The way human beings have been designed has guaranteed the perpetuation of the species for millions of years.
Human nature has been biologically designed for survival and reproduction. There is a reason why we seek food and shelter, avoid foul-tasting water, make friends, search for romantic partners, and stay out of dangerous places. We do this things to increase our odds that we’ll survive and reproduce. If we are successful, our offspring will repeat this process with the same fervour. The design is based in a biological feedback system that rewards us with good feelings, when doing well at important goals of life. That’s why eating a meal feels enjoyable (we need to eat in order to survive), it’s also why getting a good night’s sleep feels good (we need rest to repair our bodies and to recharge our nervous system for another day of effort), and of course it’s why sexual activity is so exquisitely pleasurable (we need to have sex in order to reproduce). Bad feelings play a part as well, and although they are unpleasant, they are valuable signals that important life goals have been threatened and they encourage us to do something about it. This motivational system is a three part mechanism that encourages us to seek pleasure, avoid pain and energy conservation. This three components collectively are called “The Motivational Triad”.
This design affects our relationship with food in the following way; when we are presented the option of eating a stalk of celery or an apple, we’ll tend to choose the apple because it has a higher caloric density. However, if instead of a celery stalk the alternative option against the apple are chips, we’ll go for the latter. The high caloric content of the chips will activate the reward mechanism with higher intensity, which means that our brain will produce higher levels of the hormone dopamine. More dopamine, more pleasure. The reason behind this is that higher caloric content food, will guarantee energy reserves when needed, thus increasing the chances of survival in times of scarcity. During millions of years that scarcity was common in a natural environment this system worked perfectly, guaranteeing the survival of our ancestors. However, in the last hundred years or so, the rules of the game have changed and scarcity is no longer a problem. Nowadays, there is plenty of food throughout the year but the inconvenience is that our human design remains the same. Therefore, every single time we eat a meal, we’ll always tend to choose high caloric dense foods, as this also means higher dopamine production in our brains. Remember more dopamine, more pleasure.
The food industry aware of the dopamine reward mechanisms, add sugars and fats into their products, which stimulate dopamine production. As well as several chemical compounds like MSG (monosodium glutamate), natural flavourings etc.. that artificially activate the dopamine stimulation paths. That’s why, when we start eating their products (crisps, biscuits, chocolate bars etc..) is so difficult to stop, and we feel like eating them time and time again.
In nature, certain experiences are designed to encourage successful behaviour, as such they are extremely pleasant and reinforcing. The primary sources of pleasure are food and sexual activity. This is because success in this arenas is necessary for survival and reproduction. Such moments are biologically expensive and are thus designed only to be short term, minutes rather than hours. In contrast the moods of happiness are a different reward system. Though not as intense, they are not naturally limited. We are designed by nature to sustain positive moods all day, so long as we seem to be making progress toward worthwhile goals, usually incremental steps toward pleasure or pain avoidance. Modern life has magic buttons that can short-circuit the natural connection between happiness and pleasure-seeking behaviour. These magic buttons can be activated by products such as recreational drugs, processed foods, pain-relieving medications, gambling etc… These magic buttons are dangerous, as they appeal to the instincts embedded in the motivational triad, but rob their victims of health and happiness. This deceiving of our instincts has been termed “The Pleasure Trap”.
It is not our fault being designed this way. It’s a really difficult task having to fight pleasurable foods over healthier foods, every single meal, every day. The food industry and their marketing campaigns, a big chunk of the food in the supermarkets, the eating out options etc… offer us a full list of pleasurable dopamine secreting comfort foods. Basically, these products are everywhere. This doesn’t help either, to put it mildly.
Willpower won’t take us too far on this matter, as it’s not possible to fight constantly with only willpower the desire to eat foods that will stimulate the dopamine centre of the brain. However, understanding our design and its implications towards foods and acquiring awareness of it, is a big step in the right direction. Hopefully, this will help us to establish a healthier relationship with foods and make better choices, as it’s our responsibility to do something about it.
Tragically, most people are totally unaware that they are only a few weeks of discipline away for being able to comfortably maintain healthful dietary habits, and to keep away from the products that can result in the destruction of their health. Instead, Most people think that if they were to eat more healthfully, they would be condemned to a life of greatly reduced gustatory pleasure.
In the following post we’ll see how to establish a practical approach to adopt healthier eating habits.