Struggling to eat better? You're not alone. As someone who used to weigh about 40 pounds more than I do today, I can tell you first hand that eating healthy is not always easy. And science tells us that it's not entirely our fault.
In a world where food (especially the unhealthy and highly processed kind) is so readily available, it can be tough to change your unhealthy eating habits. But what really makes eating healthy SO hard? Why don't our bodies crave the stuff that's good for us?
The answer is complicated, yet simple—they do, sort of. Our taste buds have been genetically engineered to crave high-calorie, high-fat foods (that we used to need for energy—hunting, gathering, exploring the continent, etc), and now we've created food that tastes even better than nature's, which makes lettuce a hard sell when compared to a juicy burger.
The bad news: Processed and fast foods can truly be addicting. A 2010 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that when rats were regularly fed fast food, their brain chemistry changed—and not for the better. The rats became obese and lost the ability to determine when they were hungry (they would eat fatty foods even when administered electric shocks). They actually refused to eat when put on a healthy diet. And more research shows that food can be just as addictive as drugs.
The good news: This "addiction" goes both ways, and you can slowly start to change your tastes and become "addicted" to healthier foods if you start eating them enough. That's what food psychologist Marcia Pelchat found when she gave test subjects a low-fat, vanilla-flavored drink (described as 'not very yummy') every day for two weeks. After consuming it so often, most people started to crave the drink, despite its 'chalky' taste. The point: Even if vegetables taste terrible to you now, the more you eat them regularly, the more you'll start to enjoy them.
It's important to remember that creating new habits (both good and bad) takes time. It's safe to assume that you'll have a hard time sticking with your healthy diet if you go from regularly eating french fries to strictly salads in one day. Gradual, small changes are what really worked for me (and many of my clients). Start with simple swaps like replacing your daily afternoon candy bar or dessert with healthier sweet snack (here are 20 yummy options to try). Then, move on to tackle another piece of your diet puzzle—like your soda habit.
By reframing an all-or-nothing approach in favor of small, realistic changes, you'll be more likely to break the binge-diet cycle for good. It's perfectly fine to enjoy a little pizza or chocolate now and then, but you may find that eating healthy most of the time is not only possible, it's enjoyable!
Jessica Smith is a certified wellness coach, fitness expert, and personal trainer. The star of numerous exercise DVDs and the creator of the 10 Pounds DOWN series, she has more than 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.