The role of psychology in our food choices.


Why do we do what we do, eat what we eat, say what we say, and think what we think? What drives our behavior?  What is the ultimate determining factor of success, health, and happiness?

Several years back, I attended a Tony Robbins “unleash the power within” seminar. It was a powerful experience that delved into human nature and the core answers to those questions. It is the answers to those questions and, perhaps more importantly, our use of the knowledge gleaned from those answers, that ultimately gives us the wisdom to change our destiny.

In the seminar I learned that there are 2 things that drive human behavior at all times:

1) Seeking pleasure
2) Avoidance of pain

That’s it. It’s that simple. And one or both of those can be used to understand our motivations behind literally everything that we do, think, or say. Further, seeking pleasure and avoidance of pain are what have shaped literally every single decision of our lives and ultimately are responsible for how our lives look today.  Are you currently a happy or depressed person?  Fat or skinny?  Healthy or unhealthy?  Rich, poor, or just getting by?  Do you self-sabotage your financial situation, career, health goals, or relationships?  If you trace your steps backwards, you can attribute each one of these outcomes to one or several choices you have made that put you in your current position, and those choices were driven by your either seeking pleasure, avoidance of pain, or both simultaneously.

When we act selflessly, are we really acting selflessly?  Is that even possible?  I say no, it is not.

When we sacrifice for others, our motivations for doing so can ALWAYS ultimately be traced back to 2 things: 1) Sacrificing for others makes us feel good about ourselves, or 2) The pain of feeling like a bad person when we don’t sacrifice for others is too unbearable.

Let’s take giving charity as an example – when we donate to a charity, we are doing a wonderful thing by helping other people in need.  But why do we do it?  If it made you feel absolutely horrible about yourself and you believed that giving charity makes you a bad person, would you still give charity?  Probably not.  The reason why people give charity is because it makes them feel good to do it.  We believe that helping others makes us a good person and that gives us pleasure.  For some people it also makes them feel important and invaluable to others which gives them pleasure.  Others give to charity for the obvious tax breaks they receive for giving.  For some, the thought of not helping people in need while they have the means to do so goes against what they believe makes them a good person.  If that is a core belief for them, then not giving charity will cause great emotional pain.  

So, how can we apply this knowledge to make our lives better and to live a happier existence?  If we can understand what motivates our behaviors, we can begin to change them.

I believe that when it comes to our health, we focus way too much on seeking short-term pleasure, and not enough on avoiding long-term pain.

We regularly indulge in foods like alcohol, iced cream, cookies, cake, soda, candy, gluten, popcorn, GMOs, breaded foods fried in vegetable oils, and synthetic food additives.  We do this because, let’s face it, they are freaking delicious and it gives us tremendous short-term pleasure to eat them.  There is also a significant emotional attachment associated with these foods.  They remind us of our childhood, our parents, cultural traditions, etc.  Eating them brings us back to the good old days of our childhood and makes us feel good emotionally, if only for a fleeting time.  It is that intense short-term pleasure that drives us to eat foods that are literally slowly killing us!

But what if we were able to change our focus with regards to these foods?  What if we train ourselves to focus more on the long-term pain associated with regular consumption of these foods instead of focusing on the short-term, fleeting pleasure we get from eating them?  We would have to use a method that can bring all of the potentially intense future pain that is associated with eating these foods and bring it into the present moment.  And we need to make that pain feel palpable and intense enough so that it is far greater than the short-term pleasure that our brains are looking forward to by ingesting these foods in the moment.

One way to do this is by using the “Dickens Process” (another Tony Robbins exercise.  I thank my close friend Erik Nissani, an emerging life coach, for reminding me about this powerful technique a few weeks back).  If we envision ourselves in the future and imagine what our lives will be like 5, 10, 20, and 30 years from now if we keep regularly eating these foods, we might be able to force a paradigm shift in our relationship to the food choices available to us.

Here is how to use the Dickens Process for dietary choices: each time you feel like you are about to reach for foods that you know are bad for you, ask yourself the following series of questions:

  • If I keep eating this way 5 years into the future: Will I be fat or thin?  What will that do for my self-confidence? How will I feel about myself?  Good or bad?  Will I be happier, or sad?  What kind of example will I be setting for my children?
  • If I keep eating this way 10 years into the future: Will I become one of the many Americans that have type 2 diabetes, having to inject myself with insulin before each meal?  How would that make me feel?  Will I start to develop other conditions or diseases related to unhealthy eating such as heart disease, fatty liver disease, or even cancer?  How will I feel when my doctor orders me to take a boatload of prescription drugs like statins, or drugs to lower blood pressure, or for arthritis for the remainder of my life?  What will the side effects of these drugs do to me?
  • If I keep eating this way 20 years into the future: Will I be younger or older than my true age?  Will I be able to play actively with my kids?  Will I be able to exercise or go on vacations and enjoy myself given all of the complications of the diseases and conditions associated with regularly eating these foods for years?  Will I be happy or sad?  Will I have regret if I am diagnosed with a horrible illness that I probably could have prevented by not eating these foods?
  • If I keep eating this way 30 years into the future: Will I have significantly shortened my life as a result of caving into the short-term pleasure associated with eating these foods?  Will I live to see my grandchildren?  Will I die of a painful disease like cancer?

No one wants to become sick.  No one wants heart disease or cancer.  The problem is that when we are healthy, we don’t think about the possibility of getting sick.  We just like to enjoy ourselves and not think about that stuff.  We only think about disease once it is too late…after we have been diagnosed with something terrible.  I am not saying that I believe we should live our lives in fear!  I am simply saying that we should not live a life of ignorance.  Regularly eating foods that are bad for your health will eventually cause your downfall.

If we are able to consistently focus on the long-term pain rather than the short-term pleasure that is associated with regularly eating these foods, I think the decision of whether to put that morsel into our mouth or not becomes an easy one.

Furthermore, we can make this exercise infinitely more powerful if we can find different ways to gain intense short-term pleasure, other than eating that food.  Here are some ideas:

  • Find a way to celebrate small victories.  Each time you choose to avoid eating food that is bad for your health, pat yourself on the back.  Imagine how that choice is contributing to your long-term health.  Get creative!
  • Think of the positive example that you are setting for your children.  Childhood obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are skyrocketing!  By your refusal to eat that bad food, you are leading the way for your children and teaching them how to build and maintain their own health!  We all focus so much of our attention on teaching our children manners, or the importance of school and getting good grades.  But when it comes to nutrition and disease prevention, Americans fall way short on educating their children.  With each decision not to eat the bad foods, you literally help shape the future health of your child!
  • Picture yourself as an example of vibrant health 5, 10, 20, and 30 years into your future as a result of minding your health now by using a preventative mindset in your dietary choices.

Psychology is an important part of why we reach for the foods that we eat.  The more I learn, the more I understand that without understanding and changing the psychological motivations behind our food choices, the chances for the success of any healthy eating plan are slim.  We need to change our relationship with food.  One place to start is to focus on the pleasure-pain principle.

I hope that this gives everyone who reads it something to think about, and I welcome comments in the section provided below.  Thanks for reading!  

Rick Gold

Rick Gold, Functional Wellness Practitioner
Gold Functional Wellness, Inc.

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Disclaimer: The entire contents of this website are based upon the opinions of the author, unless otherwise noted.  The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of the author.  Rick is not a doctor, nutritionist, or dietician and he does not claim to diagnose, treat, or cure disease.

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