My grandfather was a cattle rancher in southwest Arkansas, and I have many wonderful memories of summers spent unloading feed sacks from the rail car downtown, bailing hay, and checking the cows. The cab of his Silverado pickup truck, strewn with hay, rope, and dehydrated cow dung, had that sweet scent reminiscent of a straw-filled barn.
I love that smell.
Unfortunately, my grandfather’s eating style—which even heart disease never changed—corresponded directly to his vocation. A typical meal at my grandparent’s house always featured pork, beef, or fried chicken as the main dish, with cornbread, fried potatoes, and heavily dressed coleslaw as frequent accompaniments. While my grandfather's smoking and public beer drinking stopped after his triple bypass, his diet continued to wear on his health. It was about eight years after the bypass that he died, having spent his last month tangled in tubes and catheters with no window to the outside.
Fast forward 30 years to yesterday, when I received this text from my mother: Your uncle just had triple bypass surgery.
I was incredulous. How could that be? Did he learn nothing from his father’s premature death, not to mention the suffering it wrought on our family?
But then, look at my boyfriend. His father, also a bypass victim, spends several hours a week undergoing dialysis because of what diabetes has done to his kidneys. And yet, my 50-pounds-overweight boyfriend will partake in a meat, cheese, and refined carbohydrate binge at tonight’s weekly yacht club hamburger night.
Has he learned nothing from his father’s slow but impending demise, and the pain of loved ones watching him die? Nothing at all?
Humans are not wired to worry about possible future events. There’s even some fancy terminology for our tendency to put more value on present-time rewards than future ones—hyperbolic discounting. The pleasure of a high-fat, high-salt meal overcomes the very real threat of death by heart attack, because we don’t think about the future consequences of filling our bodies with junk. All we know is that it tastes good now.
This buy-now-pay-later mindset is fun in the moment but can have disastrous effects down the road. So what is a health-seeking person to do? Can we override this predisposition and put our future well being before the pleasure of the moment?
Yes, we can!
People do it all the time when they quit smoking, train for a marathon instead of partying on the weekends, or forgo the Tesla Model S for a 401K. I give my clients an abundance of strategies to overcome the play-now-pay-later attitude, but I only have room for a couple here.
1. Start by making a long list of reasons to adopt a high-nutrient diet.
For instance: to lose weight, to feel more energetic, to lower my cholesterol, etc. The longer the list the better.
2. Next, make a list of what will happen if you don’t change.
For example: I could end up in the nursing home with multiple amputations like my Uncle Jeff, I’m more likely to get breast cancer, I could continue gaining weight. Again, the more you can come up with (and the grizzlier), the better.
3. For the next two weeks, read both lists every day. Decide now when you’ll do it and put it on your calendar so you won’t forget. Oh, and read the “reasons to” list first, followed by the “what will happen if” list. Yes, you’ll be ending on a sour note, but discomfort motivates change, while consolation does not.
Ok, enough reading—get to writing!