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How Our Brains Manipulate Us to Eat Irrationally

How Our Brains Manipulate Us to Eat Irrationally

Do you think you could resist if there’s a pizza fresh out of the oven in front of you? Smells good and looks crispy? Whether or not you’re actually hungry, you probably wouldn’t turn down a slice. If you had to wait 15 minutes for it, would it be easier to say no?

We’re bombarded with opportunities to make unhealthy choices every day. When junk food is readily available, the urge to indulge is even greater. There’s a satisfaction that comes with seeing a warm chocolate chip cookie or an ice cream cone and indulging right away.

You brain is wired to eat on impulse

Our relationship with food hasn’t evolved even though our dining options are more plentiful than ever. Eating high-fat and high-sugar foods when they were available was once a key to our survival.[1] Our brains are wired to enjoy the instant reward we get from chowing down, which leads to the impulse munching you catch yourself doing in the break room or the food court.

When you have the opportunity to enjoy something, your brain gets a hit of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that rewards us for our behavior.[2] The positive association we make with the action drives us to be impulsive, even when taking advantage of the situation now may yield less favorable results than waiting. Would you rather have the piece of cake now or a beach body in six months?

The brain’s chemical response to these enjoyable situations is amplified by society’s need to have everything right now. Every time we check our smart phones or social media, we are also rewarded with dopamine.[3] We no longer wait for anything, and it’s turning us into dopamine junkies.

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We want it all, and we want it now

This drive to get everything as quickly as possible leaves us chasing instantaneous rewards. We want instant gratification.[4] It’s our need to get what we want as quickly as possible that causes us to do things like neglect our retirement accounts so that we can buy the newest gadgets. Instead of spending 45 minutes preparing a nice home-cooked meal, we head to our freezers to microwave a substandard dinner in five minutes.

We’re all guilty of chasing instant gratification, and it is only through mindful consumption and interactions that we can learn to control our impulses.

You can see the big picture, but you’ll still battle your drive for more dopamine

Society and chemical reactions in your brain set you up to get your reward by the quickest means possible. This is an absolute nightmare for people trying to live a healthier lifestyle.

When you indulge in the hot slice of pizza in front of you, the reward that you get is instantaneous. Junk food really does make you happy. The problem is that too much of it can also make you unhealthy. Exercise can make you happy too, but it takes time to get satisfaction from working out. You have to endure a certain amount of suffering before you can see and feel the rewards.

It is so easy to become lost on your journey to better health when it seems like you have to run the gauntlet of temptation every day. You may know that you’ll live longer and have an improved quality of life by taking care of yourself, but it takes time to see and feel the results. You can feel the joy of that cookie as soon as you eat it.

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Commandeer your body’s drive for rewards

If a person trying to lose weight sees the number on the scale go down, then he or she feels a surge of motivation. People who experience a plateau in their weight loss or fitness goals tend to become frustrated.

We have to change how we think about being healthy if we want to stick to fitness goals. We know that the rewards of living a healthy lifestyle are present every day when we commit. We have the autonomy and physical capability to do whatever we choose. We gain the energy that we need to do challenging and exciting work.

Obesity leads to a myriad of health-problems such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.[5] Many of these issues are life-threatening, or at the very least, they are life-altering.

Feeling tired all the time can cause you to under perform at work, and it prevents you from enjoying activities associated with an active lifestyle. Tired and unmotivated people do the bare minimum to satisfy their requirements, but they don’t innovate and they don’t typically enjoy what they do.

You know what being healthy can do for you, and you’ll have to actively wrestle control back from your dopamine-seeking brain. If you can learn to recognize small rewards that happen instantly when you opt for a healthy lifestyle, you may be able to overcome temptation.

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We are less likely to commit if the reward is not certain

One of the things that makes enjoying immediate rewards so gratifying is that we don’t know what the future holds. Imagine that someone offers to give you $1,000 today or $10,000 10 years from now. Which would you choose?

Even though $10,000 is a significantly larger sum, most people opt to take the $1,000 in quick cash. They may think, “I could really use the grand right now,” or “I might be dead in 10 years,” or “The person who made the offer might change his mind.” It’s normal to worry about the uncertainty of the future and act in favor of the here and now.

When we ignore our long-term health for short-term gain, we will almost certainly end up with nothing. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure.” We can’t control everything about our health, but we can certainly put forth an effort and make a commitment to wellness.

Making changes that lead to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to be hard. Start with small choices such as going for a walk every day or avoiding keeping your favorite snack within easy reach. At first, you’ll crave the instant gratification of lounging on the couch or chowing down, but eventually, you’ll want movement and healthy choices more.

As some point in your journey, the paradigm will shift in your mind. You will appreciate feeling more energetic and less achy, and that reward will overpower your desire to eat a sleeve of cookies. It may take a long time to reach this point, but if you can celebrate small victories every day, you’ll make it.

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Don’t make it harder than it has to be

Making healthy choices becomes more difficult when you try to do everything in absolutes. People who try to become vegan overnight or cut out sugar all at once make their health journey harder. Their first step is so much more drastic, and when they give into temptation, the dopamine hit and the subsequent guilt are also much stronger.

The reward for dramatic change is almost invisible, which means that you’ll lose motivation quickly when you don’t see results. Take small steps toward your goal. Instead of banning all sugar from your diet, cut back on select snacks or tell yourself, “If I want cookies, I am not allowed to buy them. I have to bake them from scratch.” The aspiring vegan would do well to cut out one type of meat at a time instead of emptying the entire contents of their fridge and living off toast and hummus.

You’ve already taken the first step

If you’re reading this, then you are already interested in improving your health. The first step on a journey to wellness is to be more conscious about food choices and exercise. By understanding the forces that could stand in the way of a healthier you, you can make sustainable changes.

Retrain your brain so that its reward response is triggered by different activities. When you make subtle changes over an extended period of time, you’ll readjust your definition of what you find rewarding.

Reference

More by this author

Jolie Choi

Having experienced her own extreme transformation process, Jolie strongly believes that staying healthy takes determined and consistent action.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

    Why You Need a Vision

    Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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    How to Create Your Life Vision

    Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

    What Do You Want?

    The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

    It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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    Some tips to guide you:

    • Remember to ask why you want certain things
    • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
    • Give yourself permission to dream.
    • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
    • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

    Some questions to start your exploration:

    • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
    • What would you like to have more of in your life?
    • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
    • What are your secret passions and dreams?
    • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
    • What do you want your relationships to be like?
    • What qualities would you like to develop?
    • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
    • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
    • What would you most like to accomplish?
    • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

    It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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    What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

    Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

    A few prompts to get you started:

    • What will you have accomplished already?
    • How will you feel about yourself?
    • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
    • What does your ideal day look like?
    • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
    • What would you be doing?
    • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
    • How are you dressed?
    • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
    • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
    • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

    It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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    Plan Backwards

    It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

    • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
    • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
    • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
    • What important actions would you have had to take?
    • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
    • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
    • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
    • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
    • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

    Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

    It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

    Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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