The Psychology of Food

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It's probably the biggest thing that makes some people hesitate in going Primal. Sure, they appreciate the logic and sensibility of the Blueprint lifestyle. They value the chance to improve their health and effectively lose weight. They love the idea of having more energy. They salivate over the prospect of bacon. But then comes the proverbial wrench in the plan. u201CWhat about bread?u201D they ask. (Sometimes it's diet soda, pasta, pancakes, pizza, Skittles, etc.; I've heard it all.) Against all powers of wisdom, self-interest, and rationality, how is it these isolated, deeply entrenched cravings hold such sway over our lifestyles — and diet decisions? Is a baguette really so enticing that it determines a person's willingness to live a healthier, more vigorous existence? Is the de-grained life really not worth living?

It's a common refrain I hear: u201COh, I'd love to go Primal, but I just couldn't give up my breakfast cereal.u201D Okay. It's got me thinking lately: what is it about the psychological power of (non-Primal) favorite foods?

Ever watched u201CThe Best Thing I Ever Ateu201D (usually featuring the typical junk food categories)? Of course, the guests play it up for the camera, but the expression behind some of their descriptions parallel that famous When Harry Met Sally scene. Really? This level of enthusiasm for a hamburger? (I won't say it.) Even a few of the most diehard PB converts I know still hold the torch for some pre-Primal item. Some people get attached, I guess.

Yes, there are the obvious factors that apply to most people's favorites: the ubiquity of these foods, the subsequent convenience, the cheap price (e.g. Pizza Hut's u201CFeast for Fiveu201D bucks — feast being their word). For some of us, these favorite foods (past or present) are part and parcel of our social landscape or our work environs. Then there are the more complex influences: ethnic, family or community traditions right down to low and lowly marketing forces. Finally, there's taste. Although, as I've said before, most people find these foods all taste the same once they give their taste buds a chance to recover on a Primal diet of naturally-occurring foods.

So, why are some things easier to give up than others? If you told most people tomorrow that the key to good health involved forgoing asparagus, I can't imagine most folks would consider it a major impediment to their success. Why isn't giving up bread, diet soda or cereal the same? How does it involve more than a simple switch of intention? Why does giving up a single favorite food feel like serious deprivation for so many people?

It's true that our tastes are established earlier than we ever thought. Experts have found that a mother's diet during pregnancy already begin to habituate a baby's taste. Researchers believe this happens because the habituation early on helps teach children which tastes are u201Csafe.u201D If the mother has survived eating foods with these flavors, they will, too. If you come from a family in which people routinely ate a lot of pasta, you likely developed the taste for it earlier than you can remember.

We also develop deep-seated emotional associations with certain foods through early and/or recurring memories surrounding them. On a timely note, holiday traditions tend to play into these associations in a big way. Any meaningful experience can create these connections, however. Was there a special dish you always made with a parent or grandparent? Did your extended family all go to the same pizzeria at every visit? Do you and your spouse have a routine from early in your relationship that influences how you enjoy time together today?

These associations can play out in unconscious ways, eliciting cravings or overshadowing your efforts to develop a taste for healthier, Primal fare. If you're still carrying the torch for old favorites, it can be harder to fully enjoy newer Primal tastes.

Then there are the temptations of the present. Experts say mental imagery — that which we conjure ourselves and that which we're presented with (in ads, etc.) — plays a sizeable role in our cravings. Have you ever found yourself victim to an ad's suggestion? Even if you normally wouldn't touch a particular food, those marketing folks have a fantastic way of making it look good.

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