Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Dec

The Psychology of Giving Up Junk Food

sweettemptationIt’s probably the biggest thing that makes some people hesitate in going Primal. Sure, they appreciate the logic and sensibility of the Blueprint lifestyle. They value the chance to improve their health and effectively lose weight. They love the idea of having more energy. They salivate over the prospect of bacon. But then comes the proverbial wrench in the plan. “What about bread?” they ask. (Sometimes it’s diet soda, pasta, pancakes, pizza, Skittles, etc.; I’ve heard it all.) Against all powers of wisdom, self-interest, and rationality, how is it these isolated, deeply entrenched cravings hold such sway over our lifestyles – and diet decisions? Is a baguette really so enticing that it determines a person’s willingness to live a healthier, more vigorous existence? Is the de-grained life really not worth living?

It’s a common refrain I hear: “Oh, I’d love to go Primal, but I just couldn’t give up my breakfast cereal.” Okay. It’s got me thinking lately: what is it about the psychological power of (non-Primal) favorite foods?

Ever watched “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” (usually featuring the typical junk food categories)? Of course, the guests play it up for the camera, but the expression behind some of their descriptions parallel that famous When Harry Met Sally scene. Really? This level of enthusiasm for a hamburger? (I won’t say it.) Even a few of the most diehard PB converts I know still hold the torch for some pre-Primal item. Some people get attached, I guess.

Yes, there are the obvious factors that apply to most people’s favorites: the ubiquity of these foods, the subsequent convenience, the cheap price (e.g. Pizza Hut’s “Feast for Five” bucks – feast being their word). For some of us, these favorite foods (past or present) are part and parcel of our social landscape or our work environs. Then there are the more complex influences: ethnic, family or community traditions right down to low and lowly marketing forces. Finally, there’s taste. Although, as I’ve said before, most people find these foods all taste the same once they give their taste buds a chance to recover on a Primal diet of naturally-occurring foods.

So, why are some things easier to give up than others? If you told most people tomorrow that the key to good health involved forgoing asparagus, I can’t imagine most folks would consider it a major impediment to their success. Why isn’t giving up bread, diet soda or cereal the same? How does it involve more than a simple switch of intention? Why does giving up a single favorite food feel like serious deprivation for so many people?

It’s true that our tastes are established earlier than we ever thought. Experts have found that a mother’s diet during pregnancy already begin to habituate a baby’s taste. Researchers believe this happens because the habituation early on helps teach children which tastes are “safe.” If the mother has survived eating foods with these flavors, they will, too. If you come from a family in which people routinely ate a lot of pasta, you likely developed the taste for it earlier than you can remember.

We also develop deep-seated emotional associations with certain foods through early and/or recurring memories surrounding them. On a timely note, holiday traditions tend to play into these associations in a big way. Any meaningful experience can create these connections, however. Was there a special dish you always made with a parent or grandparent? Did your extended family all go to the same pizzeria at every visit? Do you and your spouse have a routine from early in your relationship that influences how you enjoy time together today?

These associations can play out in unconscious ways, eliciting cravings or overshadowing your efforts to develop a taste for healthier, Primal fare. If you’re still carrying the torch for old favorites, it can be harder to fully enjoy newer Primal tastes.

Then there are the temptations of the present. Experts say mental imagery – that which we conjure ourselves and that which we’re presented with (in ads, etc.) – plays a sizeable role in our cravings. Have you ever found yourself victim to an ad’s suggestion? Even if you normally wouldn’t touch a particular food, those marketing folks have a fantastic way of making it look good.

Our moods, of course, can influence our vulnerability to old favorites. Many of us have indulged in emotional eating, and carbohydrates figure into this equation all too strongly. There’s a legitimate serotonin boost from a carb binge, but then comes the inevitable crash and then the ongoing habit. Our desire for comfort foods, researchers have found, only increases with additional stress. (On a side note, experts have even found trends of favorite comfort foods (PDF) in men and women and in older and younger folks. Men as a whole tend to crave warm and hearty foods. Women for their part had more of a penchant for sweeter snack foods. Younger groups also tended to choose more snack rather than meal type foods.)

In terms of strategies to lessen the feeling of deprivation and associated cravings, researchers confirm the out of sight, out of mind approach. Proximity matters in a big way. The more of a hassle it is to get to that favorite temptation, the less likely you’ll bother with it. Their study includes the old candy dish at the secretary’s desk scenario. Yet, battling those mental images matters, too. If your favorite food is all over the TV commercials, find something else to do on the days or evenings when you’re more prone to suggestion because of stress or a down mood.

When you do become taken in by a sudden urge to indulge, some research suggests that taking a brief walk can help. If the cravings are more than an occasional inconvenience, you might want to ask whether there’s something hormonal going on or if you have a nutritional deficiency. Particularly if you have a history of disordered eating, you might choose to explore some professional counseling. Finally, some research shows that acupuncture can be an effective complementary measure for reducing ongoing cravings.

You might ask where the 80/20 Principle is in all this. Well, it depends. If your favorite food can be adapted to fit a Primal profile or if you can indulge moderately on an occasional basis, then you might not have to forgo that favorite altogether. If one taste of a non-Primal favorite food sends you on a downward spiral, however, it’s another story. As people get further along in their Primal journey, the slippery slope phenomenon isn’t as powerful, but for some it remains so. Know yourself, first and foremost.

There’s a potential bit of a catch here, however. Even if you know you can always go back and have it, a lot of folks – having been fully Primal for a while – find that the side effects are too great to bother with. They realize that it’s not worth trying anymore, even for special occasions. Nonetheless, some feel a bit of grief with the acknowledgment. In these cases, however, know that the food was destroying your body long before you ever gave it up. You simply know what it feels like to live without the low-grade symptoms now.

That’s the final message here, I think. A favorite food offers momentary pleasure and maybe a meaningful bit of nostalgia. But what is your life without that favorite food? More energetic? Less congested? More restful? More even-keeled? Less medicated? Just as happily reminiscent. Just as meaningful. Your taste buds are but one small part of you. If your whole body could vote on each food you put in it, what would it tell you? Learning to live Primally is about learning to listen to your body, recognizing its story, and valuing how our physical habits feed the spirit as well as the body – the vitality – we bring to each day.

Now it’s your turn. Readers, have you had struggles with old favorite foods? Do they still have a hold on you? Does the lingering preference ever trip you up, or have you found your peace with it – maybe by indulging once in a while with moderation? What do you see as the major challenges behind giving up a favorite food?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

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