by Sara Campolonghi
Unhealthy food choices we make on a daily basis are almost always linked to the search for some kind of pleasure, or to the avoidance of displeasure.

Eating a delicious ice cream or our favourite pizza gives us pleasure. Sitting on the couch in front of the television after a tiring day of work munching a packet of chips gives us pleasure, as well as eating much more food than needed during Christmas celebrations.

On the other hand, in order to reduce the effort, trouble and labour, we take the elevator instead of climbing the stairs, we buy pre-cooked food or take away to avoid cooking, and take the car instead of walking to the nearby shops to buy groceries. You can add to the list!

This kind of pleasure, or avoidance of displeasure (in a word, COMFORT), when derived from the consumption of certain foods or sedentary behaviours, generally satisfies in the immediate only, while conversely it actually triggers and promotes a series of mechanisms in our body and mind which lead to replicating the same unhealthy behaviours over time. For instance, seeking comfort with food, make us feel physical discomfort, stomach upset and bloating, drowsiness, weight gain, etc. and ultimately, guilt.

Pleasure is a feeling linked to the brain’s responses to certain stimuli, such as, the altered, excessive flavours of processed and industrial foods. These discretionary foods contain a lot of added salt and sugar, artificial flavours and other artificial ingredients that, among many other effects, induce our brain to give us sensations of great pleasure. But if we think about it, this is usually only at the first or second bite!

The problem is, once one starts, it is very difficult to stop: we keep on trying to replicate the initial pleasure, which instead decreases very quickly and often turns into physical illness and repentance.

Comfort comes not only from artificial food, but also from the consolidation of habits. In fact, when we set a routine, or get used to some practices, such as buying groceries or cooking certain foods in a certain way, behaviours are put into action automatically without requiring any effort, and then variation becomes naturally uncomfortable and more difficult to accomplish. This also applies to physical activity, because clearly when the body gets used to inactivity, any additionally exercise requires enhanced effort.

That is why eating and lifestyle changes are so difficult at first: new habits need to be built and long-established before they can be put into place comfortably and automatically.

And when this stage comes, we can experience another kind of pleasure, certainly less immediate but definitely more durable and fulfilling in the medium and long term. Think about regular joggers, and how rewarding it is to return from a run for them, which normally costs a lot of effort when not used to it, and how frustrating it becomes not to run on a regular basis when accustomed to it. Similarly, people who are used to consuming wholesome, not processed food get accustomed to simpler and natural flavours, and unaccustomed to the taste of highly processed food.

Comfort is strictly related to our habits and to what becomes usual, because pleasure is not something objective and absolute. By gradually accustoming our brains to the taste of healthy food (i.e. reducing processed foods, adding colours and variety in our meals or trying new easy recipes), and by helping our body to be a bit more active every week (even just using stairs, or walking more) we can progressively change our preferences and direct our pursuit of pleasure towards healthier practices in a sustainable way, increasing our quality of life and wellbeing with no effort

Sara is a PhD candidate with the Food and Mood Centre and a qualified Health Psychologist and Nutritional Therapist. You can read more about her work here.