Why do I keep making bad food choices?

The really interesting thing is you don’t need to know why you’re making bad food choices. Your brain will go ahead and make those bad choices for you. It knows what the high calorie density foods are. Your brain will drive you to seek them out when you’re stressed, sleep deprived, or for a host of other reasons. Some people eat when they’re happy, when they’re sad, or when they see a trigger. The list can be endless! Stress, whether chronic or acute, actually rewires the prefrontal cortex—the seat of decision making and impulse control. Suddenly, your choices will be all wonky and you won’t even know why.

When we select our food in advance (like writing it down the night before), we are choosing with an entirely different part of the brain. We’re not deciding what to eat NOW, we’re deciding what to eat LATER, and this makes it an issue of judgment and forethought. The prefrontal cortex is in control and considerations like which foods in the fridge need to be eaten up, which foods will be easiest to cook, and which foods will round out the variety in our diet for maximal health can take center stage.

In contrast, when we make food choices in the moment, we CAN choose with our prefrontal cortex, but if that area of the brain is compromised, say, by stress or lack of sleep (or both), we’re more likely to be driven by deeper subcortical areas of the brain that govern reward and addiction.

Studies show that under these conditions, high calorie density foods become far more attractive. Oil. Sugar. Junk food. Thank goodness I don’t eat those last two. But in a pinch, I guess, oil will do.

So says my nucleus accumbens.