Recently I’ve had some personal motivation to make some healthy lifestyle changes. It’s still fairly new, in fact I’m only a week in. The first few days are easy, but by the end of that first week you get your first real test. About a week into a new diet, your body realizes all the things it has been missing. This happened to me. Five days in and I was walking through Target, ALL I WANTED was a beautiful tub of vanilla frosting.
When I saw it, it took every ounce of my willpower to not open it up and start eating it right then and there. Oh man I was craving it bad. But why? I logically know it’s not good for me. Why did I want it?
To understand how these cravings work we need to look at the distant past and some modern research. Based on evolutionary science, many years ago when we were fighting for survival by risking everything to get our food each day, our brain evolved to respond to food any time it was available. In current day, those same brain synapses are there, but the food is around us at all times (or in front of us at the grocery store). It’s this reason that I try really hard to keep junk food out of the house. If it’s not right in front of me, I’m less likely to think about it and less likely to eat it.
Unfortunately, cravings aren’t entirely based on our evolutionary impulse to eat what is around us. Neurologically, our cravings are less related to hunger, and more related to the reward system. A study in 2012 took women who hadn’t eaten in 6 hours and set a bowl of potato chips in front of them, then showed them pictures of household objects and food to rate. They found that the number of chips each woman ate, aka how much they gave into cravings, was not related to their hunger or how highly they rated the food shown. Instead, the number of potato chips the participants consumed directly corresponded with the activity in their nucleus accumbens while taking the test. The nucleus accumbens is the reward center of the brain, and so the more that area lit up when looking at pictures of food, the more that woman ate. It is directly because of this connection to rewards that our cravings are so tied to our emotions. If we’re stressed or upset, the reward center of our brain is active because we want a reward of food for getting through this hard time. If we are happy or excited, that part of our brain tells us we want a reward of food to celebrate.
Often we are able to control these cravings (to varying degrees of success), but another major factor in our self-control is the amount of sleep we get. When we don’t get enough sleep, our frontal lobe does not function at full capacity. Yes, the same frontal lobe that we use as an excuse for youth bad behavior because theirs isn’t fully developed. A fully functional frontal lobe might keep college-aged Trevor from jumping off a balcony into a pool, and it might keep you from eating an entire pint of ice cream.
Even with all of this science on what is triggering my cravings or how I can help keep them away, the biggest thing that kept me from buying that tub of frosting was that I’m making these healthy changes with a group of my friends. I thought about what they would say if they knew I ate frosting with a spoon. I thought about how they would want me to make the better choice. It was thanks to them that I walked on by.
Luckily for me, eating some frosting isn’t a sin, but that same wiring of my brain that shows me how good it will taste and ignores the consequences is the same wiring that over-emphasizes the good of sins that I’m tempted toward. If you just tell this one lie, you will avoid having to talk about this difficult subject. If you yell at that person who wronged you, you’ll feel the satisfaction of feeling like you won. It’s so easy; don’t think about what comes next.
These and many more sins can be so tempting. When you’re not directly in the situation, it’s SUPER obvious that these are wrong. It makes total sense not to commit these and other sins, but in the moment am I going to feel the same way and be tempted toward them?
Just like with my temptation toward frosting, when tempted by sin, it helps to have a good group of friends who hold you accountable and are helping you on this journey. My whole life I’ve had that good group of friends that I would think of when I was about to do something stupid. The group has changed depending on my stage in life, but I’ve always had one, until now.
I’d like you to take some time in prayer and ask God to show you who those people in your life are. Who are the ones that lift you up and encourage you to be better than yourself? Who are you that person for? Thank God for those people. Then if you’re like me and you currently don’t have that group, actively seek it out. Get back in contact with friends who used to be that group for you. Join a group at your church where you can find other like-minded people to help you. We all need help. We all need encouragement. We all need that extra help to fight off the temptation of sin. Satan is a very good deceiver, and sometimes we need other people to help us see him for the liar he is.