It’s so easy to be tempted to eat foods we know aren’t best for us. So how to resist them? Why is that so difficult?
As modern brain scientists study human behaviour, they find that we operate more unconsciously than previously assumed.
It’s not that we’re automatons without free will or that we lack rationality and refined decision-making skills. Our brains (specifically, the frontal cortex) simply drive us to act in ways that frequently bypass civilized thought processes—and much more often than we’d like to admit.
How else do you explain the increase in overweight, diseased, stressed-out and addicted people each decade, despite our vast knowledge of health, nutrition and fitness?
World Health Organization statistics reveal there are now more overweight than undernourished people worldwide. David Berrigan and others, in Preventive Medicine, “Patterns of Health Behavior in U.S. Adults”, suggested that only one in 20 adults engages in all top-six health behaviours. Though this was reported in 2003, , the conclusions are still worth noting today. The top-six health behaviours they mention are:
- Regular exercise
- Healthful fat intake
- Consumption of 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily
- Limited drinking (alcohol) and drug use
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Apparently, the more our standard of living improves the less life satisfaction we report. Countries track their Gross National Product (GNP) and education levels to measure citizens’ quality of life. Great Britain recently decided to track its population’s health and wellness. The latter are now considered as essential to life satisfaction as money or education.
In past decades, psychologists used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to gauge satisfaction. Maslow measured five key life spheres:
- Physical (food, water, shelter, sleep)
- Safety and security (property, employment, resources)
- Social (love, sex, relationships)
- Esteem (confidence, achievement, respect)
- Self-actualization (morality, creativity, problem-solving)
More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman’s research on optimism and happiness proposes five elements of well-being:
- Positive emotion: what we feel (pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort)
- Engagement: thoughts and energy flow; immersion in a desired activity
- Relationships: essential social connections
- Meaning and purpose: our interpretations of what really matters
- Accomplishment: our desire for achievement and task completion
As a broad term, wellness describes overall health and well-being in terms of optimal functioning of the body, mind and spirit. Our daily choices—what we do, how we eat, the battles we fight, who we love—help determine our wellness level.
For our ancestors, running from a tiger meant staying alive. Early humans were forced to be strong and agile and didn’t have easily available foods. Modern life offers far too many opportunities to make poor choices.
The Paradox of Choice
Each of us has a personal responsibility to make prudent health choices. But even in today’s information-driven society, we choose to ignore much of the available health data. We find innumerable excuses to justify our negative health habits.
Doctors’ schedules are so packed that they often neglect to provide behavioural wellness plans. They may implore patients to adopt healthful diet and exercise habits, but they’re continually frustrated by rampant noncompliance. This leaves patients with no follow-up or clear action steps for achieving optimal well-being.
It’s estimated that more than half the population is operating on autopilot at work. In fact, many work and live in a state of perpetual non-engagement, just trying to get through the day without any conflict.
Is it any wonder so many turn to unhealthful habits like excessive smoking, drinking and sex to relieve stress and boredom?
We have within us the power to make healthy choices. Sometimes though, it helps to have a ‘buddy’ for support and encouragement, who is choosing a similar path. Or a coach to help us be clear on the goal, uncover our resistances, work through them, and help us hold ourselves accountable for the actions we know we need and want to take.
Only a heartfelt desire encourages us to seek deep and lasting change. Make good health your heartfelt desire, and choose the ‘wellness track: healthy habits, leading to deep life satisfaction as your reward.
Content provided by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D.