Lack of information is not the barrier that is keeping people from reaching their goals.
You can access information about pretty much any topic you want related to health and wellness for free in an instant.
Sometimes it can be hard to comprehend some of it, but there are always people to help you simplify things…and they do it for free! (I hope I am one of those people!)
The hard part about making long lasting changes related to health and wellness often has to do with the mental side of things.
Getting out of our own way is by far the biggest barrier to change.
You know you probably shouldn’t be eating a sleeve of cookies every night, but yet you continually sit down and do it.
You know that exercise is something you should be doing but it can be so hard to keep up an exercise practice for more than a few weeks.
What makes things worse is that you are often your own worst critic.
People can become very hard on themselves when they can’t do what they know they should be doing.
They beat themselves up.
They say horrible things to themselves.
This in turn makes them feel terrible, and no one wants to feel terrible.
After repeating the cycle a few times, and feeling so bad about themselves, many people give up.
Unfortunately I can’t promise you that I can teach you how to never eat the sleeve of cookies or how to be consistent with an exercise practice. What I can do is try to give you insight into WHY we make these choices even when we know we shouldn’t. Hopefully once you know why you can use that knowledge to change your behaviors for the better.
To illustrate the why, and the power some foods have over us we can turn to some science to give us a better understanding.
There was a recent study (Habitual Daily Intake of a Sweet and Fatty Snack Modulates Reward Processing in Humans, 2023) that looked at how habitually consuming a high fat high sugar snack or consuming a low fat low sugar snack could potentially change our preference for fatty and sweet foods.
The study participants included both males and females and all were considered healthy, meaning they had no pre-existing medical conditions. For this study about half of the participants consumed a high fat high sugar yogurt and the other half consumed a low fat low sugar yogurt. Here were the macro breakdowns of the 2 yogurts:
High Fat High Sugar Yogurt: 160 calories (40.8% fat, 45.6% carbohydrates, 13% protein)
Low Fat Low Sugar: 156 calories (17.1% fat, 29.1% carbohydrate, 51.9% protein)
Prior to the yogurt intervention researchers had the participants eat different types of puddings containing various amounts of fat. They also had then consumed apple juice containing various amounts of sucralose, making the juice more or less sweet. They had participants rate how much they liked and wanted to eat each pudding and juice they tried. After the yogurt intervention they then had participants repeat these taste tests and measured how much change there was in their preference for each of the different food items.
Researchers also measured changes in brain activity in anticipation and consumption of a milkshake both before and after both interventions to see if snacks affected the brain’s reaction to the milkshake.
Lastly researchers looked at brain regions related to associative learning to see if the brain improved its ability to learn depending on the dietary intervention. This data point might seem like an odd one to measure…why were they looking at participants ability to learn?
Think of how animal trainers will get animals to learn to do different tasks on command. They often use food as a reward for successfully completing a task. Hold out a food item the animal really likes and they will be more likely to do the task.
The sight of the food item increases levels of a hormone called dopamine. Dopamine is all about wanting something. The sight of the food increases dopamine, causing the animal to want the food item and therefore they complete the task to get it.
Humans are no different. If you hold out a food item that someone really likes but tell them they have to successfully complete this learning task to get it, dopamine goes up and they complete the learning task.
Therefore if consuming a high fat high sugar food item or consuming a low fat low sugar food item produced better associative learning results researchers could infer that the “wanting” of that food caused them to better learn the task.
In terms of fat and sweet preference changes, the high fat high sugar snack group significantly decreased how much they wanted and liked the pudding with no fat in it. They also significantly decreased how much they liked and wanted the highest fat pudding as well. However the low fat low sugar group didn’t have any meaningful change in wanting or liking the different puddings of various amounts of fat.
Researchers also found there were no significant differences between the two snack groups in terms of liking or wanting the drinks of various sweetness.
While there were no differences between the two groups in terms of liking or wanting sweet drinks, both groups tended to like and want the less sweet versions of the drink less than baseline as opposed to the more sweet versions. This is interesting to me because there was a change from baseline for preference for sweet. More on this insight later in the post when we get to actionable takeaways.
The high fat high sugar group had greater brain activity related to anticipation and consumption of the milkshake compared to the low fat low sugar group. The high fat high sugar group also had more brain activity related to learning compared to the low fat low sugar group. This indicated that the high fat high sugar group both wanted and enjoyed the milkshake more than the low fat low sugar group.
Here is a nice visual summary of the results
As always we want to understand how this research applies in the real world.
It seems like the high fat high sugar yogurt caused more changes in food preference and the brain’s reaction to foods than the low fat low sugar yogurt.
Let’s apply these yogurts to real world foods so let’s see what we can take away from this study and apply in the context of our own lives.
High fat high sugar foods are things like pastries, cookies, donuts, essentially most ultra-processed foods.
Low fat low sugar foods are going to be vegetables, and some fruits.
What’s the #1 source of calories in the US?
Cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars (Top 10 Sources of Calories in the U.S. Diet, 2014)
If we then take the results of this study and look at the top source of calories in the US we can infer that by eating these foods we are altering our food preferences to want more ultra-processed foods like cakes, cookies, and donuts and wanting less of the low fat or low sugar foods, like the fruits and vegetables.
What foods are higher in calories, the ultra-processed foods or the fruits and veggies?
You guessed it, the cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps etc.
Now we can see how consuming these foods can end up in fat gain.
Here is the problem, your body wants you to eat these high fat high sugar foods. The higher calorie foods were great for survival thousands of years ago when calories were scarce, and high fat high sugar foods were rare to find. Now however we don’t need to worry about the lack of calories and these foods are not only commonplace, but easily accessible and CHEAP.
Understanding that the foods we eat can alter our wanting and liking for them and also understand that our body is naturally going to want these higher calorie foods can allow you to potentially take back control and in turn make better choices.
If you succumb to the sleeve of cookies don’t beat yourself up and think “here we go again!”
What’s done is done, you can’t change the fact you ate the cookies, and have some comfort that it’s perfectly natural to succumb to the temptation, your body is doing what it was designed to do.
My advice is to focus on tomorrow, or better yet focus on your next meal.
We know based on what we learned from this research that the veggie omelet you should have at your next meal is not going to sound as appetizing. Instead the cookies you ate are going to cause you to want a nice stack of pancakes with maple syrup and butter.
Don’t go into your next meal without a plan instead be proactive. Plan out your next several meals and make them be something that is more in line with your goals. Commit to eating those foods and by executing this plan you can reset your preferences.
By eating a diet higher in protein, moderate in fat, and lower in sugars (virtually 0 added sugars) you can reset your body’s preferences.
Can we also use the insights from this study to completely avoid eating the sleeve of cookies in the first place?
You might be expecting me to say that if you eat low fat low sugar foods you will not crave the high fat high sugar foods.
In actuality this study did not show this.
Look at the wanting changes for fat (figure C) and sweetness (figure D) after the intervention for the low fat low sugar group
The wanting rating for fat in low fat low sugar participants didn’t really change across the various fatty puddings while their wanting for sweetness decreased for less sweet juices and even slightly increased for the sweeter juices.
In my opinion this illustrates the side effects of long term restriction. If you continuously restrict things to the extreme long term you are likely going to want that thing more and more. Eventually your willpower will run out and you will cave and eat the thing(s) you are restricting.
Now I am not going to say “everything in moderation” because I realize that for many people they can’t just have one cookie, it’s all or nothing.
How can we find a nice middle ground then where we have a little fat, a little sweetness and also continue to have low fat low sugar foods as well?
My bias is to always turn to whole foods that fit the bill.
For example, what if you had some berries with some melted coconut butter or some full fat whipped cream a few times a week?
Could this “natural” food which is sweeter and fattier keep your wanting for higher fat at higher sugar ultra-processed foods at bay?
Not only could this satisfy your (natural) desire for fattier and sweeter foods, but it also provides you with a bunch of micronutrients that would be absent in the cakes, cookies, pies, chips, etc, that most people are considering. The micronutrients could further reduce cravings for these foods because you are getting the essential nutrients your body needs.
With access to virtually any food we could imagine in an instant today it is extremely challenging to eat foods that best serve us. Everyone struggles with this. Part of the struggle is because we are naturally drawn to consume these foods based on hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. The other part of the problem is that these foods can influence what we will likely choose to eat next, and it will be likely we choose more of the same.
Once we understand this though, we can use it to our advantage to try and both avoid the highly processed high fat high sugar foods to begin with and to also put some forethought into our next meal when we do end up eating the cookies.
While part of me wishes we could return our food environment back to something that more supports our health, I know we are not going to be able to “put the toothpaste back in the tube” at this point. So if we can’t eliminate these foods from our environment the next best thing is helping people to navigate their food environment in a way that best supports their goals.
This is what I do with the information I provide through my newsletter. It is free and actionable! You have nothing to lose by signing up, just enter your email address below.
Habitual daily intake of a sweet and fatty snack modulates reward processing in humans. (2023, April 4). PubMed. Retrieved June 7, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36958330/
Top 10 sources of calories in the U.S. diet. (2014, November 6). Harvard Health. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/nutrition/top-10-sources-of-calories-in-the-us-diet