As anyone who’s ever tried to stick to a diet knows, it’s hard work! But why is changing the way we eat so difficult if we know, rationally, that it’s good for us? Dr. Michael R. Eades, author of Protein Power and a widely read nutrition blogger, sheds some light on this difficult question.
On his blog Eades discusses author Jonah Lehrer’s intriguing book How We Decide, which examines what neuroscience tells us about why we make one decision over another. In his book, Lehrer cites an experiment with college students that monitored their brain activity as they were confronted with shopping decisions. The research showed that when the students wanted to buy something a part of the brain associated with pleasure, called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), was activated. This pleasure response was then counteracted by the price of the object, which activated a center of negativity in the brain called the insula. Researchers discovered that if pleasure outweighs pain, then the object is purchased.
But what’s really interesting is that both the positive NAcc and the negative insula can be influenced by outside forces. In the shopping world, the goal of retailers is to encourage the NAcc action in our brain and discourage the insula activity. Thus stores are [pull_quote]constantly prim[ing] the pleasure centers of the brain, to keep us lusting after things we don’t need,[/pull_quote] as Lehrer writes. Examples of this priming include free food samples and the way stores display luxury items in places with high foot traffic. To keep the insula from stopping you reaching for your wallet stores offer things such as discounts, low-price guarantees, and so-called bargain buys, all of which dull the inhibiting effect of the insula. Paying with a credit card, thus delaying the “hit” on your bottom line, also dulls the action of the insula.
Now, what does any of this have to do with your waistline? Eades believes our brain relates to diet temptation the same way it relates to purchasing decisions. We eye an item that’s not on our diet and our brain weighs the positive and negative effects of consuming it. He uses the example of a person on a low-carb diet, who is constantly bombarded with images of carbohydrates on TV, in magazines, in the break room. Seeing all that yummy bread, pasta, cookies, etc., excites the NAcc pathways of the brain. If you’ve been a diet, and not just a low-carb diet, you’ve no doubt had someone tell you, “It’s just one slice of cake!” You know you shouldn’t eat it. You don’t want to eat it, but the feedback that you are receiving from the world at large tells you it’s just an innocent slice of cake—it’s a “bargain buy,” if you will, and the NAcc part of your brain tells you to go for it.
Eating that cake is akin to paying with a credit card. The pleasure of being accepted by the group offsets the negative that your scale will later show. But rest assured, at some point you will have to pay for it. So what should you do? Eades says the [pull_quote]best thing to do is pump up our own insulas,[/pull_quote] or negative reinforcement. Before you are faced with a situation where food will be the main attraction, get your brain ready for the group mentality just as an alcoholic goes to AA for group support to help face his addiction. Be prepared to deal with peer pressure by remembering why you don’t eat cake, or why you want to stick to your diet.
A few more tips from 13 Ways to Deal With Food Temptation:
1. Bring a full coffee mug to a meeting or birthday party at the office to avoid being offered soda.
2. Focus on the people, not the food. Make yourself useful serving people and cleaning up.
3. When having drinks in celebration, no one will be the wiser when you make your second round an equally bubbly zero-calorie diet soda, dressed up with a twist.