Several years ago, my wife received holiday gifts from the elementary school children to whom she taught religious education. There were a few scented candles and several boxes of chocolates. As the candies sat on our kitchen counter over the ensuing weeks, their quantity steadily dwindled. Each household member, including myself, was responsible for the slowly vanishing sweets.
Because I no longer eat dairy, I know I would no longer snack on milk chocolate candies. However, reflecting on that time enabled me to see the lesson being shown to me. The only reason I ate the candies at that time was that they were there, very visible on our countertop. I wouldn’t have otherwise taken the initiative to purchase them while food shopping.
The lesson was that with easy access to unhealthy treats, using willpower becomes difficult if the temptation is staring you right in the face. Thus, if you are genuinely trying to become healthier and more vibrant, it behooves you to rid your pantry and cupboards of unhealthy foods. This idea made a lot of sense, but I’ve learned that there’s more to the story.
Why do we experience urges for unhealthy foods in the first place? I learned the answer to this question from the teachings of Douglas Lisle, Ph.D. He describes what he calls The Motivational Triad, which is the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and the conservation of energy. Dr. Lisle explains that this trio of motivators was passed down from our ancestors and is inherent in all of us. He goes on to state that we will be harming ourselves until we understand how these drives function and overcome them. Dr. Lisle argues that it is not a lack of willpower that leads to overeating but rather our hard-wired evolutionary drives.
Early in the history of humans, when food was scarce, these drives saved lives. This is not the case in today’s world. The abundance of processed foods loaded with salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates is leading to the widespread prevalence of chronic diseases. We find the consumption of these foods pleasurable (pursuit of pleasure). In addition, they are easy to eat; often, one just needs to open a wrapper to access the treat within (conservation of energy).
But why do we crave processed foods loaded with fats and sugars more than fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? I believe one answer, which was alluded to earlier, is that early humans likely tried to consume as many calories as they could in preparation for times when food was scarce. It seems as though this instinct was passed down through the generations. Another reason is that, unlike whole-natural foods, many processed foods create artificially intense pleasure within our brains. This excessive amount of pleasure can lead to harmful cravings.
The information presented thus far is undoubtedly essential to know. But how does it translate into actionable knowledge? Dr. Lisle also explains that cravings are typically visual images in our minds. Our minds create vivid pictures of those things that we want. The more vivid the picture, the more likely we will crave that which the picture represents. The question then becomes what makes an image in our mind vivid.
The answer is our memory—the more robust our memory of something, the richer and more detailed the picture. Moreover, the more frequently you do something, the clearer your memory will be. For example, let’s say that chocolate ice cream is your favorite dessert, and you eat it several times each week. You will have a stimulating image of it in your mind and will likely continue to crave this sweet dessert. However, if you refrain from consuming it for a week or two, your memory of it will begin to fade, as will the craving associated with this memory.
Another indispensable aid in overcoming cravings is the development of good habits. Habits are behaviors that occur without much thought. They are our routines. What habits do you have? I’ll wager that you brush your teeth twice a day. Or perhaps you’re a coffee lover and savor your cup of joe every morning. These are examples of habits. You typically perform these behaviors without giving them a second thought.
Getting back to cravings, how can habits help to overcome them? It is important to first understand that frequently our cravings and other unhealthy actions are habits. For instance, do you enjoy a chocolate candy bar each day between breakfast and lunch? Do you relax on the couch every evening after an exhausting day at the office watching TV with a glass of hard liquor? When stressed, do you rummage through your pantry on a quest for a bag of chips to munch on? These are unhealthy behaviors that will likely have adverse effects on your well-being over time. Moreover, if you look closely, you will notice a pattern to these actions.
Source: Moe Magners/Pexels
As Oonagh Duncan illustrates, there is an entity called the habit loop, which is a sequence consisting of a trigger followed by behavior and then a reward. She explains that a trigger precipitates the behavior, which then creates the reward. Using one of the above examples, feeling stressed would be the trigger that would cause the behavior of eating chips. This would be followed by the reward of feeling calmer.
Ms. Duncan offers a few suggestions for using the habit loop to your advantage. For example, she states that you can figure out what reward the behavior gives you and find a healthier option that will provide you with the same reward. If eating chips makes you feel calmer, you might try to find a more nutritious snack to replace the chips—how about a small handful of cashews? Or you could even perform an activity instead of snacking, such as taking a few deep breaths or even taking a light jog around the neighborhood.
If performed regularly, this will create another, more beneficial habit that will soon replace the detrimental one. Another thing she advises is to eliminate the trigger of a bad habit. For example, if you often feel stressed, it may help to meditate once or twice a day.
Good or bad, over time, your routines will have an enormous impact on all aspects of your life. The positive habits that you develop for yourself will keep you aligned with where you want to be in life. Also, appreciate that refraining from unhealthy things that you regularly enjoy and creating better habits may be difficult at first. However, over time this will become easy and automatic. Most importantly, the future payoffs will be well worth your efforts.
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