involved in motivating behavior and associated with “disorders of habit and impulsivity.” (1)

To describe this phenomenon, Trafton et al explain how our brains are made up of networks of neurons and that dopamine-producing neurons transmit information regarding “opportunities in our environment” and estimate the “potential value” of those opportunities, which motivates us to act. The greater the perceived benefit of an opportunity, the more intensely the neurons fire. The more intense the bursts, the more you repeat the behavior regardless of any consequences. (1)

For example, if you love Starbuck’s Iced White Chocolate Mocha and you drive past a Starbuck’s, your brain detects an opportunity to improve your current situation. Dopamine neurons begin to fire. Since you LOVE Starbuck’s Iced White Chocolate Mocha, (it is something you have determined to be highly valuable), the neuron-firing burst is intense. You do a U-turn at the next light, drive up to the drive-through and place your order. Within a few short minutes, you are in Iced White Chocolate Mocha bliss. So intense was the firing of the dopamine neurons, as soon as you are finished with your Iced White Chocolate Mocha, you are thinking about your next visit to Starbucks.

Our brains can help us resist cravings too.

Despite there being a Starbucks on every corner, why is it that sometimes we can drive right past, resisting the craving? This is due to our prefrontal cortex system, or executive function part of our brain, that works in opposition to the limbic, or reward system part of the brain, that dopamine acts on to motivate us.

The competition between these two systems for control over behaviors is influenced by the speed at which they make their choices. Trafton et al state that the limbic system tends to make faster decisions than the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, when something is strongly overvalued or there is a powerful drive for immediate gratification, the limbic system will win out almost every time. Another factor stated as giving the limbic system an advantage and weakening our resolve, is our perception that a product will improve our social status. (1)

We observe others when determining how to act.

Trafton et al state that our brains use “social observation” and the opinions of others to set expectations and determine the value of performing certain behaviors. Interestingly, the authors suggest “the human brain is more likely to base choices on social norms than objective realities.” (1)

We are social creatures and don’t like to be the odd man out and risk alienation. Therefore, if our “pack” provides us with information about something, we tend to go along with it, sometimes despite our better judgment.

For example, my first Starbucks coffee tasted burnt to me, leaving me with no desire to ever go back. However, soon afterward, I started seeing Starbucks on every corner, everyone was talking about how much they loved Starbucks coffee, and the logo called me like a siren. Needless to say, I’ve gone back and enjoyed many a cup of coffee.

Advertising and social media also influence our drive to consume certain foods and beverages. We are bombarded by advertising 24/7, giving the food industry a never-ending opportunity to appeal to our reward system.

Foods are produced to reward us.

The food industry has also perfected how to create highly-palatable food that appeals to our senses and triggers our neural reward systems. In his book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” author Michael Moss discusses how the food industry uses “high math regression analysis” and intricate charts to help the industry determine the “bliss point” or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will create the perfect taste. (2)

Moss goes on to say that the most attractive attributes of a product’s color, smell, packaging, and taste are computer analyzed to design a product with the ultimate bliss point. According to Moss, scientists can manipulate fat globules to affect absorption and mouthfeel, pulverize salt into a fine powder to hit the taste buds faster and harder improving the food’s “flavor burst,” and create enhancers that amplify the sweetness of sugar to two hundred times its natural strength. Additionally, Moss states scientific research demonstrates sugar creates the greatest allure for products. (2)

Ultimately, it can be our expectations rather than true reality or advertising that change how our brains respond. It is our expectations of the effects of food or drink or treatments that modify the reward estimates of our dopamine neurons (1).

We can change beliefs and expectations.

The goal then for those of us trying to help change behavior is to create positive expectations about the changes our clients are trying to make and help them change their beliefs surrounding expectations of their old habits.

This could be done by helping them construct a list of pros for maintaining their current habits and a list of pros for changing their habits. If they find the pros for changing more convincing, have them make a copy (or snap a photo) of their list so they can read it often, especially when feeling vulnerable.

If they find the pros for maintaining more convincing, ask them what would need to change to move them toward changing their habits; then brainstorm with them how they could make that change happen. You could also ask, “What concerns you most about your health?” to get them thinking about what they might be willing to work on.

What we feed our bodies matters and when our perceptions, values, experiences, expectations, and more contribute to poor choices, our health will suffer. Our bodies are not landfills for throwing anything and everything into without regard to long-term health or well-being.

Rather, giving our bodies the nutrients they need in the correct amounts, with pleasurable as well as nutritious food, keeps our appetites and metabolism in check and promotes optimal weight and well-being.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ~ Virginia Woolf

Get to know the author of our guest post, Frances O'Neil, on our community page:

  1. Trafton, Jodie A., Gordon, William P., and Supriya, Misra. Training Your Brain to Adopt Healthful Habits: Mastering The Five Brain Challenges. Institute for Brain Potential, 2016

  2. Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat. Random House, 2014

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