Choosing to eat healthy vs less healthy foods

How often do you find yourself deliberating over what you most want to eat in the moment vs. what you want for your long-term health and well-being?

Food decision fatigue is very real and is just one reason that diets don’t work.

We struggle to choose the discomfort of deprivation or unanswered desire in the moment for the sake of our future well being because we are programmed to do the exact opposite.

The part of us that wants what we want most in the moment is controlled by our primal brain and the part of us that wants what we want most in the long term is our higher, executive thinking human brain.

Hence the conflict. Two different parts of our brain literally biologically programmed to pull us in two different directions.

Our lower, primal brain is wired for survival.

This part of the brain is responsible for driving us to seek out pleasure, avoid pain and expend minimal energy.

When you are choosing between the pre-prepared sandwich and making the salad at lunch time, or the fruit salad or brownie as your after dinner dessert of choice your motivation to go for the tastier, easier option is very strong because your body and brain are programmed to do exactly that.

And that’s because of the motivational triad which consists of three basic human motivations: seek pleasure; avoid pain; and expend minimal effort and energy. It’s part of our animalistic programming and it helps us survive as a species, but it’s not useful if we want to thrive.

Your primal brain will always prioritise what is preferable in the moment, based on the motivational triad, it’s wired to help you survive and a sandwich is less effort, takes less energy to make than a salad (or at least that’s what your brain tells you), and the chocolate brownie more pleasurable than the fruit salad.

And why is that? Why is it that the foods we want most, generally are not the foods that are healthiest, or the foods that are going to get us to our weight goals?

It’s because the foods that we tend to want most in the moment usually contain some form of refined product. It could be refined sugar, refined flour, or refined fat, or alcohol. In the case of the brownie it’s three refined foods – refined sugar, flour, and fat.

And the reason we like refined foods is because they are essentially concentrated.

So of course, we need to eat to survive, so our brain, our primal brain is programmed to motivate us to eat.

And we are motivated to eat because eating gives us pleasure.

When we eat, small amounts of dopamine, the chemical neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, are released in our brain.

In fact, we get dopamine released just before we eat, and when we eat. If we’re eating naturally occurring vegetable or and egg or chicken; a small amount of dopamine is released, and it feels a little bit good.

But when you take parts of food and refine them; and then eat them it causes a larger amount of dopamine to be released and so we get more pleasure from eating them.

The problem is, our primal brain thinks that the more pleasure we are getting from eating a particular food, the more of it we should eat.

It literally thinks that food must be very important to our survival. And the more we eat refined foods the more we want them and the more of them we need because, when we keep producing lots of dopamine, our dopamine receptors get desensitised; and so we then need more of that food to get the same amount of pleasure from it than we did before.

So that is why you want to eat the cakes, chocolate, biscuits, crisps, dessert over having a piece of fruit. You are literally programmed to desire those foods more.

So, you may be wondering, why the conflict then? Why then are you not gorging yourself on those foods and instead you are feeling conflicted.

And it’s because of your human, higher, executive thinking brain.

This part of your brain knows very well that eating refined foods is going to cause you a problem in the long term. Whether that’s a physical health problem or the disappointment of not getting to your weight goal or being unhappy because you can’t fit into your favourite jeans.

I like to think of my higher, human, executive thinking brain as the mother and the primal brain as the toddler or teenager. Toddlers and teenagers tend to only be focused on the present moment when they want something.

They don’t naturally have the capacity to understand the long-term impact of what it is that they want, or their actions. The mother on the other hand usually has greater insight into a situation and can see what the consequences will be. Whether that’s climbing on the furniture, in the case of the toddler, or not revising in the case of the teenager.

It’s also known that the feeling of being conflicted is created by thoughts that you are thinking.

So, if you recognise that you sometimes feel conflicted around deciding over what to eat, or other things in life, what can you do about it?

Well will power is not the answer.

I spent years trying to out will my way through feeling conflicted over my food choices and it felt terrible because I always lost eventually. I might have managed to stick to a diet for a few days, occasionally a few weeks but I would always eventually give in to my primal brain’s motivations.

Of course, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. I just thought I was weak willed, or incapable. I thought that there was something wrong with me because I was so greedy, or so out of control. And I would feel terrible about myself and end up eating more and more.

So, if will power is not the answer what is?

Well the answer lies in having strategies to hack your brain.

And one of the easiest ways to do this is to plan what you will eat in advance. When you are planning what you will eat you are engaging the higher, human, executive thinking part of your brain.

Remember your primal brain isn’t capable of planning. So, when you engage that higher part of your brain it is much easier to weigh up the pros and cons of what you will eat and see the consequences.

When you engage your executive thinking you can see the bigger picture. You can see that you are eating out three times this week and you know that if you have pasta, or chips or dessert at each meal you will likely gain weight. But you can ascertain that you will choose the salad and no dessert for the first two meals and then enjoy an ice cream for dessert at your favourite restaurant on Saturday night for example.

Can you see how this would be preferable to making the decision in the moment as you go throughout your week?

If I am going out for a meal, I will look at the menu online earlier in the week or the day before and choose what I’m going to have. Then when I get to the restaurant, I don’t even look at the menu again. I don’t need to involve my primal brain in making that decision at all and it makes things so much easier.

So of course, it’s all very well planning and only eating what we planned but, in the moment, BUT when our friend orders dessert and we hadn’t planned on having one we may very well feel the conflict coming back. We’re conflicted between having what we planned and what our primal brain has suddenly decided to tell us we should have now that we are here and the opportunity for dessert has presented itself.

And so the next hack is to tell yourself, and what I mean by that really is to tell your primal brain, that if you really want, whatever the dessert is, you can plan to have it tomorrow or another day.

So, for example say that I planned my restaurant meal, without dessert and then my friend orders banoffee pie, and my brain tells me ‘you can’t not have banoffee pie, banoffee pie’s your favourite’.

So I essentially talk back to my brain and say ‘it’s my choice to not have banoffee pie this evening’, and if banoffee pie is that important to me I can choose to come back to this restaurant and have it when I planned it, or I can choose to buy some banoffee pie from the supermarket tomorrow.

And what I find is that I am essentially pacifying or consoling my primal brain. I’m tell it that it’s not banoffee pie now or never. I’m reminding it that it’s my choice not to have banoffee pie. And I’m reminding it that it doesn’t need to feel deprived about me not having banoffee pie because I can, if I really want it, choose to have banoffee pie whenever I want, when I plan it.

So know that when you feel conflicted over choosing what you want most for pleasure and what you want most for longer term well-being it’s because your body and brain is working exactly as it should.

And remember to talk to your primal brain more than you listen to it. Pacify it like you would a small child by reminding it that it’s not a chocolate brownie now or never, it’s choosing the chocolate brownie when you’ve planned it in advance. That way your primal brain will get comfortable with taking a back seat when it comes to making food decisions in the moment and it will become easier to make food choices for the benefit of your future benefit of your future self.