I often get asked, “Alex, how do you stay away from bad food choices even when they’re put right in front of you?”
Most people assume I have unbreakable willpower, and that I can ward off temptations like Bruce Lee in “Fist of Fury.” While willpower can be a powerful asset, it is only helpful in one of those not-always-there-when-you-need-it sort of ways. Willpower is a finite asset, and, just like a muscle, it can fatigue and cease to provide any protection from indulging in the food in front of you. That means no matter how strong your willpower, it can fail you. Believe it or not, this happens to me too. There are times at night when I’m exhausted, or bored, or some combination of the two and I make bad food choices. Half an entire jar of peanut butter? Not necessarily a bad food choice per se, but a thousand calories of overconsumption, easy.
If unbreakable willpower isn’t the secret to fighting temptations, then what is it? Let’s take a closer look at why people fall prey to their appetites in the first place. Studies show that many people eat as a coping mechanism to stress.1 Eating excites the dopamine center of the brain, and for good reason: We must eat to sustain ourselves—in order to survive—and this dopamine response to eating ensures that we listen to our hunger cues after periods of non-eating.
What are some other ways in which you might feel the benefits of dopamine? Think about the last time you accomplished a big goal. Perhaps it was getting a big promotion at work, or graduating from college, or starting a new relationship with a special someone. These feelings of accomplishment are another big source of dopamine release. You often feel like you’re on top of the world in these situations; you realize that in those moments you are happy.
These moments are often few and far between, however, and certainly not without moments of hardship and overloading stress. This is where the dopamine rewards of eating can become problematic. If accomplishment and eating both make us feel good (happy), yet accomplishing things takes effort and a certain level of hardship, why not turn to eating to get those feel-good hormones? Eating is easy—it takes no effort. You can choose to eat whatever and whenever you want, and you will instantly get a rush of positive emotions.
Happiness Is Overcoming Challenges
In “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck,” Mark Manson makes a compelling case for a new framework for defining happiness. (I highly recommend this book). Manson argues that happiness isn’t a state of being, but rather the process of overcoming challenges. One doesn’t simply reach a level of happiness and remain in this euphoric state forever; rather, it is the act of overcoming obstacles to achieve certain goals that arouse feelings of happiness. After accomplishing a goal we then move on to the next set of goals and obstacles and repeat the process. It is not the absence of hardship that arouses happiness—it is the sense of accomplishment, despite hardship, that makes us happy.
The “Tao Te Ching,” a popular work of Eastern philosophy, describes such a state of being:
Difficult and easy accomplish each other.
Long and short form each other.
High and low distinguish each other.
Sound and tone harmonize each other.
Before and after follow each other as a sequence.
What exactly does any of this mean? Happiness wouldn’t be the same without the presence of hardship. It is exactly those moments of doubt and negativity that makes the accomplishment so worthwhile. We need things to be difficult in order to feel fulfilled once we complete them. For example, think about the last time you scrambled eggs. Likely it wasn’t difficult for you. You probably didn’t even have to think about it. Once you finished, did you feel accomplished? Probably not. You most likely just ate the eggs without a second thought. No difficulty, no accomplishment, no happiness.
Let’s review: creating a sense of accomplishment, by overcoming challenging obstacles, releases dopamine that arouses feelings of happiness and euphoria. Eating releases the same chemicals in the brain to give us the same feelings of euphoria without any of the hardship. Given this information, I’d say it makes perfect sense to see why people would turn to food to meet their happiness demands rather than accomplishment. It’s a shortcut to much of the same feelings without any of the work. As I mentioned above, eating is easy and that’s the problem.
Happiness Isn’t Perfect
The happiness in both cases is short-lived. Once you accomplish something big you feel great, but then after a short time, you feel normal again. Ideally, this is when you’d face the next big challenge on your way to another big accomplishment. This path allows you to learn, build confidence, and ultimately grow as an individual, not to mention you can look back on all of your past accomplishments with feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction. Happiness derived from eating is also short-lived, but without fulfillment or satisfaction (usually). You may indulge in a treat to feel good in the moment, but once it’s gone you go back to feeling normal or maybe even crappy again. You don’t look back on the delicious pie you ate and feel fulfilled (full maybe, but certainly not fulfilled).
The happiness generated from eating is what I call “hollow happiness”—it’s meaningless. It doesn’t improve your confidence, help you grow, nor make you feel like you can overcome future challenges. Hollow happiness is a band-aid which does nothing more than cover up the underlying problems. Many people turn to food to cover up the fact that they are afraid of the hardship and obstacles that it takes to accomplish their goals and realize their potential in life. This statement isn’t meant to pass judgment because I totally get it. I was this person once. I didn’t feel adequate in my abilities, compounded by the negative feelings I had about my body and eating habits, and it became a perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy. I ate to cover up my unhappiness, which led me to be even more unhappy and want to eat more.
Escape the Overeating Cycle
How do you escape this vicious cycle? For me, it began by defining my happiness. “Alex, what does being happy mean?” I had to take a hard look at what kind of person I wanted to be. After spending my childhood overweight, extremely shy, and introverted, often trapping myself in my room playing video games, I came to the conclusion: I want to be the most interesting person alive. I know it sounds a little crazy, and certainly a bit far-fetched, but it’s true.
I want to be the person that always has a cool story to share; the person who can easily connect with people and make them laugh; the person that people are excited for when he walks into the room because they know things are about to get crazy. Basically, I want to be the exact opposite of the person I was as a child. All of my life’s activities and pursuits are meant to meet this aim, whether it’s starting a business (or two) or meeting awesome people and helping them achieve life-altering transformations. Perhaps it involves skydiving on a weekend “just because,” or spending 14-hours in a single day writing awesome fitness content in hopes that one of the articles will be picked up by a national publication. These are good stories to share, and these activities push me further toward my goal—my ultimate happiness.
I used to have junk-food cravings, I used to give in to these cravings all the time. Once I defined where I wanted my happiness to come from, junk food lost its appeal. I learned that I didn’t need the quick, short-lived, and often unsatisfactory fix of junk food to make me happy. I already felt fulfilled in other, more important areas of my life. This is my secret to avoiding temptations to indulge in junk food at every turn.
Let me be clear, indulging in your favorite foods, whether good for you or not, is not always a bad thing. Sometimes you need to eat a whole pizza or pint of ice cream simply because it’s good for your soul. However, these soul-promoting indulgences should be much fewer and far between than you might realize. The key is to identify when you want these foods simply because they are in front of you and present an easy source of happiness—and hold out for more rewarding, lasting variety of fulfillment.
Here’s an example. Just the other day I went to a new bar with an old high school friend to celebrate his birthday. This bar was known for its extensive selection of aged scotch and bourbon. I’ve never much liked the taste of alcohol, but something in me has always wanted to try a fine, aged scotch on the rocks. This restaurant also had a full kitchen with an assortment of delicious-sounding entrees: lobster mac and cheese, baby back ribs smothered in BBQ sauce, and other mouth-watering options. Do you know what I ordered? The grilled chicken breast (BBQ sauce on the side), and for my two sides: two servings of steamed vegetables. With it I ordered an Aberlour 12-year aged scotch. (Per their website: “86 proof, well balanced, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Apple and toffee are also present, along with oak and malt. Further examination produces a hint of mint. The finish is drier and fades softly.”)
My meal for the night. I ordered the sauce on the side and added myself to control the quantity.
Even the other people at the table asked why I ordered something I could just make at home and routinely eat every single day anyways. Why not experiment and try any of the other, much better-sounding entrees? My answer: I wasn’t there to let the food be my source of happiness. In fact, if I hadn’t gone all day without eating I might not have ordered any food at all. My enjoyment and happiness from this night came from two places: my ability to be adventurous and try scotch for the first time (even though I didn’t really like it at all), and the good conversation I was going to have with my friends and some people there I had just met. Since I was enjoying myself through these other activities, because I was happy in this moment, the unhealthier menu options didn’t tempt me.
Define Your Happiness
How can you use this information to help you avoid falling prey to temptation whenever it rears its ugly head in your direction? Start by defining your happiness. If you could be or achieve anything, what would it be? What are your dreams and aspirations? The answers to these questions will then be able to guide everything else you do. When you get to your deathbed, what achievements could you have accomplished that would put you at peace?
The next step is to decide what you are going to do to make these dreams a reality. Remember, happiness isn’t a state of being: It is the dynamic process of overcoming hardship. Don’t fear the time or amount of work it will take to get where you want to be. This is exactly why reaching your goals will be so fulfilling in the first place. Without it, reaching your goals would be no more exciting than scrambling eggs.
Next, when faced with a temptation always ask yourself, “will this indulgence be good for my soul, or is it simply a matter of convenience (because it’s there) or a substitute/escape for my true happiness (i.e., are you stressed, unhappy, or generally in an emotionally vulnerable state)?” If you answer the latter, then I encourage you to figure out what might be the cause and work on a solution. Are you stressed over an upcoming presentation at work? Then practice until it becomes second nature. Are you unhappy with your weight or what you see in the mirror? Then write down a plan of action to change that (start logging your food intake, make a workout plan, and/or recruit friends and family to be your workout buddies for added accountability). How can you tell whether an indulgence will be good for your soul? Do you feel bad afterward? If you answer no, or if your guilt level is much lower than it otherwise might have been, then likely your soul has been rejuvenated.
Move Forward, Right Now
Remember that you can’t rely on willpower to keep you accountable. It is finite and often fails us when we need it most. You can, however, set yourself up for success by defining what is most important to you in life, and working your butt off doing whatever it takes to get there. Contrary to what you might be thinking or led to believe, your life is completely within your control. Happiness is not reserved for those who get lucky and seemingly have everything in life, it is for anyone willing to face their fears, face the obstacles put in front of them, and realize their true potential. Your life is your story; don’t limit yourself to a supporting role. Be the hero of your story.
1. Macht, M., Haupt, C., Ellgring, H, “The percieved function of eating is changed during examination stress: a field study“, Eating Behaviors, Volume 6, February 2005.