I put up a post a while back about the physiological components of binge eating. It discusses how I believe that much of my life’s struggle with food has been driven by hormone fluctuations and brain chemistry. I still believe that this is the case. Fructose is an appetite demon, and I want it to stay away, away, away.
But I acknowledge–and I acknowledge whole-heartedly–that diet is perhaps 65 percent of the battle. Absolutely, cutting sugars and eating more fat decreases appetite, but does it make my bad relationships or my debt go away? My unemployment? The America’s Next Top Model re-runs I like to watch with a pound of cheese cubes on hand? There exist a number of factors that sour relationships with food, as a disordered eater or not, and no amount of fat in the diet will ever change that. What follows is a very brief discussion of the most common ways to get tripped up (I do not, and I dare not, address serious disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia). Increased awareness can help us mitigate any problems we identify. Then hopefully we can move forward towards the best kinds of peace the paleo movement has to offer. Later posts will touch on specific strategies and behaviors for helping out with these various roadblocks.
What are the most common ways to have negative relationships with food?
According to Lloyd Glauberman, PhD and clinical psychologist, this is the most common form of unhealthy eating. And when I first heard this idea, I thought: Duh. Yet clueless eating is something I hadn’t thought about before. I’m obsessed with nutrition. I’m willing to bet you’re not a clueless eater, either. However, many, many Americans are. This makes me sad.
Trance eating refers to a form of negative multitasking. We do this when we zone out. It makes us oblivious to what we’re consuming. Finish off that bag of pecans before you even noticed your hand was in the bag? Munch your way through a whole drawer worth of carrots while writing that term paper? Eating while distracted is a fun way to keep our hands and mouths busy while our brains are active. It is also a nice way to get a steady stream of insulin and serotonin pumping through our systems. Bad news, this is. It eliminates feelings of hunger, and, more importantly, true feelings of satisfaction.
Do you eat because you’re tired? An insomniac? Trying to stay awake? Sleep deprivation ramps up appetite. Put on an eye mask and get some Zs, n00bs.
Do you carefully monitor everything that goes in your body? In an obsessive way? In a way that has less to do with a happy and healthy lifestyle, and more to do with discipline? Do you ever make it a contest to see how long you can go without food? Do you practice intermittent fasting such that you go a long time without food and then end up overcompensating when you break the fast because you got so hungry?
It is well known that fa diets and such do not work, and that they make us relegate food to the realm of “things that fuck us up” rather than “things which nourish.” We all want food to be nourishing. Diets, if they induce feelings of deprivation, can lead to all other sorts of disordered and emotional eating habits. What’s more, we if only ever adopt diets for a given period of time, and then resume our old habits afterward, we never make progress. The paleo world knows this well. Life is about consistent health. Physically, and mentally.
Of all the substances that we ingest to make ourselves feel better, food is most often the drug of choice. We eat when we’re anxious, sad, depressed, angry, worried, annoyed, ashamed or guilty. Boy oh boy, am I ever familiar with this one. Coping with difficult emotional states is no easy task, but that’s no excuse for constant abuse of food. I believe that this is the most mentally disruptive form of disordered eating, and more treatment of it follows.
What are some indicators of emotional eating? How can I tell the difference between real and emotional hunger?
According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, there exist five primary distinctions between real and emotional hunger:
1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
2. Emotional hunger is usually more specific. When we eat to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, we often crave a specific food, such as ice cream, and only that food will meet our needs. However, we can also have general “I need food!” (“I need serotonin!”) feelings in response to stress.
3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly; physical hunger can wait.
4. Emotional hunger doesn’t stop when we’re full. Duh. You can ask my empty cheese drawer about that one.
5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when we are physically hungry does not.
These are important insights and situations worth keeping an eye on. Do I all of the sudden require a parfait? Why? Yet while the emphasis that the University of Texas places on different types of hunger is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story. So what? I crave foods when I’m not hungry from time to time. Does that mean I’m a disordered eater? I dunno. Does it? Probably not. A more important question to ask ourselves, I believe, is: “Do I experience emotional hunger more than I would like? If so, why?” A whole shit ton of people have ideas about why.
Common emotional eating triggers:
Stress. Anger. Depression. Anxiety. Boredom. Futility. Filling a void. Making up for previous deprivation in life. Fear of deprivation. Fear of change. Nostalgia. Denial. Obsession. Loathing. Hyper self-criticism.
Ring bells? I’m sure they are at least familiar to you. Each deserves a post of its own. For now, it’s probably enough to just focus on reflection. Do different psychological aspects of my life compel me to eat? Has it happened to me before? How can I mitigate these feelings so it happens less often in my life?
Millions of different self help books and common sense guides recommend strategies for mitigating emotional eating. These strategies are, far and away, behavioral. Go for a walk. Meditate. Keep your mind busy. Keep your hands busy. Do something kind for others. Hide problem foods. Drink lots of water. Chew gum. And they work. They really do. But the most ideal way to handle emotional eating is to get at the root of the problem. Figure out exactly what compels you, and then work on strategies to eliminate or mitigate that stressor in your life. For example, I wear earplugs when my roommates are fighting. This very simple practice does me wonders. I also try to be less critical of my self. Easier said than done. But it is an evolving process, and isn’t life supposed to be about the journey or some shit like that anyway?
Does the paleo world exist above these problems?
Kind of, and no. In some respects, definitely not. First, this is because, as I’ve discussed with so many people, it is still possible to binge on healthy foods. Satiating aspects of fat and protein be damned. They’re not angels, and they don’t save everybody. It’s easy as hell to eat an entire chicken or a bucket of guacamole if you’re fucking with or ignoring your hippocampus. If you binge on healthy foods such as fats, you’re not alone. It’s okay to have this problem.
Second, though the paleo world is ridiculously mindful, it is still possible to use food to medicate.
And finally, the most healthful among us can fall prey to traps of excessive discipline and criticism. Did I eat an omega-6 fat? Or some nuts or some dairy, which I usually avoid? Fuck it all. I suck at eating and don’t deserve to be nourished. Or: will I spend an hour doing sprints tomorrow because I think I see a new layer of fat on my hips? Paleo practitioners usually swear by decreased exercise time and the benefits of HIIT, but it’s possible to lapse into perfectionism as such an aware individual. It is one thing to keep track of how much energy we’re consuming and how much we’re expending, but it is another thing entirely to allow negative feelings to become a part of that.
The paleo world is full of successes, but it is also full of people who are struggling with weight or serious health issues. For them, it is important to remain positive, and to acknowledge that progress is made in increments, not in leaps. No self loathing allowed. Be good to yourself. Three steps forward, one step back. No big deal.
So what is a healthy relationship with food?
I don’t know. You tell me. It seems to involve eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re full. It has to do with the necessity of nourishment, but it also has to do with pleasure. It has to do with healthfulness, and mindfulness, and gratitude, and forgiveness. It has to do with having a free mind, and using food to fuel that beautiful, free mind.
I don’t know how to define relationships with food. What’s more, they are always changing, and are always situated with a social context. It is unlikely that ancestral man suffered eating disorders. And perhaps in a few centuries, modern man won’t either. Unlikely. We have become a neurotic, consumption-driven species, and I’m not sure I see that changing any time soon.
Is there a typically paleo relationship with food? I could hazard a few guesses. I think that paleos tend towards mindfulness, tend towards gratitude, and tend towards good, pleasurable relationships. Given that paleos have appetite-sating diets and eat with their health first and foremost in their lives, I am, on the whole, quite impressed.
What do you think about Americans and food? Paleos? Yourself? Chime in. Make me thoughtful, make me smart.Tweet