Which Brain Is in Charge of Your Eating?

Learn to engage your deliberate brain in your eating choices, you will be able to improve your health and well-being.

Healthy eating

We humans have three brains in our heads – the lizard brain, the monkey brain, and the human brain. This is a wrong model, but it is a good approximation of the true (details here, link to Wikipedia). We still don’t know for sure, but we kinda know which part of the brain is responsible for which function. When it comes to controlling basic needs like eating, nutrition, things become tricky. Is it better to keep eating the food which we always ate (as in thousands of years ago)? Or is it better to go against our nature, because we know that it is leading us to obesity and other problems?

In this article, I am sharing my experience, opinion, and knowledge on this subject. It is inspired by a podcast episode I recently listened to (Tim Ferris’s interview with Dr. Michio Kaku) in combination with several books about the brain and nutrition which I read over the last few years (for more details about my reading – Tin’s List of Best Books 2021 and Tin’s List of Best Books 2020).

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, a nutritionist, or a scientist. All information in this article is based on my own experience and beliefs. Please consult with a specialist before following any of my tips.

Time to read

Time to read: 11 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).

Introduction

Have you ever had a very hard day at work? Especially in the last two years, when your spouse was on the phone next to you the whole day. And when the children trying to figure out online learning, were coming every ten minutes to ask for help dialing in a class. How do you feel at the end of the day? Exhausted? Probably. Do you usually resort to eating to comfort yourself? Would you say no to a chocolate bar? Or to a pack of salty, crunchy potato chips? Even though you know these foods are bad for you, you would still not have the willpower to refuse?

My thesis for this article in a nutshell is that we are relying too much on our more primitive brains when making nutrition choices. These parts of the brain evolved in different circumstances and were designed for different times. So when it comes to picking a dish, which brain would you rather listen to? This article will hopefully answer this question. At least from my point of view.

Do we have an eating problem?

Why do we crave salty, fatty, and sweet foods? Let’s start with our sweet tooth. When our prehistoric ancestors (whose diet was rich in roots, berries) saw a low-hanging fruit (pun intended), they would reach out and gobble it instantly. It would give them an energy burst which they always needed. And they never knew when the next opportunity would arise. Fat fills our bellies, activates our taste and smell buds. The body can store it efficiently so that it can use it during the winter when food is scarce. And finally salt. Salt consumption correlates with stress, boredom, or lack of sleep. Again, this is my limited knowledge on this subject, please look up all these details for your self.

And what is the situational now? In most countries around the world, we have an abundance of food. You don’t need to wait for the next opportunity to grab an apple from a tree. You have something hundreds of times sweeter and more accessible – chocolate. Fat is also easily available. Instead of killing something huge – a mammoth task – you can go to the local store or fast food restaurant and get cheap fat. Salt, once worth more than gold, is also everywhere. So, again, which brain is going to decide what are you having for lunch?

In this article, I would like to teach you how to use your human brain to pick your food.

Personal story

When the Global Pandemic (can we already capitalize that?!?) started in 2020, I asked myself: “How can I make this time one of the best moments in my life?” Again, the inspiration came from a podcast episode by Tim Ferris. So I took two goals: 1) Improve my knowledge in personal finance (more details here How to Improve Your Financial Education); 2) Improve my diet, physical fitness, sleep, and health. As I was deep-diving into subjects like nutrition, exercise, and fitness, I kept wondering why so few people are eating right and writing about this. My general impression from these books is that we are turning into an obese, sedentary species. I hope this is not true, but I have not seen data to disprove it.

In parallel, I was reading some great books about the brain (Fooled by Randomness; Flow; Thinking, Fast and Slow, Thinking in Bets; all links are to Goodreads) and I kept wondering how the different parts of the brain influence us in positive, but sometimes in negative ways. Daniel Kahneman talks about the two systems in your brain. System 1 operates automatically and quickly. System 2 is slower, deliberate, and calculating. System 1 is great when making prediction in well-known and routine situations. System 2 takes over when we decide to make changes to our lives.

How can you use your human brain to control your eating?

My intention in this article is not to argue for or against any specific types of diet. If you prefer Keto, plant-based, vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, high-fat, this is all up to you. All I am saying is: Increase your knowledge in the subject, activate your System 2 to make sure you are doing the right thing for your body. I personally prefer plant-based and Mediterranean diets, based on the few books I read on the topic. And based on my experience in the last few years.

Below, I would like to give you 8 steps to follow to make sure your primitive brains do not hijack your decisions.

Step 1: Define healthy

Again, my purpose is not to influence you about any of the multiple healthy diets you can choose. But read some books, read some articles, talk to people (preferably doctors). Make up your mind and commit to eating your version of healthy.

Step 2: Eliminate junk food

Based on your decision to avoid certain types of foods, make sure you throw them out of your home. This way when your System 1 takes over (e.g., at the end of a hard day), you will not have to exert willpower to stop yourself. There will be no junk food to find.

Step 3: Make healthy food available

Whether you like it or not, you will have cravings. Try to make the healthy food of your choice available around you. My food of choice is nuts and fruits. I usually have both within reach, but not somewhere very close so that I can keep munching the whole day.

Step 4: Get enough sleep

If you get enough sleep during the night, you will not need bursts of energy during the day, you will not need salty food, and you will not be overeating. Go to bed at roughly the same time every evening and wake up at roughly the same time every day.

Step 5: Choose your breakfast

… and stick with it. Breakfast is usually the time of the day when we are all in a hurry. Kids needs to get dressed, lunches needs to get packed. Make a conscious decision about your breakfast and don’t mindlessly munch random things.

Step 6: Prepare your meals in advance

When you are working in the office and when you are in a hurry for meeting, you will go to a fast-food place and grab lunch. When you are working from home, you will open the fridge and grab something easy. Very rarely either if these choices is healthy. Prepare food in advance. Bring your healthy lunch with you.

Step 7: Hara hachi bun me

“Eat until you are eight parts (out of ten) full” (link to Wikipedia). Certain parts of Japan are home to the longest living (on average) people. There they practice this philosophy. Do not keep eating after you are full, but eat until you are 80% full. This means that you always make sure that you stop eating when you are still hungry.

Step 8: Exercise

I cannot stress on this enough. Nutrition is a very simple calculation.

Calorie intake – calorie burn = Remaining calories

If your remaining calories are more than zero, then you are gaining weight. If they are below zero, when you are losing weight. So, create a daily exercise routine and follow it. Go out for a walk, or for a run, or for a bike ride. Make sure you burn enough calories.

One Action for healthy eating

If I need to define just one action that you can take today, one commitment to follow which will set you on a successful path, it will be “hara hachi bun me”. Hopefully, this will also inspire you to read more about these people who live well into their 90-ties following a very simple nutrition philosophy.

Taking charge of your eating.
Eight steps for taking charge of your eating.

Summary

Eating is one of the most natural things to us. But while we used to eat to survive and grow stronger, we now also eat when we are bored, when we are stressed out, when we are challenged. But who controls what we eat? Is it the deliberate part of the brain which knows what is best for us? Or is it the automated brain, which follows our habits. If you learn to engage your deliberate brain in your eating choices, you will be able to improve your health and well-being.

Next steps

What are the next steps?

If you have liked my article, please proceed to my contact page, where you can view various ways to contact me.

Thanks!

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