The Relationship Between our Brains and our Food Choices

The Relationship Between our Brains and our Food Choices

Over the last couple of days I have been listening to interviews with health professionals through the online “Eating Psychology” conference. I just had to share some amazing information that will most likely set a lot of people free in terms of their eating behaviours.

As you know, my passion is to help people to make their own healthier choices by showing them the way via delicious wholefood recipes. For some, making that change can be really tough, especially when you have addictions to certain foods. Whilst you may enjoy the new meals and snacks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the call of the old ways doesn’t pull you back.

There were two speakers in particular that really resonated with me not only because of the struggles I have heard from others but because of my own weaknesses around food. I know I find it easy to stay on track when I am in my own environment and following my usual routine. However when I spend some time away and end up eating out at cafes/restaurants with mainstream food, for a while afterwards I have terrible cravings for sugar. I have never really understood this since I cut down on all that stuff a long time ago and it seems to take so little time for old habits to come charging back! The other problem that I and I know many others have is to eat when not really hungry. Well two women had some very insightful things to say on these topics. They were Geneen Roth and Dr Pam Peeke.

First of all, lets look at what Dr Peeke said; one of her opening statements had me hooked! It was that “Food habits are imprinted onto our genes”. We actually inherit our food habits not only through environment but regardless of it. The environment will then serve to provide some or no support for these habits. Think about it; your mum and dad have their regular doses of processed and fast food. Then you come along and feast along with them on the same diet. As you grow, you see advertising for these same foods on TV and bill boards and then you visit the supermarket and those same nasties jump off the shelves and into your trolley! Well they may as well, for all the resistance you have to them.

teisharyanThis just reinforces the importance of making positive changes to diet and lifestyle from a very young age.

The second epiphany came with Dr Peeke’s description of what happens in our brains:

Within our brains are 2 reward centres. When they are stimulated either by a natural high (beautiful scenery or positive thoughts) or an unnatural high (refined sugar or a fast food meal), they release Dopamine throughout our bodies which makes us feel pleasure. We have many Dopamine receptors which aid this process.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.

What Dr Peeke found during her research, was that when the pleasure centres in our brain are overstimulated, as is the case in the modern diet (high in hydrogenated oils, refined sugar and table salt), the Dopamine receptors are reduced. This means that the recipient needs to seek out more and more of those “quick fixes” in order to experience pleasure.

junkfoodRGBDr Peeke also explained that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain (the centre of will-power), gets damaged by this behaviour making it near impossible to overcome the problem with will power alone. The result of a person wanting to give up these poor food choices can be totally self-debilitating when they fail over and over to make lasting changes. They then feel “helpless, hopeless and defeated” which leads to “toxic stress” and a resulting downward spiral in behaviour and emotions.

Don’t worry though – it is not all bad news. In fact this information is quite liberating if you think about it. The cause of addictive behaviour is physiological rather than an inherent weakness of will as so many people believe.

The second great piece of news is that it can be fixed! I remember when I was studying Kinesiology we learned about the self-healing brain. My teacher was a big fan of the book, The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. In this book, Doidge describes how our thoughts can literally re-shape our brain, creating new super-highways that can supersede the pathways leading to self-destructive behaviour.  So lets put these two pieces of information together. If a person has one of those brains in which the pleasure centres and pre-frontal cortexes are damaged, AND they have a deep desire to change their poor eating habits (and any other self-destructive behaviours), they can heal their brain through changing their thought processes. In this way, it isn’t a matter of trying to fight the impulse with non-existent willpower, rather it is a way around the problem using a new perspective. Dr Peeke found that meditation is one of the best tools to gain this new perspective. It is now scientifically proven (for those who needed it) that meditation will heal the pre-frontal cortex! Add a healthy dose of self-compassion to your mediation practice and you are well on your way.

The second point I wanted to address was what I like to call procrasti-eating. Like yesterday I wasn’t hungry at all,  and all I could think about was “what can I eat”. In that moment, I decided to put Geneen Roth’s advice to the test. That advice is to sit with the feeling and find out what is behind it. What are you really hungry for or what are you avoiding? What feelings are there and what thoughts lead to those feelings. It didn’t take long for me to work out what was going on. The next item on my to-do list was to make some phone calls to shops about the possibility of selling my book. Cold-calling has never been a passion of mine and it actually makes me really uncomfortable. What better way to distract myself than by finding a snack! Once I realised what I was doing, I did forget about the pantry and just made myself get the job over with. It really wasn’t so bad when I did it either.

Food is something that rules our lives, whether we like it or not. We need it to survive, we eat it, talk about it, shop for it, think about it, see it EVERYWHERE and use it as a tool for better or worse. Our emotions and our food choices are often so intermixed and if we let them, can become a part of how we see ourselves and relate to who we believe we are. Rather than feeling un-empowered by the vast supply of what we “shouldn’t” be eating and the difficulties in avoiding temptation, use the information I have passed on to become an empowered consumer. Decide where your true hungers lie and ask yourself some important questions: What are your passions? What fears do you need to face? When are you using food as a crutch or an escape? Decide who you want to be and how you want to live and move forward on a cleaner, healthier path.



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