This article was originally published on Healthista.
When we are suddenly confronted with a person, event or feeling that shoots us out of our comfort zone, for many of us the first impulse is to turn to food; often sweet and often not what we would choose in our long-term health plan. Here we explore the whys and hows to recognise and free ourselves from these exhausting and frustrating circles of inner conflict.
What we put in our mouths is one of the few things we can control in life and it is an act of gratification to turn to eating when we feel this is not being provided by our external world. Touching our mouths engages the calming, parasympathetic nervous system and the sense of taste, pressure and being ‘filled up’ (yes, I have noticed that all sounds pretty sexual too..) makes food a first choice route when comfort from the world or others seems scarce.
What do you want?
It is great to really know the nature of the beast and ask yourself, when I really annoyed/sad/upset/scared/the whole shebang, what do I just want? What feels like an absolute necessity to put in my mouth right there and then?
For some it’s biscuits or cake – that sugar and fat combo hits all the self-medication buttons in the brain that create a mollifying effect when our own self-soothing abilities seem to have left the building. For others, it’s the chemical cocktail that chocolate delivers, not just sugar but also sugary dairy if you go for the milk variety or more caffeine if heading for the dark side of the force. It’s much debated if the magnesium content soothes or the theobromine hit (in coffee and tea too) has addictive qualities that pulls us in when we’re at our lowest.
Then there are the savoury seekers who crave salty snacks that also deliver an excitory punch and theorised to be caused by one or more of these; low zinc levels, adrenal fatigue and need for sodium lost out through urine that gets dumped when stress hits. However you look at it, a body response to stress – zinc and other nutrients like B vitamins are used up during the rapid production of energy, hormones and neurotransmitters that its reactions demands. When salt also comes with the junk fats in crisps and roasted nuts (the raw kind don’t have these damaged fats), this is a wonderfully satisfying mix to an addled brain.
What do you really need?
The nature of all of these impulses is towards self-medication, our desires led by our body chemistry trying to find equilibrium when the physical and mental shock of a stress suddenly throws it off-whack. They are not a long-term plan for the body, not the choices that serve you well in the long run and even if your rational mind knows that, your body mechanisms don’t care. Your mind-body is working on short-term survival mode when it senses the danger of stress.
What do you really need?
Knowing these urges are our biochemistry overruling the rational mind is extremely helpful information. It lets you off the hook for all of those judgements we can throw at ourselves like ‘I have no willpower’ or ‘why am I self-sabotaging, again’. Stepping back from that immediate response and considering how we can set a long-term scene, helps us relieve the intensity of the response and retain some of the reflective part of ourselves that can still make a rational decision.
Recognising the patterns
If you’re having reactive ‘wants’, what your body actually needs is a level of sustenance that it feel it can rely on to provide the energy and building it might need to deal with anything that comes along. Less than that and we’re left with cravings that are there to make up a perceived deficit. That’s not to say we won’t ever crave the things we crave just because we really like them and they give us a quick happy, but we will be able to feel a whole lot more in control and not like the food is holding the reins.
- ‘Protein for breakfast’ may well be etched on my tombstone, but I really cannot say it enough! This is the benchmark of satisfaction for our omnivorous biochemistry (yes, even if you are veggie or vegan) as we don’t get that full signal to the brain from carbohydrates alone. Eggs, nuts, fish, meat (free-range please) or good quality protein powders are a vital start to break craving cycles.
- Don’t leave eating until after you feel a blood sugar crash. If you’re only making time for food when you feel dizzy, spaced, irritable or totally drained, you’re leaving it too late and living in reactive mode. Prioritise regular meals that satisfy.
- The self-soothing oral gratification route may well be pleased by advice to eat little and often, but that can create an near obsession with constantly filling our faces and not getting used to being a bit hungry or a bit empty. Eating the satisfying meal can start to liberate you from a constant seeking mentality that we can then tend to give in to when we lose our cool.
Cake or biscuit monster – luckily there are many good alternatives in shops and cafes these days and if not in the ones close to you, stock up on sweet alternatives that can hit the mark when your inner being is really screaming for a sweet hit. The best of the lots are:
- Dried mango, prunes or figs.
- Fruit – bananas can hit the spot as also help raise the brain chemicals serotonin for mood and GABA for soothing.
- Anything with unsweetened coconut – provides the sweet taste with satisfying and healthy fats.
The chocoholic – 40g of dark chocolate a day has been shown to help people cope with stress. Dark chocolate covered nuts also provide the creaminess you may miss if dairy chocolate is your thing, with the healthy fats and protein helping to satisfy appetite.
Salt-seeker – add some good quality rock salt to food to satisfy your need and prioritise making space in your life to give your adrenal glands a break from pumping out tiring stress hormones. You can add a little salt to raw, unsalted nuts like almonds, cashews or Brazils. One with seaweed or herb salt can add in supportive minerals.
Looking for more ideas?
If you are finding it difficult to think of new ideas to help add a little variety to your usual meal choices, why not take a look at Charlotte’s superfoods directory? Packed full of helpful information on how to make the best of every ingredient, from spinach to garlic, these superfoods will not only limit the damage of previous cravings but they will add a new energy to your usual weekly routine.