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Making Connections: Food, Emotion, Balance and Enjoyment

Food is a funny thing, we depend on it as a necessity but a dependence on food can also become pathological – like any type of substance dependency or addiction. One of the particularly hard things about food is that we can’t just get rid of it completely – we can’t quit food “cold turkey” and/or avoid the triggers in the same way we could attempt to do with other addictions. The fact is – we still need food to live. An extreme approach to food in both directions- whether it be eating too much or too little can have devastating consequences on our long-term health if we don’t learn to change our behaviour. Just as there risk factors associated with “Out of Control” eating behaviours especially to our physical health, focusing too much on trying to CONTROL our cravings and beating ourselves up when we “fall off the wagon” is not only unhelpful but can create further problems within the domains of our emotional health.

“Mistakes” can be made and its still ok to enjoy your food! Problems with overeating high calorie, processed foods and/or junk foods on a frequent basis often stem from emotional eating. Therefore it is important to get to the root of the problem and the craving rather than just trying to control the craving. What is also important here is to develop new strategies for “coping” with our own various emotional states. It is helpful is to understand the emotional connections that we may have built with food over the years and learn strategies for how we can better understand ourselves and our cravings so that we desire healthier foods. By doing this we are also able to learn to relax and enjoy the occasional treat without shame and regret.

A healthy attitude to eating includes a balanced approach and an ability to ENJOY. We have pulled together the following information with the festive season in mind so that you feel equipped to get the most out of the celebratory time you have with your family and friends this December and New Year minus the guilt!

The feeling-food connection

It is a common misconception that we eat because we feel hungry. As explained on PsychCentral, true hunger is something we rarely allow ourselves to feel. True hunger is “the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by need of food”, however our cues to eat are not usually this pain. We experience a number of triggers that entice us to eat from various external and internal stimuli, for instance, the clock, a scheduled lunch break, a dinner outing, boredom, stress, depression and anxiety.

Let’s focus on some of the psychological cues for eating and drinking alcohol. As explained by Dr Roizon and Dr Oz in their book “YOU: on a diet”, there are a number of emotional, psychological and neurological signals that can lead to hedonistic eating – an “out-of-control” response to cravings for starchy, sugary, salty and/or fatty foods.  For instance we know that when the level of serotonin, a feel good neurotransmitter, in our brain drops, our body senses starvation. This causes us to crave carbohydrates to protect itself from the misinterpreted starvation. Low serotonin levels are associated with mood disorders including depression and a drop in serotonin level is also often seen when we don’t eat anything for long periods of time. Eating small, healthy snacks throughout the day can help to avoid this and also assists in increasing your metabolism. Similarly research has shown exercise to be a powerful mood stabilizer and regulator. As discussed by Adam Fitzpatrick, a Sydney psychologist and author of “Is this it? How successful people get more life out of life, not only does exercise improve mood but also helps to relieve psychological distress and manage physical and emotional stress and tension.

Feeling and foodInterestingly, as explained by Dr Roizon and Dr Oz research has shown how our feelings, personalities and food cravings interact with one another – whilst depression leads to craving sugars including starchy foods, stress is associated with salty foods, loneliness and/or sexual frustration with bulky foods like pastas and crackers, anger with meat or hard and crunchy foods and anxiety with soft and sweet foods (eg. ice cream).

Our outside world also plays a large role in our eating habits and also provides the starting point for many of our emotional responses. For instance, as mentioned on PsychCentral, our need to fit in, our need to be part of a gathering or a crowd can lead to eating when we’re not hungry, drinking alcohol or smoking even when we don’t crave this ourselves.  Passomonti et al. (2009), note that the very sight of food itself can trigger a craving and differences in our individual neurochemistry means that some of us have more intense cravings from this stimulus and that this may be indicative of the risk of obesity.

Restrictive diets vs. Balanced Lifestyle

Adam Fitzpatrick explains “our emotional health impacts on our physical health” and vice versa.

As discussed in “YOU: on a Diet”, the problem with restrictive diet’s is that they can have a detrimental effect on our psychology creating shame and negative thought patterns such as “the diet would work if only I had the willpower of a lean person” or “I can’t make mistakes when I’m dieting”. Dieting is one of the best ways to guarantee that the majority of your thoughts are going to have you focusing on, wait for it….you guessed it, FOOD! And what better way to keep yourself craving your days away than by constantly thinking about food? Dieting in this sense DOES NOT WORK. What does work is developing an understanding of how and why we eat – by eating conscientiously rather than, as Stephen Fry puts it, with “eyes glazed, hand rising and falling pack-to-mouth, pack-to-mouth, pack-to-mouth like a machine”.

In his book, Adam Fitzpatrick explains that our emotional health and physical health feedback on one another and that this loop is what “makes creating a balance between our emotional and physical states vital for overall quality of life.” Eating conscientiously is part of a bigger picture shift in the way we choose to live our lives. Eating in moderation includes birthday cakes and a glass of champagne at new years and it also includes eating nutritious foods that are going to help resolve imbalances in the body rather than act as a temporary Band-Aid . By living a harmonious, balanced, mindful life that takes into account our emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs, we no longer act in an unconscious reactionary to our internal and external world but mindful of the stimulus, our personal triggers and our feelings. By taking the time to listen to our whole body – mental and physical we can begin to learn to manage our needs in different ways. Feeling bored or depressed we may choose to move and exercise or meditate rather than eat junk food in front of the TV.

Enjoying Family and Friends

With the seasonal celebrations of the month in mind we thought we would conclude by discussing attitudes and behaviours during celebration and fellowship with family, friends…and lots of yummy food. Restricting yourself with a dieting mentality is more often than not doomed to fail as we are trying to suppress and control ourselves rather than listen to how we are feeling. Here are some tips to enjoy yourself this festive season without the guilt:

1. When reaching for food or alcohol ask yourself: “Why am I eating/drinking this?” This is a very simple way to recognise when you are satiated and just eating for the sake of it and when you are not.

chocolat image2. Take the time to consciously enjoy everything that you decide to eat or drink. Stop, pay attention to the experience of eating.Eat slowly, it will help your body to recognise that is satiated and help you to avoid working yourself into a food coma.

3. If you are eating from a buffet spread, ask your host for a smaller plate, studies show that people eat less without even realising it when they eat with a smaller plate.

4. Enjoy the company of your loved ones. Use the opportunity of a celebration to catch up with your friends and family, coming together at a table to share things about one another’s lives. Consciously experiencing the emotional delight of celebrations increases our chances of feeling happy and positive. Feeling depressed and uptight is associated with an increase in Neuropeptide Y, which in turn increases our appetite. Feeling good, positive and calm on the other hand has the opposite effect.

5. Be grateful for the opportunities the festive season offers you. Gratefulness is a strong source of happiness and helps us to achieve a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Adam Fitzpatrick defines this as key to our emotional health and goes on to explain that this has an important impact on our physical health. This includes our relationship with food. This TED talk from David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, focuses on a simple and profound message that about the gifts of gratefulness: