An ancient nutrition coach from approximately 500 BC once wrote “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”.
…OK, it was actually Sun Tzu…and he was writing about The Art of War, but the sentiment is highly relevant in the modern world of food and food-like edible substances.
You see, most of us today are in something very closely resembling a war, and we don’t even realise it.
All around the world, at this very moment, massive teams of talented and heavily-funded food scientists are working through the night on new and cutting edge methods of making you want to eat more of their “foods”.
If they get the right combinations of sugary & fatty & crunchy & salty they can hyper-stimulate all the reward centres in your brain in just the right way to make you want way more food than your level of hunger would dictate. Combine that with just the right textures, colours and smells and BAM! You’ve just eaten the whole packet of whatever it was.
This is the reason that “once you pop, you just can’t stop” – thousands of very smart people have worked very hard for a long time to make it so.
Working alongside them, you’ve got many of the world’s most talented marketing geniuses plastering shiny, familiar-looking colours and logos everywhere you go, and manipulating you psychologically.
Throughout the whole day, they’re chipping away at your dwindling reserves of willpower with every billboard you walk past, every advertisement you see and everything you smell walking down the street. Curl up and relax after your stressful day with this cup of sugar…go to this burger restaurant where everything is cooked in semi-poisonous fats because it preys upon your rose-coloured childhood memories of happy times…drink Coca-Cola because “ooo look! Christmas! Santa! Yay!”.
If you’re trying to eat healthily, you are basically locked in combat with these people. There are hundreds of thousands of them working cooperatively. They are better funded than you. They’ve been doing this for longer than you have.
You would have to be amazingly arrogant to think that you, alone and unsupported, can just casually engage with vast team of geniuses with decades of experience and billions of dollars behind them and expect to come out ahead.
If you blunder into the middle of all of this in a naive and unsuspecting way, you’re not even bringing a knife to a gunfight. You’re bringing dessert because you thought it was a friendly dinner party instead. Basically, you’re going to lose.
So what do you do?
Let’s go back to Mr Tzu’s advice. Part 1: Know your enemy.
These companies are not your friends. You are a resource to them. They are not setting out to make your life better, they’re here to create profit for their shareholders. The best way for them to do that is to attempt to manipulate you into consciously and unconsciously making nutritional decisions that are contrary to your best interests.
You’ve got ancient biological triggers in you brain designed to make you seek out sugar and fat. This used to be a good idea, because sugar and fat are an extremely efficient way to create the bodyfat stores that will keep you alive during times of scarcity and famine.
Unlike Game of Thrones however, winter is not coming. The sugar and fat is now available 100% of the time, and the more of it you eat, the more of it you want.
These people know this, and are very good at exploiting it to get you to consume more of their products.
They also go to extreme lengths to baffle you with bullshit – “enjoy this food that we have engineered from the ground up to be eaten in an unbalanced way as part of a balanced diet”.
“Here look, a giant scientific study funded by sugar companies that proves sugar plays no role in causing type 2 diabetes!”
Or “look, a serving of 8 of these chips contains only 90 calories! So you can enjoy this giant packet of 200 chips guilt-free!”
If you don’t know what your enemy is up to – or even that you have an enemy to begin with – they are going to win.
The second part of the advice: know yourself.
We know the these guys have the deck stacked in their favour, but what about you?
You see, every one of us has our own unique combinations of biological and psychological traits that make us more or less vulnerable to different forms of manipulation.
The foods and circumstances that trigger an eating binge in one person might be totally inconsequential to another.
For example, I can take or leave chocolate. If there’s a bar of it in my house, I might have a square once in a while, or I might not.
However, if there’s a packet of Oreos in my kitchen, those things are going to sit in the back of the press calling my name in the night. I know if I engage, I’m going to lose. If I eat one, I’m going to eat the entire packet, and then seriously consider trying to find more.
So if I’m going to have treats in my house, clearly chocolate is a better option for me than Oreos.
We all have our own triggers. If you haven’t found yours yet, good for you, I’d encourage you to stop looking.
The trick then with knowing yourself, is spending a bit of time watching your behaviour dispassionately to see what you’re up to. It’s a very interesting exercise – go into it without expectations and neutrally observe what you’re doing as though you don’t know yourself. Keep it up for a few weeks.
You’ll likely notice that you occasionally eat way too much of some things. So what are they? What’s common between them? Do they exist in isolation? Or are there certain combinations that set you off?
For example, are you reasonably well behaved around crisps and beer separately, but if you put them together do you have to be rolled home again by the end of the night?
Or perhaps you’re fine with chocolate, you’re fine with biscuits, but exposure to chocolate-biscuit-cake just grabs your brain straight by the reward centres and physically drags you back to the plate for a 3rd and 4th serving.
The specifics are going to be unique to you, so find out what they are.
Once you know who your enemy is, and what your behaviour is, you can plan a strategy.
Don’t attack the enemy where they are strong and you are weak. Get the foods that trigger your undesired eating behaviours the hell out of your home – it’s a place where you relax and let your guard down. They WILL win on that battlefield.
If you know you’re facing insurmountable odds – the best defense is don’t bloody well be there!
Instead, save that stuff for special occasions. Go out to a restaurant and enjoy a sensible amount of it, then get back to eating your protein and vegetables. That’s more like a level playing field, you’ve a decent chance of coming out ahead.
If you want to have off-plan foods in your house, that’s your call, but have the ones that are effortless for you to exercise restraint over. Willpower is a finite resource, and when you run out of it – not if, when – you want it to be easy for you to make good decisions.
Fill your fridge with delicious protein and vegetables, have fruit to snack on while you’re cooking dinner. Plan ahead and shop ahead.
Know the enemy, know yourself. Victory will follow.