1) I'm only going to eat a couple of bites.
2) I've been good all day, so I'll indulge myself just this once.
3) I deserve a treat every once in a while--I'm going to help myself.
Anyone who's familiar with the terms rationalization and justification knows that our so-called "higher brains" can be exceptionally good at making excuses and explaining away our behavior--especially when we're around tempting food.
Usually, the higher brain does its job of thinking ahead and planning quite well. But sometimes it falls down on the job. Badly.
For example, when your lower brain sees a delicious plate of chocolate chip cookies (and feels an understandable impulse to dig in), your higher brain often conspires with your lower brain, using one of those three statements above to justify unwanted eating behavior. Before we know it, we're doing our best imitation of the cookie monster.
Presto: we just did something we don't really want to do--without even thinking about it. And yet we think we thought about it. And as any second year Psych major can tell us, since we think we thought about it, our higher brain quickly engages in after-the-fact activity that helps excuse or even covers up our eating behavior. There are a number of studies that show, convincingly, that people dramatically underestimate the volume of foods they've recently consumed, and in some cases people don't remember at all what they've eaten.
In short, when we're in the presence of hyperpalatable food, our higher brains can be as useless as our lower brains.
So how do we stop our brains from rationalizing and justifying, and instead teach our brains to deter us from tempting, hyperpalatable foods?
It starts with re-framing how we think about hyperpalatable foods in the first place.
First of all, don't blame yourself for being tempted by tempting food. It's natural, and it happens to all beings at every level of brain complexity. And let's face it, if humans weren't tempted to eat in the presence of palatable food we'd have never made it to the present era.
However, remember that humans have a capability that animals don't have. We can think in the abstract about what will happen in the future if we take an action now. Most importantly, we have the ability to notice, observe and reroute our autonomic impulses.
Let me borrow a quote from David Kessler, from his book The End of Overeating, as he explains how he retrained himself to think about large portions:
For me, it was about altering my perceptions of large portions. Once, I thought a big plate of food was what I wanted and needed to feel better. Now I see that plate for what it is--layers of fat on fat on sugar on fat that will never provide lasting satisfaction and only keep me coming back for more. With that critical perceptual shift, large portions look very different to me [emphasis mine].We aren't going to be able to change the fact that our lower brains will experience temptation in the presence of hyperpalatable food. But our higher brains don't have to automatically follow along. Instead, we can use the higher brain to subvert the stimulus/response reaction of our lower brains. How? By engaging our higher order brain functions to notice, and disrupt those patterns.
Try this the next time you are in the presence of tempting food: Openly notice and acknowledge that you are experiencing feelings of hunger and temptation. But then, use your higher brain to map out a future that contains an honest assessment of the ramifications of acting rashly based on that hunger.
In our chocolate chip cookies example, we can imagine the butter or margarine in those cookies clogging up our arteries. A mental picture that I use involves me imagining myself eating tempting food, but then staggering into a walk-in angioplasty clinic afterward (yep, I'm completely serious, and this mental image works wonders for me). Another idea: notice and acknowledge your feelings of hunger, but then envision yourself in future years weighing an extra ten, twenty or fifty pounds.
Don't try to alter your initial temptation impulse--there's simply too many millions of years of evolution behind that impulse to resist it. Instead, alter the higher brain's reaction to that impulse. Before you know it, you'll build a habit of consistently rejecting the unhealthy foods around you.
Readers, what successful techniques have you used to help you resist hyperpalatable food? Share them below!
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating
Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
Eat Right to See Right: Foods for Better Eye Health
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