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Developing Healthy Eating Habits for Life

Support and “Unsupport”
for Eating Healthy Food


          On The Most Important Page, we talk about “blue zones” – that's the name that’s been given to communities in which there's a good deal of social and cultural support for a healthy lifestyle.  In these communities, healthy habits have become a natural and integral part of community life. The people who live there tend to have long, healthy, happy, and meaningful lives, without needing to make any extra effort.  

          According to many researchers, one of the reasons it’s so hard for the rest of us to eat well and develop other healthy habits for life, is not just that we lack support – it’s that we live in communities that actually support the opposite (what we might call “grey zones” - a confusing mixture of little support for healthy eating and a whole lot of support for unhealthy eating).  

          Everywhere we go unhealthy foods are in abundance – they’re in our supermarkets, where we buy gas, they’re served in restaurants, they’re in the vending machines at work.  And they’re endlessly advertised on TV, the internet, our mobile devices, billboards along the roads we travel – they’re virtually everywhere.  

          So what can a person do?

  Well, it’s very simple . . .   

                                                           Remember to breathe . . .

          Really.  

          But what does that mean?  

          We said on the home page that “remember to breathe” is a shorthand way of saying: 

                 Pause when you need to
                                   in the midst of what you’re doing
                                                      to get in touch with a calm core of contentment deep inside you.

          And why should you do that?  

  • The more you remember to breathe, the more you'll develop your mid-prefrontal cortex (MPFC).   
     
  • The more you develop your MPFC, the easier it becomes to contact your core.           
     
  • And the more you’re in touch with your core, the easier it will be to develop healthy habits.

          You might think of the core as being your own internal “blue zone” – an atmosphere of tranquility and peace, with an ever-present “support group” of clear thoughts and calm, contented feelings that will support you in developing healthy habits for life. 

           And along with that, you can develop an external blue zone, which could be anything from a website like this to a whole neighborhood of people trying to encourage each other to live in the healthiest possible way. 

It’s Incredibly Simple . . . and It’s Incredibly Hard

          We’ve said that it’s simple – not that it’s easy.

          Why isn’t it easy?  Because so much of our world has become one big “grey” zone.

          Here’s an extreme example of the kind of  “unsupport” we’re surrounded by:

         The Heart Attack Grill, Las Vegas, Nevada

       This restaurant (and yes, that’s its real name!) won the Guinness Book of World Records prize for having the highest calorie burger.  Boldly named “The Quadruple Bypass Burger,” it boasts a grand total of nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two calories! Other menu items include: Flatliner Fries, a Full Sugar Coke, the Half-Pound Chili Coronary Dog, the Butterfat Shake, and an assortment of burgers ranging from the Single Bypass which comes with five bacon slices to the Octuple Bypass Burger which comes with 40.  

       Patrons of the restaurant weighing over 350 pounds are invited to eat for free.

       The grill made headlines in early in 2013 when John Alleman, a faithful customer and the unofficial “spokesperson” for HAG (as its owner likes to refer to it), died of a heart attack. For more than a year and a half, Alleman would stand outside the grill, sometimes for hours, encouraging people to go in and enjoy the food.

          Are people really tempted by places like HAG to indulge in unhealthy eating? Maybe when it's that obvious, the temptation is easier to resist.  But it’s far more difficult to be immune to the effect of constant and enticing ads which urge us to eat foods that are nearly as unhealthy as the Bypass Burgers. 

          As we mentioned on the Healthy Habits page, we’re also up against a bunch of brilliant scientists who are being paid large sums of money to figure out just the right combination of fat, sugar, and salt that will make it more and more difficult for us to resist the foods that can cause diabetes, heart disease, and a slew of other potentially life-shortening illnesses.

Death by Junk Food

          According to estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services, poor diet and physical inactivity are responsible for between 310,000 and 580,000 deaths every year.

          Heart disease is now the number one cause of death in the United States. More people die from heart disease than from cancer, respiratory diseases, and stroke – combined!  

1 out of every 3 adults are clinically obese.

1 out of every 5 children are clinically obese.

79 million people are pre-diabetic.

24 million Americans have Type 2 Diabetes. 

      

          Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist who has written a great deal about healthy eating,  estimates that Type 2 Diabetes costs each person who has it an average of $13,000 in extra medical costs each year. It shortens their life by an average of 10 years, gives them about an 80% chance of developing heart disease, and carries the possibility of blindness and amputation.

         If you find this a depressing picture, cheer up! Pollan says that Type 2 Diabetes can be completely prevented by a change in lifestyle. And if you already have the disease, a change in lifestyle can substantially modify its impact.

                          Are You a Junk Food Junkie?

       Food industry executives have referred to their best customers as “heavy users” – a term often applied to heroin or cocaine junkies.  This connection between food and drugs is no coincidence. When you eat foods that have high levels of fat and sugar, there is a powerful release of opioids in your brain, which have an effect very similar to morphine.

       Just seeing an ad for high-fat-high-sugar foods can trigger activity in your brain that is similar to what happens in the brain of a cocaine addict when (s)he sees white powder.  In one experiment, when a group of cocaine addicts was shown a video of someone snorting cocaine, their brains released dopamine – the  “feel good” chemical – in large amounts. The same amount of dopamine was released in the brains of non-cocaine addicts when they were shown images of people eating a “juicy looking” cheeseburger.

Forgetting to Breathe

         The theme of this website is developing your core, which is really the ultimate blue zone. A well-developed MPFC, which gives us access to the core, provides us with a powerful and effective means of resisting even the most brilliantly persuasive advertising.

          And the food industry understands this very well.  That’s why they put a great deal of money and effort into trying to weaken our MPFC.  Big box stores are deliberately designed to be overwhelming, making it harder for our MPFC to think clearly, anticipate the consequences of our actions, and make wise decisions.  

          The music, the colorful displays, the shelves packed with endless products, are all designed to stimulate our emotional and instinctive brains and to take our MPFCs “off-line” so that we’ll spend money on things we don’t need – many of which run the risk of making us sick and shortening our lives.  When our MPFC is weakened and our emotional and instinctive brains have been triggered, we can be much more easily persuaded that the few moments of pleasure we'll get from eating those enticing unhealthy foods is worth the risk.

Keeping It Simple

           So what to do?

          One of the universal complaints people have when they set out to improve their diets is that there’s too much conflicting information.  If the scientists can’t agree about what’s good for us, how are we supposed to figure it out?

          But is it really that hard to figure out what’s healthy?  And is there really so much disagreement?



What Everyone Agrees On

        According to New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, in a column entitled “Which Diet Works?”:

"Almost every diet, from the radical no-carb-at-all notions to the tame (and sane) “Healthy Eating Plate” from Harvard, agrees on at least this notion: reduce, or even come close to eliminating, the amount of hyper-processed carbohydrates in your diet, because, quite simply, they’re bad for you. And if you look at statistics, at least a quarter of our calories come from added sugars (seven percent from beverages alone), white flour, white rice, white pasta … are you seeing a pattern here? (Oh, and white potatoes. And beer.)"

          He ends the article with the following statement by David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center of Boston Children’s Hospital:

"It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with minimally processed carbs. If you take three servings of refined carbohydrates and substitute one of fruit, one of beans and one of nuts, you could eliminate 50 percent of diet-related disease in the United States. These relatively modest changes can provide great benefit."

          So virtually all diets agree that decreasing or eliminating highly processed carbs is the way to go.  In addition, they mostly all agree that adding fruits and vegetables is a good thing. 

          But you know what else?  Enjoyment counts, too. If you try to make yourself eat foods that you hate just because they’re supposed to be good for you, you won’t get very far before giving up and reverting to your old, more pleasurable habits.  So within the vast realm of healthy foods, find some that you actually like, and/or find ways to make them tastier.  (We'll have some suggestions for simple, healthy ways to enhance the flavor of food on a future page.)

          The thing that makes it difficult to find healthy foods that we enjoy is that we’ve come to associate pleasure with those high-fat-high-sugar foods.  In order to break this association, we need to pay attention to how we actually feel after eating healthy vs. unhealthy foods.  In other words, we need to develop our self-awareness with respect to how the food we eat affects our energy level, our mood, and our clarity of mind.  

          That may sound hard.  But not to worry - it’s all a natural part of remembering to breathe.  A well-developed MPFC naturally increases our self-awareness. It also increases our ability to make new choices based on the information our new self-awareness provides. That’s one of the reasons we say there’s one thing you can do that will change everything in your life….

                                                               Remember to breathe!

Basic Guidelines for Healthy Eating

          So, to summarize the basic guidelines for healthy eating:

Don’t get caught up in conflicting ideas about what’s healthy and what’s not - eating should be fun and enjoyable.  Just get the general idea of what’s healthy and then find things to eat that are tailored to your individual taste and body. 

          And what’s the general idea?  

          As much as possible, cut out processed food and replace it with whole, unprocessed food – especially fruits and vegetables – and notice how the food makes you feel.

But What About Cost?  And What About Time?

          Other common concerns people have when they set out to change how they eat are time and cost.


          The USDA’s Economic Research Service figured out that:

  1. It’s possible to get a healthy amount of vegetables and fruit for an average of $2.00-$3.00 a day per person.

  2. Preparing simple whole foods other than fruits and vegetables can actually be done with less money than eating fast food.

          So money’s not the problem. (We'll talk more about healthy foods you can afford on a low budget on a future page).

          Regarding time…

If initially you put aside some time to learn how to do it, it’s actually possible to prepare very healthy, delicious, inexpensive, easy-to-make food in less time than it takes to get to a fast food restaurant and wait in line for your order. (A future page will talk more about healthy foods that are quick and easy to prepare).

          But we’re not nutritionists.  We’re not going to pretend that we have the answer to what the perfect diet would be for you.

          Our main aim is to provide you with the basics of what virtually everyone agrees is good food and to encourage you to find your own best way of eating. 

          Most importantly, our goal is to help you contact and live from your core.   That will make it much easier to learn the skills you need to develop healthy eating habits for life.
 


Summary of Basic Guidelines for Healthy Eating

  • “Remember to breathe”
    Developing the core is the single best thing you can do to overcome cravings and develop healthy, life-long eating habits.

  • Get support
    “Support” consists of finding people, websites, apps, books, organizations, etc. that will motivate and support you in developing healthy eating habits and staying with them.

  • Remove the obstacles
    Using mindful cognitive therapy techniques to recognize distorted thoughts, using techniques like breathing and relaxation exercises to lessen stress, making use of behavioral therapy techniques to recognize things in the environment that trigger your cravings, and arranging your environment to support healthy eating are all ways of removing obstacles to healthy eating.