There’s a pressing, and often anguished, question near and dear to the
heart of virtually anyone who has ever tried to improve something in
their lives. And that question is:
Is there some secret, some clue, that can help me break my bad habits and develop healthy ones??!!
The short answer is:
yes. . . remember to breathe.
Or, to spell it out a bit more:
learn to activate the mid-prefrontal cortex of your brain (the MPFC)
which will help you cultivate core qualities of
calm, ease, strength, and contentment
But can it really be that simple?
Yes, it’s true, having a developed MPFC does make things simpler… but
it’s not easy. It’s not easy because you have to work to develop your
MPFC. It’s not easy because our environment is constantly throwing temptation in our face. And it’s even harder because there are brilliant people
working diligently to figure out ways to get you to weaken your MPFC so
that you’ll indulge your desires.
When it comes to changing our habits, we really need to be gentle with ourselves because the obstacles are far greater than we imagine.
Even in the best of circumstances, and with a moderately developed MPFC,
it’s challenging enough to make the kind of wise decisions and engage
in the kind of practical planning that are required for healthy eating,
sleep, and exercise, and successful time and money management.
But circumstances are far from ideal. Almost everything in our environment encourages us to eat more, spend more money, and exercise and sleep less. We’re continually flooded with advertisements on television, radio, magazines, the internet, and billboards that catch our eye along the side of the road. Now we’re even likely to hear the same commercial three times in a row, assuring that the message engrains itself in our brains and our psyches.
As if that’s not enough, there are hundreds of brilliant scientists out there who are devoted to finding ever more powerful ways to design stores, create commercials, and put together foods that will stir up our lower brain and overwhelm our MPFC. An overwhelmed MPFC makes it extremely hard to think rationally or make a wise choice. It makes us far more likely to buy things we don’t need (or even really want), to reach for the quickest, easiest, most pleasurable food, and to generally follow our lower brain’s desires.
Let’s take a look at the kind of things we’re up against.
In 2001, McCormick and Company (the same McCormick that makes a
lots of spices and flavorings for your food) sponsored a study they
called “Crave It!” The aim was to find out what gets people excited
about food - or as one food industry executive put it, “The goal is to
get you hooked.”
The researchers classified the responses they received from several thousand people into three groups – the “classics,” the “variety seekers,” and the “imaginers.”
The “classics” have cravings for familiar standards like a simple hamburger on a bun with a little bit of ketchup. The “variety seekers” like novelty. They can be appealed to by adding things like onions, bacon, and a few layers of cheese to the burger. The “imaginers” are driven by romance and their emotions. In order to appeal to them, the hamburger might be marketed with images of a summer barbecue.
There’s also a fourth group that is primarily concerned with good nutrition. The marketers discovered they can lure at least some of this group into buying an unhealthy burger simply by taking away the bun and calling it a “low-carbohydrate burger.” So voila! You’ve got something to appeal to everyone.
But the science of what makes us crave food gets far more precise than
this. Food scientists have discovered that there are three substances –
fat, salt, and sugar – that can make food so craveable that it would
take someone with an Olympic gold medal in willpower to be able to
In the process of studying the precise effect each of these substances has on our brain, scientists have identified what they call the “bliss point” for each substance. Here’s how it works: As you add more sugar to a food, the food gets increasingly more pleasurable until you reach the “bliss point.” Beyond that, adding more sugar would start to make the food less enjoyable. The same holds true for levels of fat and salt.
And rest assured, food scientists are tireless in their efforts to find new improved ways to make foods that will keep you coming back for more.
You may wonder how many ways they can come up with to combine fat, sugar and salt to keep your cravings strong. One food consultant described the process to David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, using potato skins as an example:
Typically the potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried, which provides a substantial surface area for ‘fat pickup.’ Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream and cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat on fat, much of it loaded with salt.
With regard to buffalo wings:
They start with the fatty parts of a chicken, which get deep-fried. Usually, they’re par-fried at a production plant, then fried again at the restaurant, which essentially doubles the fat. Then they’re served with creamy or sweet dipping sauce that’s heavily salted. That gives us sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat.
The same food consultant explained to Kessler the virtues of processed food from the perspective of the food industry:
And it’s not just about food. There’s a whole area of scientific
research devoted to finding ever more refined ways to get us hooked on
all kinds of things that won’t make us happy, that will probably make us
sick, and that may shorten our lives.
The same things that go on in our brain in response to salt, fat, and sugar also occur when we are addicted to things like alcohol or drugs, or even to behaviors like gambling, shopping, or playing video games. Whenever we get a “rush” of pleasure, there are “feel-good” chemicals, like dopamine and other opiates, that get produced in our brain.
These feel-good chemicals give us a “high.” But when the high wears off, we feel compelled to recreate the feeling of that high. This causes us to continually seek out the food, sexual partners, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, video games – or whatever it is – that will give us that feeling.
And since the same level of experience won’t continue to
give us the same intensity of feeling, we find ourselves having to eat
more, have more sex, gamble more, or spend more money in order to get
the kind of “rush” or “high” we’re looking for.
The researchers are very aware of all this. In fact, they’re trying to stay one step ahead of us by creating ever new ways of putting together sugar, salt, and fat, or creating new, more exciting or romantic environments that will trigger that pleasure rush in our brains that we are so desperately seeking.
So far we’ve been talking about habits that involve compulsively seeking
pleasurable things – food, sex, money, and so on. But what about
procrastination? What about our inability to form good habits like
exercising or going to sleep at a reasonable time? What about our
inability to be disciplined about how we spend our time or money?
When we focus too much of our attention on always trying to maximize our pleasure, we’re inevitably going to spend just as much energy trying to avoid what we don’t like – we find ourselves unable to deal with even minor amounts of discomfort. So rather than getting that paper done for school, or completing our project for work – which might bring up unpleasant feelings of insecurity or discomfort - we spend hours surfing the net, texting friends, or finding anything to avoid dealing with unpleasant feelings.
If we can’t control ourselves when faced with ice cream or chocolate, we’re not going be able to override our resistance to eating foods or doing exercises that are good for us but which don’t provide an immediate pleasure rush. In both cases – pursuing pleasure and avoiding unpleasant things – we’re engaged in a struggle we can’t possibly win. We can’t win because we’re lacking the strength, calmness, stability, and wisdom of the core that give us the ability to observe our desires and fears, our likes and dislikes, without being controlled by them.
Actually, as far as the brain is concerned, it works pretty much the same way. Whether we’re being driven by a craving for pleasure, or being driven by a fear or dislike, in both cases we’re at the mercy of the impulses and cravings of our lower brain. Each time we indulge our lower brain, we weaken our MPFC. And that makes it all the harder next time around to say "no" to that piece of cheesecake, or "yes" to taking that walk, which may not be as immediately gratifying.
And whenever we indulge our lower brain, we’re weakening our MPFC. Then next time around, our weaker MPFC will make it harder to say “no” to a desire or “yes” to a wiser choice that won’t be as immediately pleasurable.
So . . . does this mean we’re hopelessly at the mercy of scientists and
corporations who will continue to come up with new things that are ever
harder for us to resist? Or is there some secret formula that can free
us to pursue healthy habits and a balanced life?
Well, it seems we’re back to where we started. The answer isn’t secret – it’s right there in our understanding of the problem. And it’s the theme of this website.
The prime directive is to strengthen our MPFC, develop the “core” experience of calmness, peace, and quiet happiness that enables us to observe the various feelings and emotions of pleasure and discomfort that come and go, without reacting or being carried away. And when we start to get carried away, we can literally “remember to breathe” – that is, take a few long slow breaths, exhaling fully to calm the mind, and let our craving or fear melt slowly away.
But that’s not easy to do when everything around us is screaming: You have to eat, or drink, or wear, or buy, or do, whatever it is they’re selling if you want to be happy, popular, or successful. And there’s no time to waste – you should have what you want NOW – you deserve it!
That’s why we need techniques. That’s why support is so crucial. That’s why you need to be clear about your goals. All these things are ways of clearing away the obstacles to the functioning of your MPFC, to the experience of your core. They’re all ways of helping you to create an oasis of calm and clarity amidst the deluge of temptations encouraging you to indulge your desires. An oasis of calm that will support you in using the techniques, in following your goals, in tuning to what you really need or want, so that you can make the healthy, constructive choices you want to make.
We have a number of pages with helpful information about developing
healthy habits specifically with regard to food, exercise, sleep, time,
and money. But we don’t want this website to become yet another cause
of you feeling overwhelmed. So we want to be clear that the
fundamentals of what you need to know for healthy habits are really,
Above all else, remember to breathe. That is, remember the third way - observe your desires or cravings calmly without trying to fight with or avoid them, or being compelled to act on them.
As for the rest, here are the essentials:
** Thanks, Michael Pollan, for this great reminder of how simple it is to eat good, healthy - and delicious - food.