Fast food is designed to appeal to our inbuilt brain pathways to trigger over-eating, being over-weight, and cravings.
You now have the knowledge to avoid the “bliss point” foods, and start improving your health and nutrition.
Today we’ll cover the next part of the healthy eating challenge – tips and hints on how to use psychology to replace fast foods with healthier and more enjoyable alternatives.
1) Break the habit
In his TED talk, Judson Brewer (1) explained that the best way to break the habit of eating fast food is to become aware of the mechanics of the craving. How do you feel just before, or when you crave fast food?
Do you feel down? Bored? Stressed? Annoyed?
Analyse the craving, and think of where it is coming from. You might need to think back to what you have been doing, thinking or feeling just before you had the craving. This analysis allows you to examine the craving from an outside viewpoint, and find other ways to relieve the feeling of being e.g. down, bored, stressed or annoyed.
2) Be aware of bliss-point foods and drinks
Bliss-point foods have been processed, with the levels of fat, sugar and salt carefully set to appeal to our brains’ reward circuits. If you think for a moment about the types of processed and fast foods that make you want to keep eating more of them, you’ll get a list of these foods!
Learn our trigger foods. If we bring a list of them to mind consciously, we can admit that they are our triggers. We know the foods that we have found difficult to resist in the past. We are all experts at denying the effect they have on us, and brushing this effect under the ‘mental carpet’!
With this knowledge, we can:-
- Avoid them (e.g. don’t go past the fast food shop, or if we do, don’t stop!)
- Replace them with a healthy snack or meal that is similar but homemade (e.g. oven chips instead of chip shop chips). Substitute natural foods for processed fast foods. Substitute water (with a SMALL amount of fruit juice mixed in if required) for sugary drinks including sports drinks and diet drinks.
3) Be aware of stress
Stress may induce food cravings and influence eating behaviours (2, 3, 4). Women under stress have been shown to eat significantly more calories and experience more cravings than non-stressed women (5, 6). Furthermore, stress raises your blood levels of cortisol, a hormone that can make you gain weight, especially in the belly area (7).
Using this research, we can explore the reason for our stress in a compassionate and understanding way.
We can also use other ways to manage stress:
- taking exercise
- doing yoga or meditation
- taking some deep breaths
- talking to a friend about what’s bothering us
- seeking professional help from an anxiety / stress specialist
4) Change your viewpoint
A study in 2013 (8) showed that when people were trained to use cognitive reappraisal when thinking of fast food, their desire for it decreased. (Cognitive reappraisal is where we alter the meaning of a situation so that our emotional response to the situation is changed).
They were asked to view the craved food as if:
- they were already feeling very full
- they just saw the food item sneezed on (yuk!)
- they could save the item for later
- It would have a negative effect on them (stomach-ache, weight gain)
So, we can use these techniques of ‘cognitive reappraisal’ to make fast food less appealing.
6) Mindful – slower – eating
This involves eating food more slowly, and not doing other activities while we are eating. It also involves being more aware of what you are feeling emotionally and physically, and what prompts you to eat (e.g. appearance of food, craving, hunger, depression, boredom).
You may have heard of the experiment in eating a raisin (or grape) mindfully. We first pick up the raisin or grape, and look at its texture and shape. Smell it, and think of what its aroma is like. Then place it on your tongue, but don’t chew it yet. Move it around in your mouth and feel the texture. Start to chew it slowly and concentrate on the taste. As you swallow it, remain still and imagine it moving throughout your body.
Of course, we don’t have to eat all foods as slowly as this, but mindful eating involves focusing solely on the taste and texture of the food you are eating and any sensations you feel in that present moment. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, and increases the levels in our body of the anti-anxiety chemical GABA (9, 10).
So that we can concentrate on the food that we’re eating, we can switch off the TV or radio, and make eating our sole activity at the time. Eating mindfully can help us tune into our internal hunger signals and prevent them from being overridden.
Research has also found that when binge eaters practised mindful eating, it reduced binge eating episodes from 4 to 1.5 per week. It also reduced the severity of each binge (11).
So, we can practice mindful eating, concentrate on eating as our only activity when we are doing it, and pay attention to what, when and how much we’re eating.
7) Learn what we’re really eating
Once we see what’s actually in the fast food that we are consuming, it can help us see it for what it is – processed food with chemicals added.
Many fast food outlets now provide nutritional information about the food that they sell, either in the shop or on their website.
We can look up what is in our favourite go-to snack, and get an unwelcome surprise. We may see a list including fat, sugar, salt, chemicals, and substances that sound like they have come out of a lab (they have!).
So, in this post we have learnt that there are plenty of ways we can use our brain (or psychological methods) to avoid or decrease consumption of fast foods.
The next part of the healthy eating challenge will cover tips and hints on how to use physical methods (or what we do) to replace fast foods with healthier and more enjoyable alternatives.
© Lisa Billingham, 2020
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- Brewer, J. (n.d.). A simple way to break a bad habit. TED Talks. https://embed.ted.com/talks/judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit
- Sinha, R., Gu, P., Hart, R., & Guarnaccia, J. B. (2019). Food craving, cortisol and ghrelin responses in modeling highly palatable snack intake in the laboratory. Physiology & behavior, 208, 112563. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112563
- Hormes, J. M., Orloff, N. C., & Timko, C. A. (2014). Chocolate craving and disordered eating. Beyond the gender divide?. Appetite, 83, 185–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.08.018
- Sinha R. (2018). Role of addiction and stress neurobiology on food intake and obesity. Biological psychology, 131, 5–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2017.05.001
- Pacitti, F., Iannitelli, A., Mazza, M., Maraone, A., Zazzara, F., Roselli, V., & Bersani, G. (2011). La versione italiana dell’Attitudes to Chocolate Questionnaire: uno studio di validazione [The Italian version of the Attitudes Chocolate Questionnaire: a validation study]. Rivista di psichiatria, 46(1), 38–43.
- Macedo, D. M., & Diez-Garcia, R. W. (2014). Sweet craving and ghrelin and leptin levels in women during stress. Appetite, 80, 264–270. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.031
- Tomiyama A. J. (2019). Stress and Obesity. Annual review of psychology, 70, 703–718. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936
- Giuliani, N. R., Calcott, R. D., & Berkman, E. T. (2013). Piece of cake. Cognitive reappraisal of food craving. Appetite, 64, 56–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.12.020
- Krishnakumar, D., Hamblin, M. R., & Lakshmanan, S. (2015). Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern Scientific Perspective. Ancient science, 2(1), 13–19. https://doi.org/10.14259/as.v2i1.171
- Schnepper, R., Richard, A., Wilhelm, F. H., & Blechert, J. (2019). A combined mindfulness-prolonged chewing intervention reduces body weight, food craving, and emotional eating. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 87(1), 106–111. https://doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000361
- Kristeller, J. L., & Hallett, C. B. (1999). An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder. Journal of health psychology, 4(3), 357–363. https://doi.org/10.1177/135910539900400305