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Path to Health - Day 3: Why We Overeat

Why do we overeat? I mean, we all know what it takes to eat healthy. So why don't we do it? For decades, we've labored under the idea that as long as we have enough correct knowledge about a topic, we'll do the right thing regarding it. But information isn't the problem. We've been living in the Age of Information for many years now, and we're not doing as dramatically better as the information available would dictate we should be. So what gives?

I mean, everybody reading this already knows just how unhealthy fast food is for us, yet most of us still want to eat it, and it's still a booming industry worth billions of dollars a year. Well, the answer is because we're not as logical and rational as we'd like to think we are. In fact, I'd wager that about 99.999% of our choices and behavior comes from factors other than the logical information processed by our prefrontal cortex, and I'm talking all our choices, from the mundane to the monumental, from deciding what to eat for breakfast to determining what we major in at college (or even if we decide to attend college at all). If we want to truly overcome our baser urges and less-desirable impulses, then we need to get real and start analyzing where human behavior actually comes from. Which is why I introduce to you a simple method of my own design to understand this:

The CHEEP Way To Understand Behavior

"CHEEP" is an acronym that basically explains the five biggest causes of human behavior, and they are:

C - Chemical: While there is still debate on how exactly we define the human consciousness or soul or mind or whatever you wish to call it, we can all agree that it's controlled by the human brain--a physical, tangible object existing in actual space-time. And being a real, physical object, the brain is subject to interactions with chemical elements just like any other bit of physical matter. This means that as our brains are affected by chemicals being fed to it, our minds will use that input to help us decide what to do next in any given scenario. Feeling afraid and getting a rush of epinephrine or adrenaline? That'll help determine how you respond in a Fight-Flight-or-Freeze scenario. Stress at work bogging you down and increasing your cortisol levels? You may snap under the pressure because your brain is having difficulty processing higher, more abstract thought.

And when it comes to food, your taste buds send signals to your brain to release a hit of dopamine whenever you taste something particularly salty, fatty, or sweet, because we evolved thousands of years ago under conditions where those types of foods were scarce, so your brain was setup to tell you to consume as much as you could once you found them, because it was unclear when you'd next get another feeding of those things. Now of course, we live in a culture with so much abundance that we can tap into these pleasure centers of the brain at a whim, which is not something we're evolved to cope with on a biological level. At the end of the day, all your brain wants chemically--all your behaviors and decisions--boil down to trying to get as much dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins as possible. I'll talk a bit more on this in a later post. For now, let's move on.

H - Habitual: Habits are a HUGE factor in how we go about our daily lives, and it's really a necessity. Our brains account for maybe 4% of our total mass, but use up an average of 20% of the energy we consume daily. That means that the more time your brain has to make a conscious decision on the most mundane things such as which shoe to put on first, the more energy you need to consume just to keep yourself alive. So our brains evolved with this wonderful little thing called the basal ganglia, which is where habits are stored. To learn how habits really work and how they affect our lives on both macro and micro levels, I highly recommend reading Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit, but the basic way it works is that you have a Trigger, which leads to your learned Action, for which you get a Reward. The most famous model of this is Pavlov's work ringing a bell to get dogs to salivate in anticipation of a treat, but it works just as insidiously for us humans as well.

If you want to start eating better, it takes roughly 4-9 weeks to form a new habit, depending on the habit itself and the person undergoing the change. Starting small is usually the best option, and if you don't want to take the time to read Duhigg's tome on the matter, BJ Fogg has written a very short ebook and hosts a free weekly class on implementing tiny habits, which you can find here. I'll write a bit more on the specifics of habit formation in a later post, but I challenge you to look around you as you go through your daily life and try to pick up on whenever you react autonomously to a given stimulus--you might just be recognizing an ingrained habit. Now we come to...

E - Environmental: If you don't think environment is a major factor in deciding how we behave, then you're going to be a sucker for all sorts of businesses throughout your life. Corporations know extremely well just how much environment influences behavior, and they exploit this knowledge as much as they can. Did you think that McDonald's just picks a random place to set up a new restaurant? They carefully analyze where that store will sit within the greater environment surrounding it to determine how much traffic they can expect and hence how much money they can make. Or think about why we call gas station stores "convenience" stores. If you want to know why you're paying $2 more for a snack at a gas station than at a grocery store a few blocks down the road, the answer is right there in the name: we pay more for the convenience, because it's more suited to our environment.

The defaults in your environment are often deciding factors in how you behave, because we are naturally inclined to be lazy. It's why companies that automatically enroll new employees in a 401K have far more employees participating in the 401K match than companies that require employees to fill out a form to enroll themselves of their own volition. And when it comes to food: well, whatever is most available to you is likely going to be what you eat the most. It's why many health experts advocate purging your kitchen of all junk food--just eliminate the environmental temptation entirely. But of course, you still have environmental temptations outside your house as well, and I will address how to compensate for those in a later post. Let's move ahead.

E - Emotional: We are emotional creatures. When people talk about whether or not life is fair or good to them, or how high a quality of life they think they have, what they are really talking about are emotional responses. We define the quality of our lives based on the quality of the emotional experiences we have. And the reason why emotions affect our behavior far more readily than reasoning is simply because of the geography of the brain. The amygdala, where emotions are processed, is closer to the reptilian part of the brain and the brain stem that leads down to our nervous system to control our movement than our prefrontal cortex (where reasoning happens). In other words, it takes a signal longer to reach the necessary decision-making impulses if traveling from the prefrontal cortex than if it's traveling from the amygdala. It may be only a split-second longer, but guess who usually wins in that foot race? Your emotions.

Improving our emotional intelligence--improving how well we understand our own emotions, how introspective we are, and practicing restraint--is the only way we are going to win the battle against our emotional drive. If you find that you are an emotional eater, that you turn to food due to some sort of stress in your life, then this is where understanding your emotions becomes absolutely critical. There are some good resources out there on emotional intelligence--too many for me to list--but if your problem is severe enough, you might want to think about seeking out a therapist, especially one who specializes in the psychology behind weight loss or eating disorders. And now finally...

P - Pathological: When nothing else can explain away someone's erratic behavior, it may just simply be faulty wiring. Everyone is flawed in one way or another, and some people have neurological conditions that prevent them from consciously deterring their own destructive behavior. This is only going to explain a small percent of the human population, but I would be remiss to exclude it from this list. In regards to food, there are some people who have a disorder which prevents them from ever feeling full, no matter how much they eat. Without intervention, these people often become morbidly obese and risk eating themselves into an early grave. If you honestly feel that you have no control over your eating habits, then I would highly recommend you seek out professional help immediately.

I hope this has been informative and insightful to you, and I'll be expanding on some of these topics in future posts in this series.