Your Brain on Food: It’s Not Your Fault

While planning for my upcoming “Healthy You” Workshop, I was reminded of that Drug-Free America commercial from the 80’s. You know, the one with the fried egg – “This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.” As a kid, that demonstration was incredibly effective, making me think twice about ever experimenting with drugs. The same concept directly applies to the food that is readily available to us these days. How many times have you tried a new eating regimen, dedicated the time and energy to buying new foods, stuck with the new menu for a few weeks only to fall right back into your old habits – and waistline? I’d guess it’s more often than you care to recall.

Listen to me here – It’s not your fault!

You’re not lacking the willpower. You’re not weak. I know you have the desire to change. There’s a reason you can’t stop eating these unhealthy foods and it’s because they have an unfair advantage.

Certain foods have a similar effect on our brains and bodies as the “drugs” in that public service announcement. They are designed to make you crave them. I mean that very literally. Scientists chemically engineer and manipulate them in every fashion to make it as difficult as possible for you stop eating them and give them up. Simple food cravings become poor eating habits in just a few short days, leaving you stuck in a cycle of relentless urges, short-term satisfaction, long-term guilt, shame, anxiety and weight gain. I want to expose some of these secrets of the food manufacturers, so you can understand what’s working against you, and how to fight it.

In the last fifty years, the makeup of our food has dramatically changed. Our grocery stores and health food markets are packed with shelf after shelf of processed, refined, food-like products which look nothing like the plant or animal from which they were derived. After WWII, the color of the traditional farm changed. Care to guess what color is now missing? Thats right, green. The demands of a rapidly growing population combined with the expectations of corporate shareholders to see huge profits year after year, created a perfect storm for which our health wouldn’t stand a chance. You see, it wasn’t cost effective to mass distribute fresh foods. They were perishable and the quality is inconsistent from one harvest to the next. In an effort to find that magical equilibrium of cost, consistency, and customer satisfaction, food scientists discovered that our brains respond strongly to specific “flavors”. Armed with this knowledge, they began to modify our whole foods. They sucked out the water, fiber, and nutrients, and replaced them with inexpensive modifiers; ingredients like corn syrup, MSG, seed oils, artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. These modifiers replaced our nutrients with empty calories and synthetic chemicals that fool our bodies into giving us powerful biological signals to keep eating. The intention was to create cravings that were undeniable – unstoppable. The companies succeeded in every way; creating pseudo-foods that are ridiculously cheap to produce and consistently electrify our taste buds. These foods contain little or no nutrition and stimulate our brain in powerful ways that use our emotions, our feelings of pleasure and reward, resulting in the consumption of more useless calories than ever before. Over time, these foods literally rewire our brains.

When my wife, Linsey, was pregnant with our first baby, she craved oranges. She said she would eat at least five oranges a day. Fortunately, that was a pretty healthy choice, but it shows how powerful a force emotion and cravings can be. Think back to the last time you were stressed at work, or depressed over a personal hardship. Did you crave something? Was it sweet, salty, or sour? Whatever it was, once you consumed it you triggered some type of pleasure or feeling of reward. This pleasure or reward response causes the brain to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine motivates your behavior, reinforces food-seeking (cravings), and energizes your feeding.

The second thing food manufacturers have increasingly understood is that we all have stress in our lives. They’ve designed foods that make you feel less stressed – sugary, salty, and fatty foods all make you feel less stressed. These foods that were man-made to rewire pleasure, reward, and emotion pathways in the brain, promote hard-to-resist cravings and automatic consumption. Stress and inadequate sleep only emphasize and reinforce this pattern. Science has shown that stress or emotional eating can promote habit-driven over-eating, even in the absence of stress!

Let’s do a quick exercise. Think about your favorite ice cream; chocolate with peanut butter swirl, or vanilla with strawberries. Visualize the taste, the smell, the texture. I’ll wager your mouth is already watering and the thought of stopping by Cold Stone or Haagen-Dazs brings a smile to your face. And there it is – most of our favorite foods have been designed to bring about these emotions and use our brain at its most primitive level.

It’s not your fault – and there are ways to break the cycle.

Remember, change begins with you – YOU have to EARN your health, it’s not guaranteed. Even though you’re fighting an uphill battle, you don’t have to do it alone. I want to help you take back your health. On Monday, May 20th at 6:00pm in my office, we’re are hosting our free “Healthy You” Workshop. Seating is limited so you must pre-register to reserve your seat – all that takes is an RSVP on Facebook, an email, or phone call. I encourage you to invite your friends, family, and co-workers to this life changing event. The more of us working towards this goal, the greater our success will be.

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