Apologies to Apocalypse Now fans.  🙂

For those of us working to return to healthy eating habits after the holidays, or to develop them in the first place, the struggle to choose a carrot over a potato chip or an apple over a cookie feels like an apocalyptic struggle.  Why is it so freakin’ HARD?

The answer lies in the structure of all those little treats we’ve been eating.  Fatty, sugary, salty little treats.  A few years ago, former head of the FDA David Kessler wrote a book called “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.”  In it, he describes the brain response to foods that are designed to be highly stimulating.  Basically, these treat foods are engineered so that we “can’t eat just one.”  Our brains respond instinctively to certain combinations of salt, sugar and fat.  And food companies know it and manipulate their foods so we eat and eat and eat and buy and buy and buy.  And then we can buy SlimFast bars and type 2 diabetes medication.

Kessler’s book sort of puts the lie to the folks who claim a healthy diet can include “everything in moderation.”  When you are pitting your brain chemicals against a billion dollar industry (and remember, some of these folks are the same companies that produce tobacco, so they know a thing or two about fostering addiction) you are probably not going to win.  Sure, there’s the occasional victor (even Vegas has some winners).  But look around you at people who eat primarily processed foods and you’ll see that most of us are no match for their engineering.

The point of this post is not to go all wild-eyed and crazy about the food industry.  Just remember as you’re coming off that holiday sugar high, or a lifetime of eating processed food, that you are fighting forces sneakier and more diabolical than you. This doesn’t mean you can’t win, but it means you probably can’t win with Cheese-Its in your pantry.

And remember when you’ve eaten Oreos as your dessert, switching to an apple is going to be disappointing.  When you’re used to green beans cooked in Cream of Mushroom soup, plain green beans with olive oil will taste a little flat.  Water is going to be a big, fat bummer after drinking sodas.  And who wants to eat a low-sodium chicken stir fry when the standard is Mac n’ Cheese?

If you expect your pleasure sensors to be disappointed as you switch to healthy foods and you understand this has more to do with your brain than your taste buds, you can stick with unprocessed foods long enough to allow your brain to adjust. But you need to give it time — if you switch back and forth between stir fry and mac n’ cheese, you’ll never develop a taste for foods in their natural state.  The stir fry will feel like punishment and you’ll overeat on the mac n’ cheese whenever you cave in and cook up a batch.

As you’re switching from processed foods to natural foods, one way to make natural foods more palatable is to make sure you’re nice and hungry for a meal.  Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no picky eaters in Ethiopia.  I just made that last part up.  But the French have a saying, “Hunger is the best condiment.”  When we are overfed, we can afford to be picky.  So get plenty of exercise (as vigorous as you can manage), cut out a few of your snacks and allow yourself a bold appetite when you sit down to unprocessed foods.  It takes about a week for my cravings to stop and then I can return to snacking.  Let me know how it works!

Here’s a link to an interview with David Kessler if you don’t want to read his whole book.