Healthy Eating: A Dance of Physiology, Emotion, and Habits

Often a guest will land in my office at Kripalu for a nutrition consult and say, “When I’m bad, I eat…” and rattle off his dietary “sins” in great detail. He’ll say, “And when I’m good, I eat…” and report a reasoned—even enlightened—diet in union with his ideals and body. For decades, willpower was thought of as a key to success for dietary change. But I find that a deeper understanding of our own physiology as it relates to hunger, in combination with a mindful perspective, can alleviate suffering and yields more effective and lasting change. Ultimately, dietary change is an exercise in self-study.

Most psychologists now agree that willpower—if perceived as a trait that we either have or don’t, or as an external force we aren’t able to harness—can actually undermine the way we think about food and our own ability to change our diets. Willpower in this context is different from the idea of willful effort in yoga. When we look at our behavior through the light of yogic awareness and can say, “Isn’t it fascinating that I have this relationship with sugar? I wonder what that’s about?” for example, it invites us to get involved in figuring out the puzzle of feeding ourselves. When we don’t take the steps to practice nutritional self-care, we no longer have the excuse of “Ah, well, I just don’t have much willpower” or “I was just bad that day.” Instead, the invitation is to find out what’s really going on and experiment for a better outcome.

Researcher Mary Dallman from the University of California, San Francisco, speaks to the physiology of hunger in a recent review article, in which she describes how our hyper-palatable food supply (highly refined and filled with sugar and salt) dances with the high levels of stress in our world to form a biochemistry that increases our motivation for habitual, often unhealthy, choices. At Kripalu, we work with guests who describe an emotional relationship with sugar and refined carbohydrates. As they improve their eating, they find that what they thought was lack of willpower had more to do with their body’s response to food designed to increase their cravings. And as we learn more about the relationship between hormones and hunger, such as glucocorticoids (secreted in response to stress) that increase desire for food; insulin (secreted in response to refined carbohydrates and sugar) which stimulates hunger and promotes obesity; and others like ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol, we will continue to deepen our understanding of the dance of habits and physiology.

A bright spot in Dallman’s review was her call for mental reappraisal techniques, specifically mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. These have been shown to re-engage the executive function of the brain and alleviate the habitual physiology our culture creates. Science shows how these practices make us better choice-makers.

This complex dance of our physiology, emotion, and habits speaks to the power of a whole-foods, yoga-based lifestyle as the recipe for what ails many today. I’ll take that over willpower any day.

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Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is an author, nutritionist, Kripalu faculty member, and important voice in whole-foods nutrition and yoga.

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