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Food Cravings Are Not Your Fault

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For as advanced as the human race is, we certainly have our shortcomings. We can have a face-to-face conversation with our loved ones instantly on the other side of the world through a tiny device that fits into our pocket, yet we can’t turn down donuts.

We have all this power at our fingertips and within our bodies…but we feel powerless over certain foods. “Oh, I can’t say no to cake.”

Yes you can, it’s a baked good and you’re a human being. Tell it to f-off. Let’s see cake use an iPhone.

When I say it like this it sounds so simple and easy to resist these foods we crave. Add in the facts that these foods make us fat, sick, and tired, and saying “no” should be a certainty.

Yet I still struggle to turn down donuts too. How come I struggle with food cravings still to this day and I have all the knowledge and willpower one could possibly want about these less than ideal foods?

This has been the book I’ve been wanting to write for a few years now…how to find a new relationship with food via the stories we tell ourselves, and in spite of our histories that have been written with food.

For me, it’s been a work in progress, and I’m still writing that story, right here, right now.

Recently, I was rereading my Kindle highlights from James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.” I had a realization about how much these books that aren’t diet books, help me with my nutrition. These books about mindset, grit, stillness (Check out Ryan Holiday’s new book “Stillness is the Key”) and habit building are helping me more at this point then an actual diet book can.

James’ book points out how our brains are in a conflict in today’s world. Our environments have evolved at a breakneck pace in the last 100 years, and our brains are working to keep up. I’m not talking about our intellectual brain, we’re the smartest we’ve ever been as a human race. I’m referring to our other two brains in the triune brain model, the reptilian and mammalian brains.

The mammalian brain is the one that handles our emotions, mood, memory, and hormones. We think we control the mammalian brain, but it controls us more. Our society finds it hard to deal with things like mental health issues because most people can’t understand why sad people can’t just “be happy”. It’s this breakdown in what we think we can control and what actually controls us, that is behind our food cravings and shitty food relationships.

James states in his book, “After spending hundreds of thousands of years hunting and foraging for food in the wild, the human brain has evolved to place a high value on salt, sugar, and fat. Such foods are often calorie-dense and they were quite rare when our ancient ancestors were roaming the savannah.”

“Today, however, we live in a calorie-rich environment. Food is abundant, but your brain continues to crave it like it is scarce. Placing a high value on salt, sugar, and fat is no longer advantageous to our health, but the craving persists because the brain’s reward centers have not changed for approximately fifty thousand years. The modern food industry relies on stretching our Paleolithic instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose.”

I don’t want anyone to read this and think salt and fat are necessarily bad. In the right amounts from good sources these things help us thrive. Note that for now.

Nonetheless, he’s spot on about cravings. Either we want something salty, sweet, or fatty.

Sure, you could want something on an emotional or nostalgic level too; I craved vanilla milkshakes from Burger King (McDonald’s would do too) because my parents got me vanilla milkshakes after our basketball games on Saturday mornings. I love those shakes and speak about them in the emotional sense because those are some of my best memories ever. I crave them because there was over 100 grams of sugar and over 20 grams of fat in each one. This hardwired my craving into my mammalian brain.

Let’s talk science for a second. Food science. It’s something companies spend millions of dollars on each year to get you addicted to their products. It’s hard for me not to associate the food marketer with a drug dealer at this point with the commercials I see geared towards our kids. As Jason Fried writes in his book “ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever,” “Emulate drug dealers. Make your product so good, so addictive, so ‘can’t miss,’ that giving customers a small, free taste gets them coming back with cash in hand.”

Customers are definitely coming back, even if they don’t realize why.

James adds in his book, “A primary goal of food science is to create products that are more attractive to consumers. Nearly every food in a bag, box, or jar has been enhanced in some way, if only with additional flavoring.”

James continues, “Companies spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip or the perfect amount of fizz in a soda. Entire departments are dedicated to optimizing how a product feels in your mouth—a quality known as orosensation. French fries, for example, are a potent combination—golden brown and crunchy on the outside, light and smooth on the inside. Other processed foods enhance dynamic contrast, which refers to items with a combination of sensations, like crunchy and creamy. Imagine the gooeyness of melted cheese on top of a crispy pizza crust, or the crunch of an Oreo cookie combined with its smooth center. With natural, unprocessed foods, you tend to experience the same sensations over and over—how’s that seventeenth bite of kale taste? After a few minutes, your brain loses interest and you begin to feel full. But foods that are high in dynamic contrast keep the experience novel and interesting, encouraging you to eat more.”

As you read this, do you understand why food cravings are not your fault?

Your ancestors didn’t have to deal with the food products that are out there today. They never had the option to UberEats a 1,200 calorie vanilla milkshake to their doorstep from their phone. They didn’t have food marketers cultivating products with the sole goal of provoking certain responses in their bodies.

Realizing the power my cravings have over me has helped me deal with them. I’ve written about being addicted to ice cream in previous posts. That craving has dwindled to the point of rarely eating it nowadays. I only got there by giving ice cream the power it deserved.

In trying to avoid the craving, it only got stronger. If you’ve ever been told to not think about something, then that’s all you thought about, you know what I mean.

Address the craving head on. Give it the power it’s due. Tell the food or drink how divinely it was made to make you want it so bad. But then tell it you’re going to beat it (not eat it) in spite of all those things, because you’re a badass human that can use an iPhone.

What cravings are you struggling with and which ones have you beat? How have you beat them? I’d love to know.