Ever wonder why it is that for some people weight loss seems so easy, yet for others it’s extremely difficult? There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think one of the most influential and underestimated has to do with the psychology of eating.
By understanding how your brain is programmed to work when it comes to food and eating, you’ll see how your unconscious emotions and reactions controlled by your brain circuitry affects your diet. More importantly (and this is incredible news), you’ll recognize how you, and your very own thoughts, have the capacity to change your brain wiring so that you exert greater control over your food choices and diet, making it easier to lose weight. Let me explain.
Your brain is divided into two systems of thinking—System 1 and System 2.
System 1—Primitive and Spontaneous
System 1 thinking originates in the lower (reptilian) and mid (limbic system) brain. It is responsible for unconscious emotions and reactions that center on survival instincts, including eating, competition, protection, control, and pleasure.
System 1 plays a crucial role in one of the most basic human instincts—survival of the fittest. It also encourages and drives you to seek out pleasurable things, such as food.
We have little sense of what System 1 says to us because it is activated rapidly, without us even knowing it…these are unconscious thoughts. System 1 signals flood our brains constantly, and we can do nothing to stop them because we don’t have access to them. For instance, System 1 is bombarded throughout the day by food-related cues all around you—smells from restaurants, enticing billboards and commercials, and so on. These cues grab the attention of System 1 and activate brain circuits that produce arousal and a powerful desire to eat.
Why is this problematic? Well, the food industry has created an environment that manipulates and overloads System 1 to the point that it becomes extremely hard to fight our primal instinct to eat as much as we can every time we sit down to a meal.
The modern Western diet is scientifically designed to manipulate your unconscious System 1 mind. This part of your brain controls appetite, and its reward systems were designed to respond to sweet, savory, and perfectly salted foods that have irresistible smells, textures, and appearances. If you are in a setting with a variety of these alluring foods, your primitive System 1 brain circuits are triggered, your unconscious mind becomes highly focused, your arousal brain circuits are activated, and you are compelled to eat, regardless of whether or not you are truly hungry.
Just think about the last time you walked by the kiosks at the mall that sell cinnamon buns, enormous fresh-baked cookies, or sugared soft pretzels. Those enticing, sweet smells and visually appealing gooey delights are pretty hard to resist, aren’t they?
System 2—Conscious and Deliberate
System 2 resides in the outer regions of the front brain (neocortex and particularly the frontal cortex). In stark contrast to System 1, System 2 thinking is much more developed, deliberate, and uniquely human.
The capacity to use System 2 to make conscious choices gives us the ability to move beyond our primitive, animal instincts and to carry out higher level cognitive functions, to have distinct unique personalities, to make complex decisions, and to dream and hope. As a person of deep faith, I believe this is what God meant when He said He “created mankind in his own image.” (Genesis 1:27)
When it comes to eating and dieting, System 2 gives you the capacity to monitor and override the unconscious drives and desires of System 1 (including overeating). In other words, System 2 gives you the power of choice. Incredibly, System 2 also allows consistent conscious choices to alter your brain circuitry so those choices become healthy, easy to carry out habits and, ultimately, your destiny.
Give System 2 the Power
Keep in mind, System 1 is not bad and System 2 good, or vice versa. We need them both to live healthy lives. But when System 1 is in constant overdrive, and System 2 under-functions, we then lose control in the most important areas of our lives, including our diets. For diet, this imbalance leads to cravings and food addictions that cause you to overeat and gain weight.
So how do you let System 2 take control so that you become more mindful with your diet and food choices? You must consciously put System 2 in charge!
Think of System 2 as a coach of a football team and System 1 as the players. The coach must constantly monitor the team and keep them in line, and create structured plays to ensure the team succeeds and wins. When the coach does so, the whole team works and plays well together and moves in a positive direction.
If, however, the players take over running the team, it could result in chaos. A good leader (System 2) keeps everyone in check and on the right path.
When it comes to how you eat, your System 2 mind must become the leader of your body. When it does, you start to more consciously monitor and change your thoughts, actions, and habits and make smarter, healthier choices.
I’m not going to say this is always easy. Some days you may feel yourself slipping into very “System 1” patterns when tempting foods are placed in front of you. Being a “System 2” thinker requires great effort and discipline. Often, you may need to rely on approaches like deep self-reflection, meditation, group or individual counseling, and even prayer. Without these important disciplines, System 1 can quickly regain the edge and cause you to veer down a path of unhealthy food choices and ultimate weight gain.
Eating and dieting is just one area where System 1 and System 2 come into play. It really affects every area of your life.