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  • by Jaclyn Foster

Finding the Path of Least Resistance to Eating Right

Updated: May 1, 2020

Why is it so darn hard to give up rich foods and processed treats?

Most of us have at least one favorite rich yummy treat we love to eat. Foods we tend to label as “bad” or unhealthy, but that taste so good to us, we inevitably come back for more. We love them because, even if it’s just temporarily, they make us feel good.

This is not just some strange, unknown phenomenon. There has been research done to help understand why this happens and it can be a key to help us out of what has been coined as ‘the pleasure trap’ by Dr. Douglas Lisle. This can be particularly helpful to understand especially when a part of us really wants to make a healthier change.

Rich foods stimulate the same parts of the brain that are designed for things like love, warmth and friendship. But, comforting us emotionally is not all they do.

The other thing that these foods like chocolate, cheese and baked goods have in common is that they cause a us to acclimate and physically feel a need for them as we do with addictions to things like nicotine, alcohol, gambling, and heroin. They do this by stimulating something called the dopamine pleasure response.

What is dopamine? Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is released through pleasurable and rewarding experiences – specifically things like food, sex and drugs.

The idea here, at least with sex and food, is that when we participate in eating or intercourse, we are increasing our odds of survival and reproduction. Our bodies have internal reward systems hardwired into our bodies, encouraging us keep doing those things. Our bodies are like, “Yes, thank you, more please!”

So how does this dopamine reward system trip us up? If this system is here for our survival, how can it lead us to more unhealthy choices? Well, the more calories in each bite of food we eat, the higher the dopamine hit we receive. The dopamine response is not concerned about healthy vs unhealthy, it wants to reward us each time we act to continue our survival.

Although our pleasure responses are humming and happy, the mechanisms we have in the body to let us know we are full and ready to move onto the next activity after eating, requires a different kind of stimulation.

Let’s make a comparison for a moment of two totally different sets of foods that add up to the same number of calories. Two large baked potatoes are about 550 calories, about the same number of calories as a large candy bar.

Which do you think will fill you up more? The potatoes, right?

Why is that?

There are two very important words that help us understand why those potatoes will fill us more: fiber and water. Our brain receives the message we are full when the food we eat provides stretch in our stomach, taking up a lot of space with the bulk and volume from its contents. When we eat foods with more fiber and water in them, as we digest, the body gets the message of that stretch and volume and lets our brain know,

“Awesome, all good, we have nutrients and calories, we can move onto the next thing.”

When we eat a candy bar, the lack of fiber and water results in very little stretch. When our bodies receive the message that there is not a lot of volume, our brain gets a message that we haven’t eaten enough.

As we are hardwired for survival, the last thing our brain wants is for us to starve so it demands that we eat more by revving up our hunger signals. As a result, we end up eating more than we need. Have you ever had that experience where you’ve eaten a candy bar or ice cream and you felt hungrier afterwards? What we are talking about is exactly why. When our bodies aren’t getting the fiber and bulk from our foods, it doesn’t get the full message we have the nutrients we need. Our brain gets that message and keeps us on the hunt for more food.

Knowing that our brains get these dopamine hits when we eat, and more so with rich foods, how do we change our habits to work with these hardwired responses?

We start providing our bodies with the stretch it needs to feel full first, before we have anything else. One of the easiest ways to do this is by eating higher fiber foods at the start of our meals or our snacks, before the cookies or pizza. Some of the best foods to do this with are fruits and veggies.

This can be any veggies you like (no need to force down those you don’t!) and fruits like berries, citrus, bananas, apples, nectarines and peaches.

By adding fruits and veggies to your snacks and meals it starts to become a win-win for your body, you are triggering your dopamine reward system and getting the stretch your body needs to know you’ve eaten.

You can always choose the richer foods after those fiber-packed whole foods and research has shown that little by little, the more you do, the more your taste buds start to change. Your body feels full faster helping you eat healthier and reduce your calorie intake.

Reconnect with your favorite fruits and veggies today. Don’t worry about taking anything out to start. Begin by adding these food groups at the start of what you already have, even if it’s your favorite comfort food.

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