This cartoon, a modification of the first Earth Day poster, was Walt Kelly’s gentle nudge for us to acknowledge and better address our environmental challenges. Despite this warning nearly five decades ago, we now have Texas-sized islands of plastic circling in our oceans1 and the increasing chance of a future that includes devastation from global warming.
But today I turn from Pogo’s environmental emphasis to a more personal challenge, our waistlines. The parallels are striking. Unless needed for the body’s energy purposes, the molecules of fat from a donut scarfed down years ago will still be packed on one’s body today. Since the consequences of such actions are predictable, why aren’t we routinely choosing the oatmeal with raisins rather than the fat-filled muffin plus a latte for the road?
In order to enhance success in choosing wisely, I have drawn insight and scientific support from the following books:
- The Pleasure Trap by Doug Lisle,
- The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer, and
- Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
Each book presents pearls from the author’s clinical experience plus helpful guidance from the fields of neuroscience and psychology. I highly recommend them as engaging reads that can help one navigate the challenging road to better health.
One might think that just knowing the potential negative consequences of an action would keep us out of trouble. But that’s not the way we’re wired.
- We know that being overweight damages both our health and self-esteem and yet the obesity rate has tripled since 1970.2
- We know we should eat healthier, but fewer than one in ten of us meets the minimum recommendations for fruits and vegetables.3
- We know the trouble that the seductions of gambling, alcohol, drugs, and illicit sex can cause, but these traps frequently ensnare us, causing widespread damage to our health and relationships.
I’ll frame this “wiring” of our bodies, the physiological dynamics underlying our foibles and redemptions, by oversimplifying three biochemically complex processes.
- The “Dopamine Concept” (a neurotransmitter released in the brain that modulates desire and motivation) represents all the biological processes within our body that support the cycle from craving, to action, to reward and back to craving. These complex, interrelated systems can be experienced as simply as just getting hungry so we eat, or as tragically as a well-remembered patient from thirty years ago, an alcoholic mom dying of liver failure at age 34.
- The “Serotonin Concept” (a neurotransmitter active in the brain and gut enhancing our sense of well-being) represents all the body’s reminders to look out for our long-term best interests. An example might be the internal triggers that induce us to find as well as be a good life partner.
- The “Meditation Concept” represents all the mental or physical gymnastics that alter our internal milieu to increase the likelihood we’ll make the decisions that lead to more enjoyable lives. Counting to ten instead of reflexively yelling at the kids qualifies. So might taking an alternative route to work to avoid that daily donut. A walk in the woods, a workout with a punching bag, and a myriad of other strategies fit into the “meditation concept”.
Following this outline, our unhealthy food environment creates a constant stream of “Dopamine Concept” triggers:
- High fat, high sugar, and high salt convenience foods are convincingly advertised everywhere one looks.
- Such ads exist to create a “dopamine” rush in you with the goal to increase sales. Your health is just collateral damage.
- High fat, high sugar, and high salt foods disrupt the “serotonin” effect of healthier foods, making them seem bland and unappealing.
- Our celebrations with families and friends are often highlighted by the very foods that prematurely take us away from our loved ones.
These “dopamine” triggers are so convincing that over 70% of us are now either overweight or obese.
In this Pop-Tart culture of ours marketing reaches us thousands of times a day with the purpose to kidnap our neuro-biochemical processes. It works.
I recently experienced this gauntlet of targeted advertising after doing some online research on business decision making. Minutes later, a video ad popped up on my screen with a dramatic boardroom scene suggesting that all I needed to get the big deal (and the girl) was to increase my mental agility with a couple shots of expensive liquor. It was ludicrous, but my “dopamine system” was clearly convinced that a drink would be a great strategy.
In such a highly connected, buyer-beware world, we need to be well armed to protect our best interests. When one is challenged with a recurring weakness:
- Choose the objective you wish to achieve, describe it in writing and review it daily.
- Understand thoroughly the gap between your current reality and your goals.
- Identify the motivational principles underlying your wish to change, such as:
– You want to quit smoking to be a good role model for your kids.
– You don’t like the feeling of being a prisoner to your smoking habit.
- Find trustworthy resources to help you determine the facts.
- Develop the courage to honestly assess:
– Your excuses,
– The consequences of your actions, and
– The people in your life who are natural allies or detractors for success.
Please don’t underestimate the value of doing this on your own. Half the people who quit smoking or successfully lose weight long-term do it on their own. However, if it’s not working, overcome your reluctance and seek help.
Transformation Is Possible
Despite spending $60 billion on weight loss aids, the U.S. continues to gain weight. Is there an end to all the frustration? Yes, for anyone that will diligently stick to the best available scientific evidence, there is.
Choose the foods that trigger the “serotonin” cycle. All such foods are low on the calorie density metric (the number of calories per pound). They include non-processed fruits, vegetables, potatoes, whole grains, and legumes.
For motivation, practical tips, and the essential “secrets” of low calorie density weight loss success, I highly recommend the 2018 book The Secrets to Ultimate Weight Loss by Chef AJ and Glen Merzer. The journey to good health is worth it.
Breakthrough To Better,
Switch Healthcare designs solutions for self-insured employers.
Edition 1 – Solving a Well-Entrenched Problem
Edition 2 – A Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Edition 3 – Best marketing tagline of all time?
Edition 4 – Post-Truth Killed a President
Edition 5 – What’s an employer to do?
Edition 6 – Profiting From the Opioid Epidemic
Edition 7 – The Keys to Unlocking Better Decisions
Edition 8 – When Difficult Things Need to be Done Well
Edition 9 – Fixing Healthcare
Edition 10 – Beware of a Singing Cow
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Edition 12 – Warning: Reader Discretion Advised
Edition 13 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 1)
Edition 14 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 2)
Edition 15 – Can AI save healthcare? (Part 3)
Edition 16 – Embracing Reality to Improve Healthcare
Edition 17 – Everything I Needed To Know…
Edition 18 – The Eighth Circle of Hell
Edition 19 – So… What’s Our Solution?
Edition 20 – Protecting Integrity as a Core Strategy
Edition 21 – An Unadorned Legacy
Edition 22 – Time to Grow Up
Edition 23 – Against All Odds
Edition 24 – When Everyone Has Stopped Listening
Edition 25 – Focusing on What’s Important
Edition 26 – Don’t Give Up Your Shot
Edition 27 – Join the Goodhood
Edition 28 – Fixing Healthcare (Recycled)
Edition 29 – Taming the Healthcare Beast
Edition 30 – Leadership
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Edition 32 – Little Decisions With Big Consequences
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Guest Post – Happy Thanksgiving! By Jeff Novick, RD
Edition 35 – Transformational Courage – Part 3