Can it be as easy as developing healthy meal plans and hoping for the best? With the obesity epidemic on the rise in the US, the topic of willpower in relation to eating habits has gained a lot of attention. Recently author Jessica Gross talked about the willpower of eating habits in TED .
Based on study results of Brian Wansick, professor of applied economics and management in Cornell she decided there’s much less willpower when we choose how much and what we eat, than you can imagine.
Every day we choose among about 200 different food choices, more or less without realizing this.
This habit of choosing food is a consequence of the abundance of offers on the shelves, online, in restaurants and in our own cupboards can distract us when creating healthy meal plans.
But, as we share common food preference, there must be something genetically speaking, which goes beyond learning and experience, forcing us to obey.
First, let’s look at how appetite, satiety, taste, color of food and eating are all related to gain further understanding.
We have a complex net of constantly- firing signals between nerve centers in the brain. These run between vison, memory, smell, taste and mechanical stimuli from the mouth, stomach and gut.
It seems that biologically, especially the filling of the stomach and lower parts of the digestive system play a significant role in the process.
Early life experience and learning plays a big role in the eating habits we adopt as adults. For example, if you ask a North American, “What’s comfort food?” they might say “macaroni and cheese”.
Pretty sure you wouldn’t get the same answer in, say, Mongolia or Rwanda. Hungry? The question “why do we feel hungry?” The answer seems obvious.
It’s because we need to get nutrients to survive. Hunger is the motivation for us to be able to know that we need to get the nutrients in our body.
But how do we really know that we are hungry?
The answer can be analyzed by three different components: biological, learned, and cognitive. If we have learned, that French fries are good for us, its anchored deep in our memory and so the smell of frying potatoes may trigger hunger.
However, this preference of taste, smell, or texture is a culturally learned preference. If one does not like sushi, the smell of sushi does not trigger hunger.
Unlike any other beings, we humans use an external clock in our daily routine, including when to sleep and when to eat. This is a good thing to consider when creating healthy meal plans that are realistic.
This external time triggers our hunger.
For instance, when the clock says 12 pm, lunch time, many people feel hungry just because it is lunch time. This hunger is triggered by learned behavior.
Our conscious decisions are made in the cortex. You may think, this is where I decide about my life, this is where I decide whom to love, what to eat, how much to eat. Sorry to tell you: this is a dream.
And that’s the reason why so many people are falsely called as: “fat people are weak people, they are not disciplined”.
Which part of your brain exactly drives your eating habits? The hypothalamus, also known as the food regulator.
For instance, a simple genetic defect in the hypothalamus, might mean someone may not eat or even starve themselves to death, like with Prader-Willi Syndrome.
This tells us that the hypothalamus has a big role to play.
But this gland gets signals from the memory areas, via nerve tracts controlled hormonally and by neurotransmitters: here biology meets psychology. This is what we find:
- The appetite and satiety center in the brain (in the hypothalamus) is the deciding and executing gland that controls our feeding.
- Receiving smell or texture signals from our memories (a cut of steak may trigger your saliva glands for example), plus the placing of food, surroundings (you may have company or eat alone, the environment is with soft music or silence), color and taste can all trigger behavioral and metabolic responses. The purpose? To maintain energy balance (homeostasis).
- We also have much more complex instinctual drives which are in charge of metabolic health and also triggers/modulates our instinctive eating habits.
- Reward and motivation aspects of eating behavior are controlled by neurons in limbic regions and cerebral cortex.
- Because of our huge neuronal connective system, firing back and forth with high speed between all involved brain areas, the moment you have the idea or inner picture of a food you like, you become hungry.
- Visual, smell and taste stimuli stimulate secretions from our glands and gets our gut in motion even before we start eating. This shows that just seeing your food alone can cause similar reactions in the body that occurs when you eat!
What happens next?
Once the food is in the gut, your brain receives signals from the gut walls. Our hormones therefore play a significant role in your metabolism. It’s also widely known that most hormones have a strong anabolic effect and trigger appetite.
You can observe this, when you’re fasting. Fasting suppresses hormonal secretion to a very low level. And this makes sense. If hormones are triggering your appetite, why would you want to have high hormone levels during starving?
Brian Wansick studied groups of volunteers to understand how what they see, smell and taste has an impact on what and how much they eat.
The goal was to find out if our eating decisions are influenced by:
- Package design
Wansink concluded: “we tend to eat with our eyes and not our stomach”. This may pose a problem when finalizing healthy meal plans.
The outcome was:
- Size matters: The bigger the food size, the more we eat.
- Color matters: color contrast reduces the food intake, one color food increases the amount (in his study he used Alfredo sauce (white) or Marinara sauce (red) by 22%).
- Visibility matters: the more on the table, the more you eat.
- Placing matters: the further away food is from our eyes, the less we eat. The study took 213 people to an all- you-can-eat buffet. They found those with lower BMI were likelier to sit with their back to the buffet table and eat less.
- Surroundings matter: If the atmosphere is more relaxing (think soft music, candlelight’s, comfortable seating) you tend to eat less, you enjoy food more and you digest better.
The food industry has taken this knowledge to their advantage.
They’ve used it to manipulate smell, taste, colors, increase portion sizes, invent fast food restaurants where you can smell the food from miles away.
For us in Thanyapura Health, these findings raise some crucial questions.
Can we use the results of these studies in an opposite way to reduce the metabolic epidemic?
Can we use the results to lose fat and maintain a healthy lean/fat ratio in our bodies?
Can we use the results to help us choose a balanced diet instead of the junk food we see everywhere?
Here’s how you turn it around when creating healthy meal plans…
Size: reducing the size is important. As studies show, even with small sizes, the customers don’t eat more. People eat less and slower when they have only a little portion size.
Color: show on one plate more colors. The more colourful our plates the easier it becomes for our brains to tell us we are full (veggies and salads always help with this element).
Visibility: don’t show too much of the high caloric food. That means at home, stock up your cupboards with healthy, less processed and low caloric foods. Every time you go to cook something therefore, the temptation won’t even be present.
Placement: For restaurants, keep the food display at a distance, roughly 6 feed from the table to reduce customers going back for more.
Surroundings: when eating at home or choosing a restaurant, try and opt for the ones that are calm with a nice atmosphere. Going to eat with someone is a great way to reduce food input too; you’ll be too busy talking!
Food chains, who want to make money in a short time and increase the number of customers, cannot do this. This is against their philosophy.
For Thanyapura however, health is what matters. Therefore we take the opportunity to use the study results to support our brand new cutting edge scientific program which merges the renowned and experienced FX Mayr medicine with our preventive , regenerative and Anti-Aging methods. This knowledge of the brain – gut connection will be a very important part.
About the Author
Pierre Gagnon practised concentration and insight meditation intensively from 2010 to 2012, then went on to study meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh with the venerable Ajahn Po from 2013 to 2015. As well as his own practice, he has coordinated meditation retreats in the south of Thailand which were attended by more than 1,000 people.
Having a great passion in the field of neuroscience, he likes to integrate these concepts into meditation practice. He believes that much of our life is lived resisting and defending against internal and external experiences that people perceive as threats. Through the development of concentration and meditation, we can insightfully see that all experiences are harmless and there is no need to defend of contract around them. Pierre has experience coordinating concentration and insight meditation retreats, teaching the relationship that exists between Buddhism and neuroscience.
About the Author
Bochakorn began her education in conventional medicine as a nurse, then shifted to embrace natural healing and integrative medicines. Her training and certifications abroad include: Nutrition and Western Herbal Medicines, Acupuncture and Moxibustion.
During her therapeutic sessions, she may also incorporate other aspects of integrative medicines when required, including: acupuncture, cupping therapy, moxibustion, nutritional, supplements and herbal recommendation.