It’s something that happens to us all. After a few weeks of being good by exercising and eating right, we decide it’s time to treat ourselves. That usually means unhealthy eating. No big deal, right? Well, that’s true if you can control yourself. But depending on what type of food you choose to reward yourself, you could be in for a bad food binge even if eating healthy is a long-ingrained habit.
Foods as Drugs
Thinking about the foods you eat like you might think about street drugs may seem quite a stretch. But when you understand how certain foods affect your system, it really does make sense.
Some unhealthy foods can not only be addictive, but can act as a path to even unhealthier food choices, much like some drugs – called ‘gateway’ drugs – can lead to the usage of more serious drugs.
When you ingest those unhealthy ‘reward foods’, which are usually sugary, fatty or both, your brain processes them as it would any other drug, releasing dopamine into the system to enhance your experience. And what ends up happening is your eating can get out of control. In fact, even thinking about your favorite food can send your brain into reward mode. The ability to taste the food you’re eating serves to further compound the problem, as all of your senses become involved.
In your liver, reward food results in insulin production. More insulin in your system results in you feeling like you need more of that food.
The Unhealthy Eating Gene
If you find it especially difficult to control your intake of unhealthy foods, a gene may be partially to blame. A recent study revealed that over 60% of people carry this gene, named FTO. The good news is, however, that even though the gene is linked to obesity, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the activity level of those who carry it, which means that exercise is not a barrier.
For those who carry the gene, it may be more difficult to adopt a healthier lifestyle through eating better and exercising, simply because the signals are stronger to do just the opposite.
Common Unhealthy Eating Triggers
Whenever you feel stress is a prime time to reach for something unhealthy. Whether it’s at work or home, stress triggers cortisol, commonly known as the ‘fat hormone’, which some say is responsible for excess belly fat. The release of cortisol sends your brain the message that your body needs something sweet and fattening to make things better.
You may have the most organized grocery shopping list around, but hitting the store to stock up can also lead to unhealthy eating. Maybe that new cookie you saw on TV is on sale this week. Or that chocolate ice cream may look more tempting than it did on your last trip.
Any kind of exercise can result in you feeling entitled to reward yourself. And that’s just when many of us rush to the nearest fast-food place for a quick fuel-up. Not only is it reward food, but it can fill you up fast, too.
Staying On the Healthy Eating Track
There are a few things you can do to avoid unhealthy eating at vulnerable times. Forgiving yourself for your unhealthy eating sins is the best initial move you can make. Understanding that you are only human doesn’t excuse your bad behavior, but it does allow you to acknowledge it so that you can move on.
If you’re knee-deep in chocolate sundae and find you feel bad about what you’re eating, put it down and replace it with something healthy. Stopping mid-binge to opt for a healthy alternative is perfectly okay to do. Plus, it can be empowering to physically take control of what you’re eating.
Redirecting your thoughts when cravings hit can be another way to avoid eating unhealthily. Try engaging your brain with the same tactics used to overcome other craving types; try finishing that Sudoku puzzle, or try to count from 20 to 1.
Overcoming unhealthy eating habits may not be something that’s considered to be easy, but it certainly isn’t impossible when you have a wealth of tactics at your disposal to try.
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