Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Your subconscious mind behaves much like a toddler, especially when placed in the vicinity of ice cream or potato chips. “Feed me, now!” Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., explains how to take charge of our inner child so we can maintain self-control in the face of unhealthy food temptations.
Your Inner Child’s Eating Habits
When finding ways to steer your subconscious toward more healthy eating habits, it can be helpful to imagine trying to curb someone else’s unhealthy eating. In this case, pretend you’re constantly accompanied by a young child—your inner child. Your inner child loves eating cookies, candy, ice cream, french fries, and donuts.
A two-year-old doesn’t take a little bite and then stops eating. If something tastes good, he or she will continue eating until it results in a tummy ache. Your unconscious eating system is a lot like that two-year-old.
The inner child might be responsible for a lot of unhealthy over-eating, but, over the centuries, this same two-year-old has been responsible for your ancestor’s survival. For nearly as long as humans have been around, our species has been subject to periodic famine.
Sometimes the hunters and gatherers went out looking for food and had to come back empty-handed. If there were a long dry season or an especially long winter, that might happen for weeks at a time.
Your inner two-year-old wants to eat as many calories as possible. He wants to pack on some extra body fat to save him from starvation if one of those famines unexpectedly shows up.
In an extended period of famine, the people with extra fat reserves would be likely to loose a lot of weight, but the lean people with few fat reserves, would likely die. In that situation, the heavier people could thank their inner two-year-old for eating a lot.
Battling Your Subconscious
How do you control the inner two-year-old? If it were a real-life child, you’d likely tell him to stop eating. You might use a firm voice; maybe even threaten some punishment if he doesn’t put down that donut right now.
Analogously, you have explicit, subconscious thinking that leads into your decision-making processes. When you’re feeling in control, you tell your inner child what and how much to eat.
It also works when you decide to start a new eating plan. You think a lot about what to eat and you maintain explicit control over the hungry two-year-old.
Eventually, though, you’ll probably start thinking about something else: work, play, reading, writing, or talking. Other life demands will eventually occupy that explicit, subconscious thinking.
When that happens, the two-year-old is set free again. So how can you control this inner child eating monster?
Controlling Your Inner Toddler
In order to obtain the level of willpower needed to maintain a healthy diet and consistently avoid unhealthy foods, you need to set yourself up for success. This means maintaining a healthy food environment that is temptation-free, steering clear of any “landmines.”
For example, you can stop buying unhealthy snacks and clear your pantry of salty, sugary temptations (if you’re concerned about wasting food, you can donate it to a food bank). You can then find healthy substitutes for the foods you crave.
A spoonful of almond butter sprinkled with cinnamon and mashed up with fruit can mimic the richness and texture of a candy bar, without the sugar crash. If you’re craving chips, eat some unbuttered popcorn instead (or lightly buttered with coconut oil), or better yet, eat walnuts.
These healthy alternatives will satisfy the same pleasure receptors in your brain as the unhealthy snacks. Plus, the satisfaction will be more long-lasting because of the added nutrients gained.
Finally, it’s crucial not to skip meals. In our fast-paced lifestyle, it’s often tempting to bypass breakfast or lunch; but the hungrier you are, the less willpower you will have and the more likely you will be to indulge in tasty, but unhealthy, food for your next meal.
Thankfully, it is quite easy to pacify your inner child when it comes to healthy eating habits. Create an environment where your primitive instincts and desires won’t overpower your rational mind, which pursues your best interests.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.