There is a two-word answer to this oft-asked question – Operant Conditioning. This is an essential tool for survival that has evolved in almost every member of the animal kingdom, including humans. It’s a technique that is used today in training animals – by offering rewards for positive behaviours.
A mouse will be drawn to chocolate raisins over wheat grains (by the way, they work better than cheese when catching mice – humanely!). Grizzly bears have been seen squeezing the energy rich caviar from the salmon that they catch while discarding the meat of the fish. Many animals will risk getting stung by bees in order to obtain a small taste of honey. All animals weigh up risk and reward when sourcing food.
Being able to find high energy foods quickly in the natural world this is a vital survival tool. The amount of energy gained consuming the food is far greater than the energy spent in obtaining it. Furthermore, obtaining energy quickly reduces exposure to predation.
When an animal (and we too are animals) eats a food that is high in energy, the body sends a signal to highlight the fact. This signal is a release of dopamine and other pleasure inducing hormones that instantly make us associate the food with receiving a positive response. It’s a similar proposal to Pavlov’s theory.
The problem with Operant Conditioning is that dopamine release is a very powerful sensation, and can be somewhat addictive. In order to secure more dopamine we seek out the foods that trigger its release. Unfortunately, as we encounter the same foods repeatedly, the relative level of dopamine being released (or its efficacy) reduces and the reward sensation we receive is diminished. But while the reward we receive will diminish, our anticipation of receiving that reward actually increases. Many people will have experienced a craving for a particular foodstuff and then feel disappointed after they have eaten it.
Other addictive behaviours can stem from Operant Conditioning. Some argue that an addiction to gambling involves the same chemical reward processes. Many gambling addicts actual fell their pleasure at the moment that the ball is about to drop into the roulette wheel, or just as the last card is about to be turned. It is the anticipation that is addictive – whether they win or lose is less important – it is the process of gambling that compels them.
Through Operant Conditioning our bodies manipulate us, influencing the choices we make. In order to make better food choices it is essential to be aware that our bodies may merely be craving a reward rather than sustenance. Take the time to consider what it is you are going to eat and ask yourself, “Is my Operant Conditioning instinct making a mug of me?”