Don’t Let Food Play With Your Mind

Stephanie Lipinski, Contributor

Photo courtesy of sxc.hu.

Do you ever hear yourself creating excuses for your eating habits? For women, it’s often, “It’s almost that time of the month; that’s why I’m eating so much.” For men or athletes, it’s, “I’m so active; I need to replenish my carbs.”

People find a multitude of reasons to justify why they choose to eat what they do, and it has become almost natural to do when choosing food. Why is it so much easier to choose chips over fruit or a burger over a salad? What causes us to gravitate toward foods that we know are bad for our health, and why is it hard to break these habits that are formed?

It’s a mind game. Just a simple mind game, and you can either come out a winner or loser. If you’re on the losing side, don’t give up hope; there are ways to change.

“Junk food cravings are like any bad habit, and a little self-trickery and force of will can bring about a change,” said Director of Health Services, Michelle Ronchetti.

There are many causes for unhealthy eating that can be identified, and they can be redirected into choosing healthy foods.

“Our brains often link the pleasure of eating junk food with a place,” Ronchetti said. “For example, you go out with friends every Friday night, and you always share the large appetizer sampler at your favorite restaurant. You begin to associate these foods with the emotion of excitement and happiness you feel from being in the company of your close friends.”

Eating while bored is another reason to crave unhealthy things, but are you really just craving the food?

“Emotional eating can attack when we are at our weakest – times of stress, fear, sadness, loneliness or even joy,” Ronchetti said. “We think we’re craving the foods, but we’re really craving the emotions that we associate with them.”

Yet it’s not only the associations you have made over your life that makes choosing healthy foods so difficult. It’s also chemistry. Yes, chemistry. So for those of you who hate science, here is just another reason to do so: it causes you to make unhealthy food choices. Our brain is full of chemicals or neurotransmitters, one of which is serotonin.

“Serotonin (is) released after eating carbohydrates (sugars and starches), (and])it enhances calmness, improves mood and lessens depression,” said Director of Counseling Services, Michele Manassah.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel calm and happy. Eating chocolate or desserts, which are filled with sugars and fats, will increase your amount of serotonin, which thus improves your mood.

With all these conditions working against us, is it even possible to change our eating habits? How can we break the associations we have made to food and emotions? More importantly, how can we beat science?

“Emotional eating is often a learned behavior, which means it can also be unlearned,” Manassah said.

There are actually many actions you can take in order to make healthier food choices. If you are dealing with an emotional association, one way to overcome it is to change where you go to eat and what you eat when you are with friends. This will break the association and allow you to make new associations with healthier foods.

If you find yourself in this situation, Ronchetti suggests trying to combat the emotion with other activities.

“Call a friend or family member, take a walk, listen to music or do something that will produce the emotional response you seek,” she said.
Now, what about the neurotransmitters? How can you control something that is seemingly out of your control?

“Find balance in your life,” said Manassah. “Stress lowers serotonin levels, which in turn, can increase cravings.”

Manassah also suggests taking foods that are high in calories or fats out of your dorm or house. If they are out of reach, or at least hard to obtain, they will be out of mind. Most importantly, find a support system. This will help with associations and the ongoing chemical battle.

“Make your intentions about avoiding certain foods known to friends and family so that they can support you in your efforts, and you feel more accountable for your choices,” Mannassah said.

Becoming more health conscious is a challenge many college students face. We can finally make our own choices, which include things such as what we eat for dinner. Of course, we all secretly have that stash of candy hidden in our dorm for emergencies such as finals week, losing a significant other or the famous “girl’s night in.” Just don’t let that stash be your weakness in the battle of chemicals and associations.

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