The Science of Food Choices
Learn new brain-based insights into helping people adopt healthier eating in ways they can sustain.
Michelle Segar is an award-winning University of Michigan researcher and lifestyle coach. She is member of the IHRSA’s Medical, Science, and Health Advisory Council and was the inaugural Chair of the National Physical Activity Plan’s Communication Committee. She has spent almost 30 years helping individuals and organizations learn how to create sustainable healthy lifestyles. She wrote her new book, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting changes in Eating and Exercise, to help individuals and the professionals who work with them create lasting changes through purpose, positivity, and joy.
It should be easy, right? Make an eating plan, buy the food, eat healthy. But then our clients or members quickly bump into something that derails everything. Sometimes it’s other people—a child who needs help with homework or a supervisor who needs that report written now—and sometimes it’s just temptation—the siren call of a warm croissant as our clients pass a bakery. Then what happens? That draining feeling that so easily arises in our clients and their go-to: “I fell off my plan so I might as well just give up.” Or, the other common response: “I just don’t have any willpower.”
But changing eating behavior is really hard. It’s not just one decision in the beginning; it’s continual decisions about how and what to eat each time we come to a meal, or encounter tempting food, or go out to dinner with friends—you get the idea.
The truth is, changing our eating patterns is very complex:
- Food prep has a lot of moving parts: menu planning, grocery shopping, pleasing others in the family and meal times.
- Food is everywhere: at home, at work, in restaurants, at parties and at the grocery store.
- Food is emotional: we’re hungry, full, unhappy, happy, resentful, stressed out or celebratory.
And it’s not just the food our clients are eating; it’s the memories of their past experiences with food that color each bite. They may find it hard to resist pasta because their grandma served them heaping, delicious bowls to comfort them after a hard day at school. Cake may hold a special place in their heart because their mom baked them birthday cakes every year. A special event meal at a great restaurant may exert a pull because they experienced it with their partner when they first started dating. Simply put, food is love—the love of others and the love we give to ourselves.
But there’s an emerging theory of eating called the grounded-cognition theory of desire that helps explain why these eating memories and experiences are so powerful—and important for adopting new eating patterns. This theory explains that we remember food in a complete way: how it looks, tastes, the texture, our state of mind, the environment and the people we were with. This is not just a plate of food; it is a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory minefield. And when we encounter it with our current feelings of hunger or sadness, or the need to be rewarded, our brain generates a strong desire to recapture that experience. Bon appetit!
So why is this important to know about? Because these deeply embedded experiences and memories—some of which might not be conscious—can influence people’s (ours and our clients’) choices outside of awareness. But once we learn that the cake isn’t just a baked, delicious-looking entity—it’s enacting processes deep inside our brain that are influencing our feeling states—we can better grasp the true situation, and that means we can better take charge of our choices.
When we help our clients deconstruct what’s really going on when they feel tempted using the latest science, we can finally help them construct a new pattern of eating decision-making that can finally be sustained.