It’s a new year and many of you have resolutions to improve or change your quality of health. Before that can happen, we need to identify a big barrier that will challenge us all, day in and day out. It’s time to step up to the “plate” and admit that you are a slave to your habits.
Habits, Rewards, and Motivation to Keep on Going
The habits we succumb to are not developed overnight, in fact, we are working against years of behaviors that have been ingrained and repeated through the reward centers of our brains. Habits are formed through reward cycles we encounter when we satisfy a craving, whether that be thirst, sugar cravings, or picking your nose. At some point you have experienced a craving and sought out whatever it was to satisfy this, doing it so well that your brain became stimulated and released a signal acknowledging your great work. This leads to a feeling of reward; and what do we do when we receive a reward? We repeat this behavior over and over to continually seek the satisfaction that is associated with that action, eventually forming a habit.
How do our habits make us fat?
Pleasure, reward, and emotion are all connected in our brains, and the food we decide to eat can create a powerful experience that we are likely to remember and repeat. When we consume food we experience pleasure. Pleasure is an emotion stimulated through the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. The unfortunate part is that this powerful reaction is so closely linked to our emotion that we seek out this pleasure reward when we are tired, stressed, bored, or angry. If we do succumb to this craving we don’t feel any better.
You might actually feel worse, faced with the guilt of giving in.
Foods with very low or no nutritional value drive this reaction, leading us to constantly seek foods that add no value to our health. When you find yourself scavenging through the cupboard, gorging on cookies you had no intention of eating because you weren't hungry, you are a victim of your cravings. You are participating in a pattern of behavior that is, or soon will be, your go to habit. Foods that drive such cravings cause a surge of dopamine in the brain, and what spikes usually crashes, intensifying these cravings and causing them to repeat more often.
How do you overcome this cycle of craving, reward, repeat?
The first step is to gain control over the cravings that drive your behavior. Habits are formed over repeated cycles of reward. This initiates the pleasure centers in the brain, causing you to become a victim to the voice of dopamine and promising it will all be OK as long as you have that one ____ (fill in the blank). In order to break this behavior you will need to start choices that will help you gain control over your cycle of food abuse.
This leads us to the next step.
Starve out old habits by implementing and focusing on new behaviors that promote good health. In situations requiring change I like to think,
“let’s add more of the good stuff to starve out the bad”
7 Eating Habits That Encourage Healthy Control Over Food
1. Eat breakfast daily and don’t skip meals
These are common behaviors that people use to try to eat less and lose weight, however, they lead to increased hunger and over-indulging later in the day.
2. Eat 1-2 servings of vegetables or fruit at every meal (about 1-1.5 cups)
This will help you reach your need for micro-nutrients including vitamins and minerals, and boost your energy through out the day.
3. Eat a 1-2 palm sized portions of protein at each meal
For a general recommendation I suggest consuming at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight. Protein increases feelings of satiation (fullness), leaving us less likely to consume extra calories with excess snacking throughout the day. It also has the benefit of being a higher thermogeneic food, boosting our metabolism; higher protein diets have been demonstrated to be important in maintaining a healthy body composition.
4. Stop eating when you’re 80% full
Our brain takes about 20 minutes to recognize that we are full. Eat slowly and stop when you think you have reached about 80% fullness. If you are still hungry 30 minutes later, eat a little more. Soon enough you will be able to recognize how much food is enough.
5. Finally, do not eat when you are not hungry (this will be hard to kick)
Ask yourself if you are hungry enough to eat plain fish and steamed broccoli. If you are then eat. If not, then stay strong and stick to healthy food choices at designated meal times.
6. Okay, one more; Eating is supposed to be enjoyed.
Yes, food is fuel but we have a huge emotional connection to what we eat so take time out of your day to enjoy optimizing your health with nutrition.
Remember! Changing a behavior is not an easy task, and instituting these strategies will need a lot of ongoing effort on your part. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and if you stay the course, you will see how much of a powerful effect optimizing your nutrition can have on your health.
With these points in mind, I wish you continued success and health in 2015!
Dr. Kayti Bates is a Licensed Chiropractor, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist (FRCms). She is a fitness enthusiast participating in CrossFit/strength training and preparing for Strongfirst.
- Hartwig, D., & Hartwig, M. (2012). It starts with food:[discover the whole 30 and change your life in unexpected ways]. Victory Belt.
- Berardi, J. (2015) Precision Nutrition