It feels so good, but it feels so bad

Once upon a time, long, long ago I took a class in behavioral psychology, or maybe it was human sexuality, where I learned that we either consciously repeat or do not repeat behaviors based on the memories we form during the behaviors. If we touch something hot, we get burned. That sensation creates a negative memory, and we are unlikely to purposely repeat the behavior. But, when we remember an experience as positive, it is highly likely that we will try to reenact the experience to recreate the same pleasurable response. Sometimes these good feelings get taken too far.

The phrase “emotional eating,” is based on the idea that our eating patterns are driven by memories. Without realizing it, we make a connection between food and feelings. The act of eating food tends to be emotional, or habitual, and rarely do we eat because we are actually hungry. It is the pleasurable sensation created via chemical responses in our brain when we eat that drives our behavior.

Within the field of food science it is widely known that (in the most general terms) the processed foods you are eating are engineered to be addictive so that you repeat the behavior of purchasing the product. Sugar, for example, is added (in one form or another) to everything in nearly everything we eat. This is not by accident. Sugar is addictive. When we eat products that contain sugar, the pleasure centers in our brain light up like a Christmas tree. The downside for us, and the upside for the food industry, is that over time the same amount of sugar that once made our brains glow doesn’t create the same illumination, and it begins to take more and more sugar to attain that same original sensation.

So, because sugar makes our brains happy, it creates the pattern of behavior where we keep going back for more. The problem now becomes that at the same time we are achieving these amazing sugar induced sensations we also experiencing sugar crashes, weight and other health related issues tend to arise, and over time, we may possibly fall victim to self-image and self-esteem issues based on our inability to “beat the bulge.”

We know that eating too much or making poor food choices leaves us feeling bad. So why do we repeat the pattern of behavior? Why do the negative feelings we have after our food related binges not override the drive to binge in the first place? Maybe the issue for some people is not the quantity of food, but the quality of their food choices. I have never thought to myself that I regret choosing a healthy meal over an unhealthy meal, but I have regretted overindulging on a number of occasions.

I do not I have the neuroscientific answer to why the lasting memory of one behavior outweighs the memory of the other. However, I do think it has a lot to do with immediate gratification, and, I do think that is something to keep in mind when we are making our dietary choices. When preparing (and I use that term very loosely) your next meal, take a moment to think about this: “Even though this food tastes really great, and my brain just loves how it feels when I eat it, will I feel just as good afterwards, or will I regret my choice for some reason?”

I believe that if we are able to step back for a moment and weigh the immediate versus the long term outcome of our food choices and our eating behaviors, then we will be able to break the cycles that we have created for ourselves, and this will be how we finally “beat the bulge.”