It would appear that most of us are relatively intelligent and informed. We can do any number of things facilitated by the use of our opposable thumbs and prefrontal cortexes, like get driver’s licenses, use scissors, or order takeout. Most of the time, any one of those is enough to get us through life.
Along with species-perpetuating common sense, like avoiding pyramid schemes and wearing a seatbelt, we seem to know what we need to eat. If you missed the memo: mostly fruits and vegetables, then some other stuff that’s pretty optional depending on your moral compass. In a world of macro-planning and BCAA timing, that might be a little basic.
We know when we’ve had too many donuts. We know that industrial beef is a Class 1 carcinogen. We know that we don’t eat enough vegetable fiber. We know that glyphosate is suspect in various ailments. We know we need more water, less sugar, and essentially zero alcohol. And if we’re not exactly sure how many calories or grams of protein we need in a day to support our activity level, we can embrace some disordered eating and figure that out too.
But if we know these things, why don’t we do them? If we’re so damn big brained and top of the food chain, why are we careening toward the bottom? Observing that we humans are an enigma falls grossly short of an understatement.
There are few other species that so knowingly accept the potential consequences of their choices. I have yet to meet a cheetah that smokes (though I have met a number of diabetic cats).
The research is plentiful, but we’ll simplify some of the understandings. First, humans don’t often identify with their future self. We’re a creature of immediate gratification and the prospect of having something nowreleases more dopamine in the brain than that regulating prefrontal cortex can talk us out of. In fact, studies show that people who are successful at delayed gratification release nearly as much dopamine thinking about the future result as the person currently stuffing their face with a pack of Oreos.
We all know those people and avoid being their friends because they are disgusting and a shameful reminder that we only have $.12 in our savings accounts. Also, they aren’t wordy about their satisfaction with delayed gratification. Most of us need to tout that we are delaying gratification so we hear ourselves say it out loud and feel the dopamine release when others congratulate our self-control and deprivation tactics.
I’ll have you know that my therapist said there is a more compassionate way to state that, or just about anything else that comes out of my mouth. It’s something really soft and pretty like, “I will be so happy about this later.” She probably has a lot more money in her savings account and never explains why she is skipping dessert.
Most of us humans don’t like to wait, and we can’t envision the risks of the future. That often is not a matter of self-control as it is a matter of biochemistry. That big brain is a tricky bastard and will release all kinds of hormones and flashbacks to inspire you to make choices that don’t serve you… later.It will tell you that you’re doing yourself a favor right now. That double-stuffed crust is going to save your soul and wipe away the horrors of surviving your day.
Also, low blood sugar is like the drunk teenager of the brain. You will make poor choices when you are too hungry and you won’t even care. You can tell this is about to happen if you are walking through a grocery store and one of those apple pie pockets with a half-life of eight hundred years sounds like a good idea. Never in the evolution of the human has a hungry person said, “I could kill for some asparagus right now.” Escort your brain to the part of the store where they have free apples and bananas for children, have a tantrum until an employee gives you one, and proceed to buy real food.
If we want to make good choices for our bodies, we need to set ourselves up for them. Some of it is just a matter of exercising that part of our brain. Think about the future and what it will feel like when you are strong and healthy on your next adventure, or your cholesterol levels are in range at your next annual, or you get a good night’s sleep. Think in terms of what you are gaining, not what you are missing out on in that moment.
And for the love of pie, don’t try to make healthy decisions on a ravenous brain. Feed yourself regularly, and steal airplane peanuts to keep in your pockets for emergency fuel. Then eat more vegetables like you know you should.
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