Previous posts on weight loss have focused on the physiology of metabolism. Although understanding human metabolism is primary to achieving successful and lasting weight loss, having a firm grasp on our body’s ability to metabolize experiences and emotions is also of key importance. It’s not always about what you’re eating, but what’s eating you.
Food has gone from being a source of nourishment, to an expression of pleasure and art with the invention of culinary traditions, and finally a form of addiction with the introduction of processed foods. It is interesting how food can range in use from being eaten for survival to emotional comfort after a stressful day. It is this manipulated emotional relationship with food that is most disturbing.
To begin, processed food are designed to be addictive. “Flavor enhancers” like MSG increase consumption and promote weight gain. Refined carbohydrates like high-fructose corn syrup offer a quick fix, raising our feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin with drug-like efficiency. Artificial flavors and colors dupe our minds and bodies into experiencing a food as having vitality when in fact, it is a dead, shelf-stable placeholder for authentic and nourishing food. The bottom line – if you choose to eat processed foods the deck is stacked in favor of the food industry who hold little concern for the overall health effects their products have on your body. This is, without exaggeration, a legal form of drug dealing.
It is bad enough that food processing deranges our relationship with food, but a lifetime of turning to a food to produce highs that counter our emotional lows creates a cycle of dependency. Unlike an illegal drug however, our food-drug of choice is readily available at every grocery store and gas station. And with the exception of the few brave souls who recognize this pattern and attend overeaters anonymous, there is little societal pressure to shake our food addictions. The emotional connection to food can even extend to abuse. Many times I have heard the words of an overweight middle-aged woman who has endured sexual abuse in her life, eat and gain weight to be unattractive to the opposite sex. These women (and men) need to feel safe if they are ever going to shed their emotional padding.
The first step to recovery, like any addiction, is acknowledging that you have a problem. From there, mindful observation of patterns and behaviors must begin. Most overfed Americans can’t distinguish between a craving and a true hunger signal. Billboards and TV ads are situated to trigger a craving in our brain and smells wafting through the air of the mall food court draw us in like mice to a mousetrap. If you take the time to fast from food for an entire day you will come to know true hunger as you experience the unpleasant gnawing in the pit of your stomach. Craving is experienced in the mouth, often with an increase of salivation in response to the triggered thought.
Once you can differentiate hunger from craving, you can use the sensations of emptiness and satiation to establish a rhythm with your body and a routine with eating. Choosing nutrient-dense whole foods with the highest percentage of calories coming from healthy fats will create a sense of fullness and of being nourished. I challenge anyone to eat a bowl of cereal of with skim milk in the morning and not feel hungry or cranky by mid-morning. I would then encourage that same person to enjoy eggs with sausage for breakfast and notice the sustained energy and clarity of thought that lasts through the morning.
In choosing foods that genuinely fill and fulfill you, the last step in establishing a routine is to avoid snacking. Snacking can provoke an emotional dependency with food and is likely an indicator that your blood sugar is imbalanced. This isn’t an absolute rule and should be taken as a guideline. Eating three solid meals a day while only drinking liquids between them allows your body to experience being hungry and then to experience being full and satisfied.
The science is clear, depression and stress promote obesity. Having an awareness of emotional triggers and settling into a routine of eating to satisfy and nourish your body will help elevate food beyond a temporary comfort to soothe the stress of the day into a source of sustenance, pleasure, and most importantly of all, life