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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

Gone through a few heartbreaks and lost hundreds of friends but I am still happy with my life.

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Last Updated on March 13, 2019

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on the small tasks.

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

2. Take a break from your work desk.

Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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3. Upgrade yourself

Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a friend.

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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6. Paint a vision to work towards.

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

7. Read a book (or blog).

The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

8. Have a quick nap.

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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9. Remember why you are doing this.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

10. Find some competition.

Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

11. Go exercise.

Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

12. Take a good break.

Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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