Why We Give InGuest Post by Jessica Almy, Center for Science in the Public Interest
I love that Michelle puts into words what so many people struggle with. Whether we’re trying to lose weight or eat more fruits and vegetables, we all find ourselves sometimes acting in ways that are at odds with our long-term goals.
Why is it so hard? In a perfect world, we would set goals for ourselves, make choices consistent with those goals, and live happily ever after, right? There would be no late-night binges and no feelings of regret or moments of weakness. We’d only buy the foods on our grocery lists, and when we eat out, we’d keep portions modest and ignore the basket of chips.
In this fictional food world, there would be no candy displays at the supermarket checkout and no tantalizing food ads on television. Food companies wouldn’t bother to spend billions of dollars to market particular food products to us. Instead, they would scramble to reformulate their foods to compete with Big Broccoli.
That’s not real life though. In real life, our decisions suffer when we’re tired, stressed out, or have had a tough day. We respond to cues to eat that we may not even be conscious of. And food companies bombard us with marketing, ranging from TV and internet ads to displays at the supermarket.
Research shows that urges to eat are more frequent than urges to sleep, drink, and have sex combined. When those urges are at odds with what we want for ourselves - as they often are - they become a source of stress that can make it harder to make good choices going forward.
Just as people living in poverty have a harder time resisting temptation after they’ve made financial choices, people who are dieting have stronger physiological responses to the sight and smell of food than people who are not dieting. These stronger responses actually make it harder to resist. And it’s not just dieters who are more susceptible to temptation either. Adolescents, perfectionists, people under the influence of alcohol, and people who are sleep deprived (like most new parents) are too.
No one is immune though. Self-control is like a muscle that fatigues with use. It’s one thing to pass up pastries in a bakery window on the way to work, but it can feel entirely different on the way home, after sitting through a meeting that required us to hold our tongues and resist the lure of a candy dish on a colleague’s desk all day.
Simply put, when we’re tired or stressed, it’s harder to make good decisions.
Plus, most of us cannot trust our sensations of hunger to guide us to eat optimally. The sensation of hunger is not just the physiological need for calories—it can result from environmental cues, the passage of time, or the anticipation of an eating occasion.
In one study, a group of women were exposed to the smell of baking pizza and/or asked to write about pizza for 10 minutes, while another group did not receive any pizza cues. Afterward, researchers gave all the women pizza to eat and asked them to fill out a survey. The women exposed to the pizza cues consumed significantly more pizza than the other women.
The environmental factors we contend with on a daily basis influence our food purchases and consumption, often in ways that are hidden or beyond conscious cognition, making healthy eating a struggle.
Consider the grocery store. Retailers use displays and sales promotions to prompt us to buy and eat particular foods. Supermarkets don’t put candy only in the candy aisle. They entice shoppers to buy candy they pass in the seasonal aisle, on end caps, and in line at checkout.
We recently looked at the foods, beverages, and products promoted at checkout in 30 chain stores, and we found that nearly every store pushed candy or soda at checkout. Many of these stores are not even in the business of selling food.
We can’t even buy electronics without facing candy and soda at the register. How can we be expected to resist temptation every moment of every day?
Being mindful of the factors that make it harder to make good decisions is a positive first step toward healthy eating. But it’s not enough. It’s not possible to eliminate stress and fatigue from our lives altogether.
We also need to work together to make it easier to live in ways that are consistent with our long-term goals. That’s basically what we do at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. We try to make healthy eating easier. To join this effort, click here.