You Are Programmed to Avoid Immediate Danger (which makes it hard to eat right)

running-scaredWhy is it so hard to stop eating foods you know are contributing to your early expiry and supplant them with foods shown in a preponderance of nutrition research to be life-promoting and disease-resisting?

That’s a hard question to answer, so let’s try another. Have you ever eaten some scrumptious something only to “re-experience” it later, maybe due to food poisoning or a stomach virus? And that food you upchucked, were you able to resume eating it soon, or did it linger in your mind (and near your gag reflex) in the form of a very unpleasant culinary memory (and sensation)?

Years ago, I purchased a fresh-picked grapefruit from an organic farm stand I tended in Santa Barbara. After a long afternoon selling produce and the 12-mile bicycle trek back home, I topped off a stir fry dinner with my juicy sweet-n-sour ruby red as dessert. Little did I know that I was to revisit those soon-to-be overly acidic taste sensations later that night when a presumed norovirus caused me to eject the contents of my unhappy stomach—grapefruit first. That puppy wasn’t nearly as yummy the second time around, and that was the last time I enjoyed the pleasures of citrus for a very long time.

I was frustrated. Intellect told me the innocent grapefruit wasn’t the cause of my malaise, but instinct said otherwise, for every time I reached into the produce bin to pluck one out, an upwelling of the stomach forced me to put it right back where I found it.

Luckily, our bodies evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to recognize poisonous or rotten pabulum and then get rid of it fast. As a bonus, to insure you don’t make the same mistake twice, your brain creates a very negative association with the object of your near demise, rendering the potentially dangerous food unsavory. (Unfortunately your brain doesn’t differentiate between salmonella poisoning and a poisonous mushroom—it just creates that negative association with whatever you ate last—which means your brain can inadvertently give healthy foods a bad rap.)

This nifty mechanism (whereby the brain creates negative associations), while useful forovereating foragers and rotten meat eaters, only works when we get instant feedback about a food’s toxicity (in the form of vomiting, for instance). But when it comes to dangerous foods like animal products and refined carbs—which don’t generally cause acute distress—the brain operates on more of a buy-now-pay-later principle. (i.e., eat now and deal with the cumulative consequences in a few decades).

And that brings us back around to the question opening this post. Changing your diet is hard, in part, due to the lack of immediate unpleasant consequences following a meal. I mean, if you projectile puked after every Big Mac or bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos, do you think you’d keep eating them?

To top off the fact that there are no immediate negative consequences to eating unhealthfully, bad food actually makes you feel good! The added sugar, salt, and fat triumvirate happily plug into a brain wired for starvation—and just to make sure you always take advantage of available calories, your brain thanks you for eating them with pleasant feelings of satisfaction, while simultaneously removing the irritability, light-headedness, and stomach rumbling.

So are you doomed to a life of slow gustatory suicide, courtesy of your evolutionary heritage? No, but until science develops an antabuse for the Standard American Diet, you’ll have to employ a number of strategies (many of which are delineated in prior posts) to overcome this neuronal glitch. For starters, before making a choice you’ll regret later, remind yourself that,  Bad food, like cigarettes, has a cumulative effect. Each meal of bacon and eggs or patty melt and fries does a little more damage and undermines my long-term health a little bit more. Just because I don’t feel ill doesn’t mean everything’s ok.

Caroline’s compulsive eating program helps people adopt a nutrient-rich diet by teaching them the psychology of permanent weight loss.

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