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I believe if you did a survey you would find that the vast majority of people in this country generally know what to eat and what to avoid. Even so, when you watch what we eat, you will likely find that the list is full of things we should avoid, while the things we should be eating are scarce.

For example, we know we should eat more whole grains. These are loaded with nutrients and fiber and promote health in several ways. So what do we do? Our most common lame attempt to tick this box is to consume a lot of white bread which is virtually devoid of whole grains, low in nutrients and fiber, and the white flour breaks down like simple sugar in the body.

And what about vegetables? The most popular is the potato, again a poor choice. We need dark colored vegetables filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (healthy chemicals found in plants), but instead we choose a white potato and then fry it for make chips and fries.

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The implications of our horrible eating habits are obvious. More than a third of Americans are obese (36.5%) and 32.5% are overweight, which means that two in three of us have a weight problem. It contributes to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. Can the message be clearer? What we eat creates health problems and kills us prematurely.

And worse, we know better.

So why do we eat the way we do?

How to break the habit of eating “bad” food

10. Place the bread

For starters, if you’re 20, you’ve been used to eating a certain way for 20 years. What if you’re 50 or older, an age when you start worrying about your health far too late? That’s too many years spent reinforcing a habit, and the longer it lasts, the harder it is to turn the tide. Additionally, we are encouraged to stay on this dangerous path as we believe we are doing well, as we have no symptoms of chronic disease (e.g. heart disease) until it is too late and serious problems eventually emerge.

It all starts as a baby when we get out of the bottle and start eating our first real food. At that point, we know what we like and dislike, or at least we think we do. The problem is, the variety of things we have been fed is small, so we choose from a small selection. The good news is that at a very young age children are ready to try new things, and with encouragement they can learn to love them. Yes, you can learn to like new things, and get a taste for them. Beer, dry wine, and black coffee are examples of things that are jaded at first, but we decide we’re going to like them, and we do.

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These limited edition Twinkie hostesses are filled with a creamy spicy pumpkin filling.

As the child grows to be a toddler and beyond, their willingness to try new things may decrease unless they are persistently encouraged to explore. I’m amazed at parents of kids who say, “Billy won’t eat anything but jelly sandwiches and Twinkies,” or whatever. Grace God, who is responsible in this house?

Either way, children’s eating habits can be shaped by parents, and the earlier you start the better. Sadly, most American parents are bad role models, and kids are following suit.

OK, so the process starts early, cementing some lifestyle habits. Add to that, our taste buds are programmed to love the sensation of sweetness on the tongue. Why? It has evolved from early humans when life was a daily struggle for survival, and most of it consumed enough energy to meet bodily needs. So, if at the time you stumbled upon a beehive, you were gorging on the sweet taste. It was not only a pleasant experience, but it also ensured that you were consuming a lot of calories to supply the body with energy. Our taste buds also love the taste and texture of fat, creating a deadly combination of sugar and fat to overcome.

What is automatic feeding? How can I stop it?

Several other reasons tip the scales against us. Take automatic feeding. At work, when are you likely to have lunch? At noon, and you eat whether you are hungry or not, because if you don’t you know that you will not eat for many hours. It teaches you how to eat, even if you are not hungry. When it takes root, and it does from an early age, it encourages snacking and eating just because the food is there.

For example, you have a satisfying dinner, and then soon after, you go to a Super Bowl party. Are you hungry? Of course not, but you grab the chips and the dip, and before you know it, you’re consuming hundreds of calories that you didn’t need and really didn’t want.

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Sugar is poured from a can of soda

Worse, it seems natural.

The list of reasons is growing. Another is comfort or emotional nourishment. Years ago, I worked really hard with a friend who was desperate to lose weight, and we made great strides. Then she started having problems with her husband, and soon the weight suddenly came back. Finally, she revealed that when she’s upset, she buys a dozen freshly made donuts and eats them all while she’s sitting in her car.

Why crash diets don’t work if you want to lose weight

Put all of the above together, besides being constantly bombarded with enticing TV commercials, the immediate availability of fast food outlets, cupboards full of goodies, and it’s no coincidence that we have such bad eating habits . If that describes you, the good news is that you now know why, and also aware of the extreme challenge you face when making a change. It also explains why crazy accidental diets never work. They are a short term solution for a long term problem.

Is there hope? Yes, there is always hope.

Contact Bryant Stamford, Professor of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected]