Amazing as it may seem to those who have seen me gobble leaves of lettuce like I’m part-Energizer Bunny, put cherry tomatoes on my shredded carrots and use mustard as dressing, and eat six pieces of fruit in one sitting, I am not always the healthiest of eaters (just ask the boyfriend…a few weeks ago I managed to eat three slices of wedding cake at a wedding we were celebrating). In fact, I’d go ahead and suggest that I even sometimes over-eat.
I was thinking about this while working as a PA last week. While talking to the father of one of the talent, I discussed over a platter of cheese-cubes how I had learned patience by making a New Year’s resolution to be more patient. I then spent the next year standing in the longest lines at the grocery store, always parking in the farthest away spots even on errands I wanted to be over with quickly, and not being stressed when I was only on time to an event rather than fifteen minutes early. Interestingly, this made me more patient.
As I moved on to eating chocolate chip cookies, the dad and I began discussing willpower. I mentioned that cutting myself off is something I wish I could learn to do. He looked at me questioningly and said, “Sounds like you just need to make a resolution.” Perhaps he is right.
Anyway, as luck would have it, Dr. Dad handed me a recent issue of UpdatePlus: Magazine of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, in which there was an article titled “The Science Behind Overeating.” Apparently, lacking willpower isn’t the only struggle when it comes to overeating; there are other factors that make resisting food challenging. David A. Kessler, author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, looked into the science behind what makes us hungry.
Certain foods will stimulate dopamine in your brain – that’s the little bugger who conveys happy feelings in your head. Naturally your brain likes that feeling and wants you to have it more often, so it willingly increases your focus on foods that bring about dopamine. Simply seeing the food, or even smelling it can make your brain want that feeling whether you are hungry or not. This focus can also be triggered by locations where you once had something you enjoyed or the time of day.
Dopamine triggers include sugar, salt and anything with high levels of fat. All those foods we find delicious – bacon, brownies, hollendaise sauce, etc – contain some or all of these ingredients. Kessler compares the way we crave food to th way a junkie craves drugs; cocaine also causes dopamine levels to spike and stimulates the brain to want more.
Of course, all this science news worries me. I have a hard enough time passing on French fries or skipping mid-day snacks, and living with a chef who whips up the most astounding banana bread I’ve ever had in my life definitely leaves me in a bit of a pinch at times. Luckily, there are tricks of the trade for those attempting to find the willpower we maybe never had, all outlined in Kessler’s book.
The suggestion that struck me most was this one. Choose foods that satisfy rather than stimulate: whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and lean protein. Makes a lot of sense. I can look at the options presented to me on a menu, at a pot-luck, or even in my home, and make good choices. I know what is salty and what isn’t. You cannot eat too many veggies, so loading up on those first is essential. Go for what your body needs rather than what it wants.
I guess this is what willpower is. Learning to have those happy feelings without sugars, salts, and fats. Or knowing the trade off of feeling better about yourself is worthwhile. Kessler also suggests having a plan of action for when you see trigger foods: plan to walk away, plan to think of something else, plan to drink a glass of water. Again, this seems like learning how to have willpower. If you’re like me though, I’ve been known to drink a glass of water while staring intently at the burrito I really want.
In the end, I know my eating habits are my own. Knowing there is science behind them is comforting to a degree, but doesn’t change the fact that only I am in charge of how I eat, how much I eat, when I eat, and what I eat. I’m going to keep trying to make good choices.