As a native southerner and minority, I grew up in a culture where portion sizes were astronomical; the more butter the better; sweet tea (aka sugar tea) actually exists; everything is fried.
What is baked or sauteed chicken? It’s rude to turn down someone's made-from-scratch-homemade pound cake or whatever the hell else is made-from-scratch.
You get the idea.
No one is checking macros. We’re not worried about if the ingredients are gluten free.
Food ideologies and behaviors are engineered into us starting from the time we’re little kids. Our respective cultures and environments play a pivotal role in the development of our food behaviors from a psychological and physiological standpoint.
There’s a section of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a starring role in your eating behaviors.
Your hypothalamus is going to relay to other cells within your body on regulating how much and what to eat. Various chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain create feelings of satiety or hunger in response to the various sensory information and messages going on in your body.
Your brain is highly susceptible to the pleasure response. Food stimulates your brain to produce these “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine, which seduces you into a continual eating frenzy.
This factor is single-handedly one of the biggest causes for emotional eating and various food addictions. There are some in the scientific and research community who state the more obese someone is, the fewer dopamine receptors they have.
Why is this so important and what does it mean?
It means that they are more likely to overeat and practice bad behaviors in order to stimulate their “pleasure” response.
This is a big reason why I despise hearing some random bro dish out “eat less, and move more” bullshit rhetoric as their solution to obesity. That logic disrespects and disregards the psychological and physiological elements operating within our bodies.
Ok, the science class and mini-rant are over.
Using food to deal with your emotions and problems is going to create unhealthy relationships toward food; thus creating a habit of eating anytime something uncomfortable (i.e any emotion or a bad situation) flares up.
This type of behavior prevents you from resolving the core issue. By avoiding the issue, you’re storing that particular emotion in your body and creating further problems down the road.
Below are four childhood behaviors sabotaging your fat loss. These detrimental behaviors are habitual in nature and operate in secrecy.
1. Food as comfort
Food for comfort started as soon as mommy pampered us and fed us our favorite baby food. Throughout childhood, we’re told to “eat this pudding, soup, or insert whatever snack here, and it’ll make you feel better.”
Various emotions ranging from sadness, boredom, loneliness, or frustrations with various aspects of our lives causes us to resort to food as a way to satisfy our need for happiness and pleasure (aka dopamine).
The idea of consuming particular foods and our moods magically elevating is scintillating. It’s natural for us humans to look for a mystical genie in a bottle solution to our problems. However, feeling better has nothing to do with the foods we’re consuming—this is a weak psychological excuse.
An investigation into comfort foods
Example: You’re feeling down. Work is an abomination. Your date was a nightmare (they give love a bad name). You’re not happy with your body and the rate of progress.
When you’re feeling like dog poo—what better way to make yourself feel better than to eat some “good ole comfort food”.
Nothing soothes the soul and turns your frowns upside down better than chocolate ice cream or homemade donuts.
Right? Not exactly.
Traci Mann, author of Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again and professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota along with her colleagues conducted several research studies on comfort foods and their effect on our moods.
In one study, they took 100 college students and made them watch clips from sad movies; thus lowering their moods. Half the students were fed their favorite comfort foods and the other students ate foods they enjoyed, but wouldn’t necessarily consider comfort foods.
After eating, the researchers asked the students “how they felt”. The conclusion to this was that all students felt better, regardless of what they ate.
In a totally separate study, half the kids ate comfort foods and the other half ate nothing. After a few minutes, both groups felt equally better. The comfort foods were a moot point.
Using comfort foods as your crutch is an excuse to indulge in junk food and avoid the real issue that’s brewing.
At the end of the day, if you want ice cream, cake, wine, or cookies—just eat it and drink away, but don’t lie to yourself about why you’re doing this.
Solutions to comfort foods:
1. Ask yourself why you’re eating– Is it boredom, anxiousness, nervousness, emotions stemming from work, or peer pressure from friends and family?
2. Rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10– Are you a 10, which indicates you’re absurdly hungry or are you around a 6 which indicates satiety, but not overly full. Maybe you’re a 3, which equates to eating only out of emotional reasons.
3. Practice pausing & assessing– Before eating, take a walk, meditate, draw, or dance for 5-15 minutes. Try to occupy your mind briefly to determine if it’s true hunger or eating to cover up another issue.
2. Food as punishment
Many gamers heard this sentence:“Finish your food or no video games for you.”
For example, as adults, food becomes punishment through two different, but equally damaging scenarios.
1.“I’m removing all ice cream because I weigh ‘x’ amount”– You’re punishing yourself because you didn’t hit your goal. Using food as punishment is a secretive and unassuming behavior. To many people, it appears that you’re making the necessary sacrifices in order to elicit amazing results. However, deep down you’re psychologically hardwiring yourself with skewed perceptions of food.
2.“I’ve already failed with my diet, might as well finish this ice cream since I’ve failed”– You further indulge because you already feel defeated for slightly indulging earlier, creating a compound effect which adds up over time.
This behavior creates a negative cycle of actions and self-pity within your decision making. Someone who eats ice cream when they told themselves that they wouldn’t—starts to feel guilty—leading them to eat the remaining tub of ice cream due to feeling the day was lost (aka waving the white flag).
This cycle manifests because your thoughts lead to your feelings, and your feelings lead to your actions.
Solutions to food punishment:
1. Are you using food as a way to nourish yourself or as a way to punish yourself? Food is medicine and a tool for enjoyment, not a device for pain and depression.
2.Are your food decisions entirely based on emotions?- Relying entirely on emotions is a dangerous game due to being caught up in the heat of the moment and not having the big picture/long-term view in mind.
3.Even when you slip up on your diet, are you using that as an excuse to binge due to feeling like you let yourself down.-One mistake isn’t the end of the world. What separates the successful from the almost successful people of fitness is their ability to climb back into the ring and get back to work.
Splurged on junk food earlier in the day?
There’s plenty of time left to make healthy decisions. Finish the day strong. The journey isn’t a straight road—it’s one of many steep hills and steep declines.
3.Food as guilt
As children, we’re told to “clean our plates before leaving the dinner table”, “why are you being wasteful and not finishing your food—there are plenty of people who would be grateful to have this food”, and “it’s rude to not eat all of your host's food”.
As adults, we continue the trend of guilt with statements like “I shouldn’t have…”, “If I eat this, I…”, “I had three glasses of wine, I let myself down”, “I had too much dessert, now I have to do 60 minutes of extra cardio to burn “x” amount of calories”.
The inner voice of guilt delivers subtle jabs and roundhouses before you eat that piece or two of cake. That inner voice makes you feel like dog poop after you indulge in a couple glasses of wine.
Guilt is tough, and as a person who has personally struggled with guilt—it takes time and compassion to gain back control.
Combining food and guilt potentially leads to various eating disorders and throws your daily life into a tailspin.
Allowing guilt to spiral out of control leads to self-loathing, shame, and hopelessness towards achieving a healthy median between enjoyment of foods and fitness.
The battle of good vs. evil
When suffering from food guilt, one of the worst mistakes is to label food as good or bad. Labeling food as either good or bad prevents you from enjoying foods and developing a proper mindset towards food.
Food isn’t good nor bad. Your food isn’t involved in a war. It’s something you should take pride in, enjoy, and not resent.
Beer isn’t an evil doer. Wine isn’t a part of the evil empire. Cookies and pastries aren’t guaranteed physique killers. These foods and drinks wreck your goals only if you don’t keep them in control. Without awareness and control, you can make almost anything you consume a negative when consumed in excess.
Let go of good vs. evil. Re-frame your mindset and realize that some foods are better at providing optimal health (internal & external); thus making those foods the ones that need to be consumed the majority of times.
Solutions for guilt
1. Sit with the feeling– It’s not sexy, nor eye-catching, but the best way to control guilt is to feel the very emotion of the guilt setting forth. It’s most likely overwhelming, but starting internally is how you build up your external world into something positive. This act allows you to develop the powerful and essential skill of being aware of that moment of guilt.
2. Question yourself– When you feel guilt settling in or you’re questioning something—ask yourself why three times about why you’re feeling guilty and assess afterward if this guilt is warranted.
3. Have some perspective– At the end of the day, Webster (aka the dictionary) defines guilt as an emotion experienced when you feel you’ve violated a moral standard.
Look at it this way, you aren’t running someone over, looting, stealing, or disrespecting Jamiroquai—you’re only eating a cookie, enjoying a slice or two of pizza with friends, or enjoying a soothing glass of Merlot (it’ll be ok).
Life needs to be enjoyed—stressing over the little tasks steals precious energy needed for the big decisions.
4. Food as reward
As a kid, were you told that “If you get all A’s on your report card, you can go to Chuckie Cheese (don’t act like you don’t know what that is)?” Were you told, “If you clean your room and make your bed all week—you can go out for ice cream?”
When we grow up, we’ll tell ourselves “I’ve been eating so clean lately, I totally deserve to eat these brownies.” “I strength trained four days this week, it’s okay to eat these dozen cookies.” “I was on good behavior this week in addition to doing extra cardio, I deserve these wings and bloody mary’s after my good workweek.”
The logic of rewarding ourselves makes sense if we’re dogs.
Rewards also make sense if you went through a horrible treatment (think torture) or something that goes completely against you, but we’re only talking about food here.
Rewarding yourself with extrinsic rewards is a slippery slope because you’ll start to lose your intrinsic motivation. The task at hand becomes only about the extrinsic reward and the original goal of becoming healthier takes a backseat.
One of the first steps to living a healthy life and becoming the architect of your own body is designing an eating template that specifically fits your lifestyle. Your eating template shouldn’t be so much of a burden that you need to gorge yourself in order to jolt some happiness into your life.
Why reward yourself for eating healthy by stuffing yourself full of unhealthy foods?
Partaking in the occasional “unhealthy” treat or alcoholic beverage is one thing, but doing this reward system just to make yourself eat some veggies defeats the entire purpose of this healthy lifestyle.
This reward feasting system isn’t the same as a normal weekend re-feed or dining out with friends. One is about integrating occasional and strategic indulgences into a healthy lifestyle. The other scenario is about partaking in healthy behaviors in order to justify binging on unhealthy foods later in the week—this is psychologically counter-productive.
You’re not forming long lasting habits; thus you aren’t truly re-framing your food behaviors.
Solutions for reward-based eating
1.Pamper yourself– Get a massage, a new book, a manicure, pedicure, fancy haircut, or treat yourself to an artist's date.
2.Expand your comfort zone with new experiences– museums, weekend getaways, exploring uncommon paths in your own city, go on an adventure date—the possibilities are endless.
3.Use momentum to build your repertoire– take a yoga class and keep up with your punch cards. Use your calendar and mark an “x” after each session and if 100% compliance, treat yourself to some new workout clothes to go with your new body (remember gym performance increases by 13.3% when you feel sexy and have nice workout clothes on).
4. But, what if you need to reward yourself in a culinary sense because you love the subject of food?– Then buy yourself a new cookbook, a set of knives, or replace your least favorite kitchen utensil—then prepare a new, healthy, and physique friendly dish.
5.Do an activity you couldn’t do before– Maybe you couldn’t participate in a walkathon before or run around with your kids the entire time.
Maybe you weren’t confident within your own body to take a yoga class. Maybe you weren’t confident to take a salsa class or any other social activity because of your figure. But, after incorporating strength training and eating healthier—what once wasn't possible can now become a reality.
If you enjoyed this article or know someone who's struggling with their nutrition, be a good friend and send this article their way (many thanks). Let's stop some of this nutritional nonsense floating around.