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Why can’t we stick with a healthy diet?

Posted by tinako on March 23, 2010

Doug Lisle's Model

I went to our local vegetarian society meeting last weekend, and the speaker showed a slide with an image like this, from psychologist Doug Lisle.  According to the speaker, the lower axis shows what a hypothetical person is eating over time.  He is eating junk food, and it makes him feel good, but then, as with a drug, he becomes acclimated to it and needs more and more junk to maintain that positive feeling.  When he decides to start eating healthy food, he crashes for a few days, but if he can stick with it, he will begin feeling better.  I can’t remember if he ends up in neutral or positive.  The point of all this is that you need to stick with a healthy plan for a few days before you give up – it’s not the healthy food that’s the problem, it’s your addiction to junk.

This model doesn’t seem to fit my experiences with food.  I think it ignores several factors, and I have an alternative suggestion.  This may not be the best possible model, but maybe it can be more helpful.

Let’s split that generic feeling from above into two components.  The first feeling is the sensory pleasure of the mouth.  This is the taste of the food as we are eating it.  I’ll call that “taste.”  The second is how the body feels.  Do you feel logey, bloated, tired?  Do you have energy?  Are you swinging from sugar highs to sugar lows?  I’m not talking here about long term health of the body (are your arteries clogging?  how’s your blood sugar?) except insomuch as they affect how you feel right now.  I’m also not talking here about beating yourself up emotionally for making a diet mistake (don’t do that – be kind to yourself).

My model is based on the idea that most people eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) enjoy the taste of their food, but their bodies feel bad most of the time.  The important thing for my model, though, is that they are not aware of how bad their bodies feel – they are used to it.

My Model

I’m not very good at graphics, so don’t obsess over exactly where the lines are going in my chart.  Anyway, here you see someone eating junky meals.  The up and down of the taste line is the mouth enjoying the taste of the food briefly – each up is a meal.  The body does not feel its best when we eat this way, and so the body line slithers along in the negative zone, but we’re so used to feeling this way we don’t even notice.

Now, when a person is nagged into giving up junk food, their taste pleasure plummets.  There are a couple of reasons why.  One is that, obviously, if they are used to eating a lot of fat and sugar, they miss them when they are gone.  There is a very good reason people eat junk food – it tastes good!  Also the dieter’s tastes may be deadened to more subtle, fresh flavors.  Another reason is that people trying a new diet often are unfamiliar with how to make the healthy food more appealing.  I have read blogs of people trying a vegan diet – they will have some veggies and hummus for lunch and wonder why they’re starving.  Eat!  In any case, someone switching away from junk can pretty much expect to be at least somewhat less satisfied with the taste.

If we can stick with it, some time after we start eating healthier, our body begins to feel better.  We may notice right away, or we may not.  But we will get used to this new feeling.  We will also get better at cooking appealing meals, and our tastes will change.

Next we fall off the wagon and have junk food.  I don’t mean a small treat here, which I believe can be part of the healthy diet, I mean an enormous piece of cake, or a horrible burger and fries.  Yes, it tastes great, just like we remember, so our taste pleasure spikes up.  But I think at this point we will notice that we don’t feel so good for a while afterwards.  What used to be just the normal way we felt now feels very uncomfortable.  We say, “Hm, I guess that was a pretty big piece of cake.  I feel kind of sick.”  But we forget that feeling and do it again.  Eventually, however, as long as we are mostly eating healthy, which means we begin to get used to feeling good, we develop a Pavlovian response, such that when we see an enormous piece of cake, it makes us feel sort of sick before we eat it.

With this pre-response, and a growing awareness of the connection between what we eat and how we feel, not just as we’re shoveling it in, but over the next few hours or days, we can find it easier to make healthy choices.  Our diet improves, we enjoy it more, and our body feels better and better.  The lines keep going up at the end because we get better at making healthy food taste great, and we lose excess weight, etc.

My vegan diet is pretty good for the most part, but as an example, I’ll suggest that it could be better.  I hear people talking about raw diets, and eliminating sweets and gluten.  I don’t really feel the need to do that, and I think if I, without education, tried to eat a gluten-free, no-added-sugar raw diet, my taste buds would be pretty miserable, at least at first.  My model suggests that if this diet would actually make my body feel better (and I’m just not noticing how lousy gluten, sugar, and cooking are making me feel right now), that discovering that fact would make eating that new diet much more easy and pleasant, and I’d be much better off both short- and long-term.

I’m not stuck on this model.  I just came up with it, and need to take it out for a spin.  It tries to answer why we can’t stick to a healthy diet: in the short term, a healthy diet is less appealing, but only because we’re so unaware of what the good-tasting junk is doing to sensations in the rest of our body.  Become aware.

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2 Responses to “Why can’t we stick with a healthy diet?”

  1. Katie said

    I like your model! I think it makes a lot of sense. Like you, I was feeling that my vegan diet could be better. I’m at a stage where I’m getting more and more vegies into my diet. If I miss out on daily vegies, particularly greens, I don’t feel very good and actually crave them as much as I’ve ever craved anything sweet. And, eating something overly fried or artificially sweet is so much less satisfying, even when it tastes good. When I eat enough fresh veg I feel strong, light, alert and clean. I agree with you – become aware! Sticking to the healthy diet through that addiction-breaking patch is so very worth it.

  2. lisa said

    i love your blog, I have learned something new today, thanks for sharing

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