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The Science Behind Why You Constantly Cheat On Your Diet

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2021

Whether attempting to exercise regularly, cut back on aimless scrolling . . . or meet work deadlines on time, anybody who has tried breaking a longstanding habit knows how hard lasting change can be.

But why is it so challenging, despite our good intentions? What do those few who succeed know that the rest of us don't know?

These questions are as intriguing to scientists as they are to those of us aiming toward our own goals, and decades of research have given us a good idea of the answers. Lifestyle changes require adjustments to mindset, motivation, and intent.

Scientists have long been tackling the problem of how to get people to do what's good for them. However, until the past 10 to 15 years, most ideas have not stood up to real-world testing, says Martin Hagger, a health psychologist at Curtin University in Australia.

For instance, scholars thought that individuals wouldn't smoke if they understood that doing so is bad for them. Yet, no amount of information about smoking's deadly effects proved to have much of an impact on quitting rates.

It turns out that we have a much harder time changing our actions to align with our thoughts than the other way around.

It's far easier, in other words, to make excuses for why we're still smoking . . . eating junk food, and not flossing our teeth.

Today's researchers are looking beyond older notions of willpower, finding that successful reform requires much more than the ability to control your impulses. A crucial first step is to know that mending your ways won't be easy.

Understanding why will help smooth the bumps on the road ahead. "What makes habits hard to change is what makes them so useful," says Wendy Wood, a psychologist at the University of Southern California who studies habit breaking.

Habits make life easy, so we don't have to think about putting on clothes before leaving the house. Simply being in a particular place prompts the action—a fact that, unfortunately, is equally true for the patterns we want to do away with.

A stark demonstration of this reality is an experiment by Wood and her colleagues, in which they gave either fresh or week-old popcorn to subjects who habitually ate popcorn at the movies.

They ran the test in several environments. Nobody particularly liked the stale popcorn, but they nonetheless ate just as much of it as the fresh stuff. (SOURCE)

Planning to minimize such situational hints is one way to break habits—if you are trying to give up excessive caffeine, find a route to work that doesn't take you by Starbucks.

Forming a new habit usually requires choosing between the pleasant or familiar and something much less so. Most people overestimate the ease of this willpower challenge, which gets them into trouble.

In a set of experiments published in Psychological Science in 2009, participants with the highest opinions of their self-restraint were the most likely to give in to temptation, whether it was in the form of cigarettes or fatty snacks. Those with the most modest, realistic assessment of their abilities, on the other hand, fared best. (SOURCE)

Rethinking and Reframing Health and Weight-loss Goals

At the beginning of summer, most of us are focused on eating healthy and exercising more. But by mid-fall, we lose our taste for green smoothies, being in great shape, and frolicking around on the beach half-naked. 

And until biology provides us with a pill that readjusts our metabolism (so we burn more calories or reset our built-in cravings, or so we prefer broccoli to burgers), the best approach for getting healthy habits to stick is to build on the reliable behavioral-psychology methods developed over 50 years . . . that prove to work in hundreds of studies. (SOURCE)

healthy eating habits

From Biology to Your Brain

The most successful way to date to lose at least modest amounts of weight and keep it off with diet and exercise employs programs that focus on changing behavior.

The behavioral approach, tested over decades, involves making many small, sustainable adjustments in eating and exercise to build healthy habits that the people and the environment around us encourage.

Neurobiology may also explain why, in addition to exercise countering depression, the inverse seems to be true: correlations in epidemiological surveys suggest that physical inactivity, while sometimes the result of depression, may also be a significant risk factor for subsequently developing it. (SOURCE)

Likewise, a survey and study of nearly 5,000 Chinese college students found that the more time a student spent in front of a TV or computer screen, the more likely he or she was to have depressive symptoms.

In contrast, the risk for depression dropped the more physically active a student was, regardless of age, gender, or residential background. (SOURCE)

A meta-analysis of 24 studies involving nearly 200,000 participants reached the same conclusion: sedentary behavior was associated with an increased risk of depression.

And, on average, active people are 45 percent less likely to be depressed than inactive people, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 

The "Feel-good" Factor

Beyond these physiological reasons, many social and psychological factors help to explain why working out can alleviate symptoms of depression.

In extensive interviews, people who have struggled with the disorder say that exercise energizes them, gives them a sense of purpose and achievement, elevates their self-esteem and mood, regulates appetite and sleep cycles, and distracts them from negative thoughts.

But for many people with depression, they must first overcome a severe lack of motivation. According to the research, getting over that initial hurdle of low motivation depends on how much satisfaction and self-agency people experience while working out.

“Which exercise has the best mood effects, and what intensity is best? Does it work better alone or combined with other treatments? We don’t know for certain yet,” says psychologist Michael Otto of Boston University, who has studied both. 

"Enjoyment is fundamentally linked to how much people stick with exercise,” Otto says. “I want them to do what is most fun and entertaining, whatever that might be.”  Dr. Otto further notes:

We usually exercise to look good at the beach, to lose weight. Most individuals do not understand the degree to which exercise can reshape their mood, too. Even if you feel like pulling in and doing nothing, exercise pushes you out. Depression makes you feel like everything you’re about to do is useless and pointless. That’s exactly what exercise fights—you have to get up and go.

Can a steady routine of physical workouts really help to keep our minds in check? 

Decades of research demonstrate that regular exercise lowers the risk of many illnesses—heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer—and extends the average life span.

In contrast, the benefits of exercise for mental health aren't so obvious or publicized. We work out to “get in shape,” and some of us depend on bike rides, neighborhood jogs, or our yoga practice to help clear our minds and relieve stress.

In some forms of depression, the collective evidence to date suggests that the answer is an emphatic yes. Exercise is by no means a panacea, and in severe cases of depression, it's not going to work on its own. But scores of new experiments show us that exercise is much more than a temporary distraction from mental woes.

According to new research, exercise appears to combat depression in a number of ways: by strengthening our biochemical resilience to stress, encouraging the growth of new brain cells, bolstering self-esteem, and possibly even counterbalancing an underlying genetic risk for mental illness.

healthy habits

So, for most people with mild to moderate depression, exercise is one of the strongest, safest, most practical, most affordable, and even enjoyable treatments available. 

“I am a big believer in the value of physical activity,” says clinical psychologist James Blumenthal of Duke University. “The majority of evidence suggests that a certain subset of patients can benefit just as much with exercise, if not more, than with medication.” 

Psychiatrist Madhukar Trivedi of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who has studied the relationship between exercise and mental health for more than 15 years, agrees:

We have now generated a whole big body of literature about exercise as a treatment for depression. We’ve looked at dose, at adding exercise as an augmentation treatment, at specific biomarkers associated with improvement. We have the studies to show that something really powerful and interesting is going on. (SOURCE)

Lasting change, of course, requires making the right choice time and time again for the rest of your life—in all kinds of difficult situations.

"If you think, 'I can do it. I simply have to refrain,' then you're likely to fail because things are harder than that," says Mary Jung, a University of British Columbia researcher who studies health behavior. 

Remember that lapses are expected rather than a sign that you should give up. "If you missed a day of exercise, that doesn't mean you've failed," Jung says. "It just means that tomorrow you've got to get your workout in. 

Research also suggests you should spend some time imagining both the successful result of building healthy habits and the specific obstacles that will stand in your way. 

Instead of resolving abstractly to lose 20 pounds this year, for example, form two mental images: one might be seeing yourself eating smaller portions more frequently rather than large meals 3x a day. . . and the other making the decision not to join your friends for a two-week food and wine trip to Napa . . . but rather going on a short backpacking trip with your sibling instead.

Studies find that after engaging in the above two-step technique, called mental contrasting, people procrastinate less and tackle challenges more enthusiastically. (SOURCE)

So if you've tried and tried yet failed to get into GREAT SHAPE and stay there, there's a reason for that. The issue isn't with your body. It's with your BRAIN.

No matter how much you diet and exercise, if you don’t focus on changing your mindset and subconscious behavior, you may never reach your goals.

By implementing proven brain science techniques, you can change the way you see your body, your mind, and your spirit.

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About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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