Overcoming The Challenges Of Changing Your Eating Behavior
Delaying the onset of chronic diseases and extending your active lifespan are usually considered desired outcomes. But to achieve these outcomes, a person requires continued focus and determination for repeating healthy eating behaviors during almost every meal. The problem is, the social, cultural and physical environments in which you live and work can often override your underlying desire, as meals tend to activate many pleasurable memories of similar situations.
Nevertheless, you can overcome this challenge to a healthy lifestyle and maintain your motivation to pursue it if you better understand how a behavior pattern gets established and modified, for better or worse.
How do your eating behaviors form?
In a simple answer, they occur through repetition of the behavior pattern which is governed by the nervous system. Although hormones in the body may aid in the learning of new behaviors, it is the repetition of it that trains the nervous system.
Each behavior you have consists of an input that triggers it, nerve impulses through the brain that process it, and an output that manifests itself in your actions. When your brain receives information, it creates connections between neurons located in various locations, depending on the type of input, forming networks similar to crisscrossing strings of Christmas lights. However, unlike the lights, activation of one neuron in the string can activate the whole string.
Once the brain’s neurons are organized into functional networks, each handling different thought process, these pathways of signaling become fixed. The more you do that behavior, the stronger the pathways become to form a memory pattern. As you keep repeating the behavior pattern, your response to inputs like the original one that started the network becomes automatic, especially if the result is a pleasurable one as in eating.
In fact, when your brain detects a familiar input, it reminds you of the enjoyment you experienced from a similar action in the past, and urges you to do it again and again. Think about how you eat almost automatically when you are given a plateful of food as appetizer each time you make a social visit. You probably start eating it without thinking, even if you had promised yourself would not.
Where the Automatic response comes from
Changing an automatic eating behavior can be easier if you know the real reason for its activation. It occurs due to a “smell and taste-based response” called “chemical sensing,” which is a basic process in nature for all living organisms—from single-cell amoeba to humans—for how they acquire nutrients. When you eat in response to hunger, it is the sensations of smell and taste that allow the brain to connect with food that contains nutrients useful to the body. When this is verified to be true after the meal and absorption of nutrients the body needs, visual cues take over to speed up the process. This is not surprising because, as mentioned earlier, the brain becomes more efficient to perform an action with repetition. The brain even tries to prevent established neuronal pathways from being easily modified, for fear of altering vital pathways needed for survival, for example those associated with breathing and heart beat.
Given that satisfaction and enjoyment are derived from eating, it is not surprising some people become so conditioned to the response when they see or smell food that they eat even when not hungry. The brain may allow such consumption because the brain recognizes that there may be a few nutrients in the between-meal food that the body could use at that time, or perhaps it wants to participate in creating a moment of happiness.
How to Change Your Eating Behaviors
The best way to alter an established eating behavior that is detrimental to health is to avoid the triggers that start the automatic response. Automatic responses are most often precipitated by conditioned cues, either visual or olfactory. These usually occur during celebrations, when eating out, or when eating is combined with an activity such as a business meeting or friendly get together. Therefore, watch out for these situations and make plans not to be temped until you develop the willpower to rationalize and act accordingly, to preserve your health.
Altering the response when you encounter a cue that has elicited a pleasurable eating experience in the past is difficult. It takes time to establish a different pathway using a new string of neurons. It can take repetition of the new behavior many times to establish a new automatic response. Meanwhile, you have to fight off the old pathway which is still in the brain and could be activated automatically as the brain has done many times in the past for immediate gratification.
If you fail to adhere to eating only what is needed for health reasons, it often creates feelings of guilt and inadequacy. You may start doubting your own capability to persevere—and just “give up” and begin eating whatever you want whenever you want. But you have to realize that this is how nature set it up for humans – it gave us an automatic response to the sight and smell of food. Any change to established neuronal pathways that nature evolved in us has to be gradual and deliberate.
So, my advice when you feel that you cannot stop overeating or gaining weight is to think about how your brain is trying to change thousands of connections between neurons to accomplish a change in your established behavior. As long as you are making some progress, you have to keep working at it. It may take months or even years, but you can achieve your goal to change your eating behaviors. Don’t think it is impossible.
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