Emotion: The Overlooked Variable in Nutrition and Fitness

Can you make a good decision on what to eat or how to exercise with your emotions?

"A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision." - Jim Camp, Bigthink.com

It's often the case that people who want to make a big change in their life commit to something on an emotional whim.  New Year's resolutions anyone?  How about an upcoming wedding, the beach season, breaking up with a former romantic partner; these are not choices made because of some cold, calculating robot-like decision.  These are emotionally driven decisions.

As a coach, you get to see the gamut of issues people run into when trying to adhere to a nutrition program.  Peer pressure, being late or disorganized, birthdays, holidays, weekend unwinding all come into play.  And these largely seem like emotionally driven instances too.  As soon as emotional needs and desires enter the scene, many people fall apart on their plan.

Then we flip the coin and say, OK lets take a look at the most regimented, cold, calculating and adherent nutrition creatures on the planet: bodybuiders.  This is a community willing to prep and pack a week's worth of meals on Sunday night, eat them at the same time every single day and give up food tasting good for hitting a calorie goal.  This population also tends to avoid social situations where alcohol, uncontrolled food or poor access to good nutrition is a factor. Staying up late, missing a meal or falling off the schedule are out of the questions.

So does being adherent and regimented mean that emotions are not a factor?  I used to think so.  But when you start to talk to and observe different populations you see that emotions ALWAYS play a role.  It just seem the difference is primarily in which way the emotions drive your decision making.

Compulsiveness and Manic Episodes

I'm not a psychologist, clinician or therapist. But I've had a good deal of experience working with adults with mental illness in my past work history as well as having family with mental health diagnoses. One thing I have noticed is that individuals prone to manic behavior (and please understand this is not a medical discussion) get into a state of elevated and often irritated moods that become very goal-driven.  It can manifest itself as this foot-to-the-pedal state of needing to move, do, accomplish and anything that gets in the way is irritating and cumbersome. I've had clients who decided in a manic episode to walk cross country (even though they didn't make it out of state). You might see this person give up sleep for a couple days to accomplish a task or tasks - though usually they dont complete any of them. As an observer it seems like a very emotionally-charged task oriented state even though it usually isn't productive. What you see is someone trying to accomplish a task to fulfill an emotional need.

But it can help highlight that emotions don't always mean you lack direction or goals.  In fact, emotions can drive you to be so goal-focused that you give up anything not in line with them.  I tend to have some comulsive behavior myself and this is something I experienced as long as I can remember.  Growing up I had a very compulsive issue I hid from everyone I knew - I wouldn't walk on sidewalk cracks, I had to flip lights, close doors, wash things and organize things over and over until it "felt" right.  To an observer you might think I was a mindless robot flicking a light switch off and on out of some brain misfiring.  In fact, in all those instances I was repeating a behavior until I felt an emotional satisfaction that it was "correct".

It's hard to explain but it might've been the 8th light flick that felt "right". Next time it might be the 11th. But I felt an emotional satisfaction and relief of anxiety after a certain amount of repeated behavior, but I could not predict when that would occur.

Growing out of my teens, having more stability and control over my life helped this compulsion to pass and for me to let go of it. How interesting that my environment and stability positively impacted my emotions - as in I was able to improve my emotional state and thus my decisions with a better environment.

You can mirror that onto your nutrition. It's the same thing. Don't believe me?  Take someone after an emotionally stressful day and slide a salad or a plate of brownies in front of them....the brownie is probably going to win every single time.

Positive Emotions

Even the most robot-like and adherent person will always be getting an emotional satisfaction from their behavior.  I think in nutrition and fitness we just tend to see the emotional side played out more when people fall off their plan.  But we probably overlook the emotional satisfaction and need driving those with very strict and regimented behavior too.  Look at the Chinese weightlifting team - they seem to have no emotion in what they do, just following years-long plans for training leading up to the Olympics.  But national pride is an emotion! In almost all of us, there is a deep-seated emotional driver to our behavior.  For some it helps and for some in hinders.

Going back to the bodybuilder who executes each meal at the right time, never misses a gym session and logs all of their progress meticulously; that is not emotionless behavior.  Satisfaction, superiority, control are all tied into emotions. But we often don't link those emotions as being part of the process in nutrition and exercise. If we only think of feeling frustrated, hating your body, wanting to be a part of social events and other desires and emotions as part of the journey, we're missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

Having extremely complex emotions is part of what makes us so unique and drives us to accomplish great things. If our emotional state was completely fulfilled by just having food and shelter then we'd have no need to work on improving ourselves.  But we have community, love, esteem and self-actualization all playing roles in what makes us feel good and satisfying our need for growth.

You are more than just food and shelter

Maybe one of the reasons so many people struggle with their nutrition, fitness and self-image is from missing pieces in our Hierarchy of needs.  If the bottom of the pyramid relies on having enough food, water and shelter, then having to eat LESS to lean out threatens that hierarchy.  So how does the rest of your hierarchy stack up?  If other pieces are missing it probably means you won't stick to this long term.  Because if you threaten the system (your body) and you have multiple needs not being fulfilled, your emotional state will dirve you to get out of that threatened state.

Check out Maslow's Hierarchy of needs below:

Looking to lean out but money is tight, you just broke up with your girlfriend and your self-esteem is low?  Good luck sticking to the plan.

Remember that survival is ultimately the name of the game with our physiology.  So if changing our food or stressing ourselve with exercise is introduced, we need to have a solid structure to help support you while you're plugging holes into your personal hierachy of needs.

How to follow through

I love the idea that Pat Davidson introduced with Mass 1 and Mass 2.  Essentially the program is heavy weight with high frequency and tons of volume.  A huge threat to the system. Literally a threat to your physiological survival.

The goal with the program is to make exercise such a THREAT that it makes you consciously and subconsciously check off all the boxes in your list of needs so you can recover.  Just got done with 45 deadlifts, 60 reps of bench and 100 total reps of arms and shoulders?  You had better get to sleep, eat your vegetables, manage your stress and cut back on alcohol or you'll be one sorry mess.  The whole point is to introduce something that makes you get your life in order.

You can do this with any program, Mass is just an example of that.  But lets do a quick run down and see how this would play out with any really hard training program.

You've got enough food,water, a place to sleep and clothing to get you by day to day? Check.

Your health is good and you have enough money to pay for the gym, food and other necessities? Check.

Now you've got a place to exercise where you are part of a community, people care about you?  Check.

You get stronger, lean out and friends and family see how much you're improving?  Check.

All of this positive feedback is pushing you towards becoming the best you can be......check.

Shoot, now it's not really that hard to cut back on some carbs and alcohol and keep the rest of the train running.  But pull out one or two of those things above and the train is going to derail.

This is why when money is tight people pull out of nutrition coaching almost immediately.  In their hierarchy most people don't view it as essential.  But people will still shell out $50 every weekend night to drink with their friends. Why? Because the community and friendship is more important to their hierarchy than leaning out.

If we jump back briefly to the compulsive tendencies I developed at a young age, it's not a shock they happened.  With my parents divorce, moving and a toxic home-life I had no control over my environment and my system was threatened in some essential ways. So I compensated by controlling tiny things that gave me emotional peace.  All without ever consciously deciding to.  When those extremely stressful things changed (and my environment changed) I was able to lose those compulsive behaviors.

How to work on all of this

I think it's important for every individual to make a list whether it's mental or written down, of the things that are truly important to them - things they won't give up.  Then lay out your goals. If your goals require you to give up or change something that you refuse to do, then it won't work out. What are the things that really give your life meaning, security and happiness?  It's OK not to compromise on some of those because if you're unhappy, then your nutrition will be low on priorities.

But then you need to be flexible and change the things that are not essential.  And if you are missing some essential things (like self-worth, money or friendship) those things need to be prioritized. 

If you can fulfill the emotional things that are essential to you, then you'll be far more adherent and willing to change in the areas that are not essential.

I do recognize that you can't control other people or events in life.  In fact the only thing you have control over is you and your environment.  This entire post has been about YOU.  What do you need on the inside to help you make changes on the outside?

The untouched piece is environment.  We'll dive into how that is absolutely crucial for success in ou next post.