The Home Food Environment
The types of foods that you surround yourself with can, and often do, impact your choices and behaviors. It is important to understand the significant role that your home food environment will play in long-term weight loss management.
Why is this important?
Throughout human evolution, it has been the environment that has played the most significant role in the development and wiring of our brains, bodies, and metabolism. Of course, for the longest period of time–about a million years or so–the environment that our ancestors inherited was unpredictable and uncertain. To survive the constant threat of starvation we evolved with a strong biological drive to seek, consume, and store energy. In other words, we were on a daily mission to find palatable energy sources (mostly sugar and fat)–and eat it all!
And for hundreds of thousands of years, this powerful system kept us alive and saved us from extinction. That is the good news! The not-so-good-news is that this powerful system is still on the same mission today, and every day, despite living in a land of plenty. This is called an evolutionary mismatch, and it occurs when certain traits that were once deemed advantageous in one environment become detrimental in a changed environment. What most of us don’t truly realize is that when faced with the temptation of highly palatable foods and drinks that are high in sugar and fat–these once precious and sought-after nutrients now ubiquitous today–our logical brain may be saying, “don’t do it!” but our genetic instructions are really saying, “eat it all!”
Safeguarding Your Home Food Environment
While you can’t control the food environment outside your doors, you can certainly control the one inside your home. Understanding the power that these highly palatable items possess, you can now take action to help safeguard your home food environment and mitigate their risk in your long-term maintenance journey.
Palatability: Energy sources that evoke “pleasure/reward” and drive consumption
Then: The vast majority of the natural food environment that we evolved from was bland and relatively unpalatable, so “drive” was not frequently engaged.
Now: The vast majority of our modern food environment is ultra-processed and hyper-palatable, so “drive” is easily–and frequently–engaged.
Pro-tip: It is a good idea to limit the amount of processed foods in your house. If you have these foods in your home, it’s easy to gravitate towards them, especially when you are hungry. If you stock your fridge with good food, you will eat good food.
Availability and Accessibility: How “easy” it is to consume palatable energy sources
Then: Availability of palatable energy sources was often limited by seasons and regions, and access was often hampered by physical and environmental challenges, such as distance, predators, and weather.
Now: Palatable energy sources are available 12 months a year and accessible 24/7.
Pro-tip: When shopping, shop the perimeter. Most processed foods are in the middle of the store. Staying on the perimeter will allow you to not be tempted by these un-healthy foods. Stock your shopping cart with plenty of vegetables (eat the rainbow), lean meats, and healthy fats.
Opportunity: A given chance or “occasion” to consume palatable energy sources
Then: If our ancestors waited for a “given chance” to eat–such as a wild animal collapsing at their feet or waited months for trees to bear fruit–our species would long be gone. To survive in a natural environment, we evolved to heighten opportunity through visual cues or “reminders” and the habitual response (seek → consume → store) that followed.
Now: With “given chance” no longer the driving force, a cycle of habit has gone into autopilot and overdrive!
Pro-tip: Don’t grocery shop when you are hungry. If you are hungry while shopping this may lead to bad choices. Also always have good choices ready to go at home. Preparation is the key to success.
As you recall, foods that are highly palatable engage the reward circuits of your brain and can lead to reward-seeking behaviors, such as overeating or, in some cases, even binge eating. These items are categorized as “Poor Value” because they literally provide poor value to managing hunger, cravings, and weight regain.
Ideal Value High-quality protein, healthy fats, high-fiber foods, nutrient-dense foods. Ideal value for managing hunger, cravings, and maintaining weight.
Fair Value Processed foods and drinks, often lower in high-quality protein and fiber, and higher in saturated fats. Fair value due to processing, which may lead to hunger and cravings.
Poor Value Ultra-processed items with little to no nutritional value; high in added sugars, saturated and trans fats, little to no protein. Poor value toward weight management. Stimulates hunger, cravings, and reward-seeking behaviors. Many foods in this category contain addictive properties.
Take the time to reflect on the overall quality of your home food environment and remain open-minded to making some changes in the coming weeks.