I'm aware while I am eating that my choices aren't benefitting future me. I never feel good after. Yet I keep repeating the cycle.
I don't know why I keep doing it. I often swear that I'll stop. "No more cheese," I say to myself. Or, "I'll stay away from sugar." But somehow, even with the restraints I put on myself, I still want what I "shouldn't" have – sometimes even more.
Plenty of people choose to eat foods they know aren't very good for them
I'm not the only one who struggles with this. When I wondered aloud about this decision-making process on Twitter, several users shared their stories about foods they consume even if they'd be better off staying away from them.
Zach Honig writes that even though he knows he's susceptible to gout, he still indulges in red wine, rich foods and beer.
"I just deal with the gout attacks from time to time," he says.
I’m susceptible to gout, so red wine, beer and rich foods are on the naughty list. I just deal with the gout attacks from time to time.
— Zach Honig (@ZachHonig) August 24, 2022
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Sean Devlin added that food helps to get through the "slog" of the daily grind. And another user, @pablopaycheck, said they choose to eat foods that maybe they shouldn't "Because yoloooooo," meaning you only live once.
Why do we keep choosing foods that we shouldn't?
The answer isn't clear-cut. There are a variety of reasons why we choose to eat what we eat that are dependent on the individual, their circumstances and other factors.
There's a spectrum when it comes to healthfulness and food. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, says David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic's Bariatric & Metabolic Institute. But there are foods on the less healthy end of the spectrum that we choose to consume – even with logical consequences such as a stomachache or higher cholesterol levels down the line.
"Some people actually think about it – they might have kind of this cost benefit analysis... what am I going to get from this, what does it cost me, and they make a decision based on that," Creel says.
But that's not how everyone's brain works. For others, habit plays into the decisions they make: "A lot of people though, they just kind of do what's familiar to them, and they don't do it with a lot of thought."
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What happens in the brain when we choose to eat something?
Two areas of the brain are stimulated during the eating process.
"We know this from people who do brain research that there tend to be two different drivers: Liking food when we eat it – our brain responds and we can see that through imaging – and there's also a wanting piece," Creel says.
Both are important. If someone is having a craving, that's a "wanting" experience. It's similar to when someone who smokes is asked whether they like to smoke. They may not "like" to, but they do crave a cigarette. If you are in an emotional state you may crave a specific food, too.
The "liking" experience comes after eating or experiencing a food. Sometimes, liking and wanting feed into each other but they happen in different areas of the brain, Creel explains.
The physiology of how we decide what we want to eat is complex, Creel says. It also varies based on who is making the choices.
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So, what are some of the factors play into the way we choose food if we aren't actively assessing what the outcome of our eating decisions will be?
Foods that taste good and seem 'fun' are appealing to us
"The reason why we consume those things that are we shouldn't for whatever reason, is typically driven by taste or flavor," says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford in England. "It's sort of hard to resist the temptation of the sugar, or the salt or the fat."
And part of why foods taste good is based on our associations made in connection to those foods.
"I ask my patients a lot what would you describe as a fun food? And things like pizza, or ice cream or cake, they come up," Creel says.
So, if you're bored on a Friday night, you might order a pizza since that could be associated with fun, and could satisfy an entertainment quota for the brain as well.
Another association might be how comfort foods are identified. Creel associates homemade buttermilk biscuits with his grandmother. Conditioning from our upbringing contributes to how we associate food and when we want it. So, it might not even be the food's flavor or taste that appeals to us as much as the association we pair with the food, Creel says.
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We sometimes weigh immediate desire over long-term impact
Spence says that we tend to value what happens immediately more than what is likely to happen in the future.
People "might be drawn more to the reward of those ... typically great tasting foods in the moment because we weigh that more heavily," he explains.
Spence says that's a weighing the now more heavily than the future is a general tendency of the human brain. It can go beyond food, too, such as deciding whether to put money into savings or spend it now.
Evolution plays into our choices, too
How we choose what we consume also has to do with human history and evolution, according to Spence.
The human brain, he says, will pay more attention to foods that are energy dense with extra attention to those high in fat. We're evolved, he supposes, to find thosefoods attractive because at one point they were essential to survival.
Long ago, perhaps people were struggling to find sufficient food. But now, many of us live in a "food rich environment," Spence continues, explaining that some of the foods are maybe more energy dense than we need now.
"The brain evolved for feeding, foraging and fornicating." he says, noting we all find it hard to difficult to override what he calls "ancient urges."
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How do we change our decision making process if we aren't happy with the choices we've been making?
Creel says he often encourages patients he sees to pause before taking action and consider their choice – not to see anything as "forbidden" but as two options that could have different outcomes.
"If you tell yourself 'I should have one thing' and 'I shouldn't have another thing', it kind of sets us up to not do well," he explains.
For example, if we say to ourselves, "I should have an apple" and "I should not have cake" you either:
A) Eat the apple and feel like you missed out on the cake.
B) Eat the cake and feel guilty because you didn't eat the apple.
But, if you choose to look at these choices while weighing the outcomes, then, your actions will likely be different.
Changing "shoulds" to "coulds" gives you freedom to make the decision, Creel says, noting it removes guilt.
So, if you "could" have an apple or you "could" have cake your decision might look more like this:
A) You choose to eat an apple that you think you will enjoy because it's a very good apple.
B) You could choose to enjoy the cake because it's your favorite kind or it's your birthday – whatever the reason may be – and find that you don't have guilt because you made a conscious decision that eating the cake was worth it.
By making mindful decisions, it's not only the guilt that could be removed. Creel says that you may also avoid something less healthy like cake if you came to the decision to have the cake in a mindful way.
Being mindful can enhance the enjoyment of all kinds of foods, he says: "I think it can really help on both sides of the equation – it can be helpful to not over consume unhealthy foods and can help promote the consumption of healthier foods."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Food choices: Why we eat foods we shouldn't and tips for mindfulness