I used to think eating just one cookie would equate to 5 pounds on my body.
I used to punish myself for getting seconds of my mom’s famous scalloped potatoes and ham.
I used to wonder how others were able to enjoy pizza, when all I could think about was how I’d burn off the calories and make up for going outside my food rules.
Being inside my head felt like being inside a prison.
If only I could be better.
Recovery from my eating disorder has taught me that the cravings I used to have for comfort foods, and the lack of control I used to feel around highly palatable foods at high stress times in my life, were nothing more than normal.
The Stress Response
When we are stressed, our bodies go into an autonomic stress response (fight or flight) and stress hormones (ACTH, cortisol, adrenaline) get released. At the same time, stored glucose gets released from the liver for energy, blood sugar levels raise, the heart increases, breathing increases, and digestion decreases. This kind of response used to help our ancestors stay protected while hunting for food, protecting their families, and responding to life threatening situations, but now imagine this sort of response happening over and over again for prolonged periods of time. Chronic stress is wreaking havoc on so many of our bodies and does absolutely nothing to serve us, yet many people today are attacked with a stress response as intense as getting chased by a bear, just by checking the text messages on their phone.
As mentioned above, cortisol is one of the hormones to help stimulate our fight or flight response, and too much cortisol being released for too long can result in an assortment of health complications including:
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
I read something particularly interesting this week that had to do with cortisol, and is why I decided to write this article. What I read had to do with comfort foods. Specifically, how eating comfort foods have been shown to reduce the physiological response we have to stress by lowering the release of cortisol, known as our biggest stress hormone.
It turns out, when we’re stressed and turn to comfort foods (usually made with high fat or refined sugar), molecules from our gut are transported up the vagus nerve to our brain and help to stimulate a relaxation response. How cool is that? I always knew there was a reason why after eating grandma’s chicken noodle soup, I always felt super at ease.
Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone to think eating palatable foods is healthy for us, but I do believe there is something to be said for allowing ourselves the foods we crave when we crave them, in moderation. Take it from someone who didn’t allow themselves the foods they craved for a very long time. This is a big part of intuitive eating, a lifestyle change that has done nothing but positively impact my thoughts and behaviors around food.
It’s important to note that intuitive eating does not mean consuming anything and everything we crave. There is a fine line between physical hunger and emotional hunger, and a big part of intuitive eating involves tuning into the hunger you’re experiencing and being able to satisfy that hunger guilt free. It involves getting curious and letting that curiosity lead you to trusting your body more and more as you move closer to food freedom. No foods are off limit when you’re living an intuitive eating lifestyle, but we all know too much of just about anything is a bad thing…except Jesus of course. 🙂
Things like chronic fat intake from processed animal products can be extremely damaging to our bodies. At a physiological level, here is some of what happens: Lipopolysaccharides or LPS, which are part of the cell wall to some of our gut microbiota, bind to our gut cells and make the gut leakier, causing other inflammatory molecules (called cytokines) to overcome our body. This affects our nerves and the hypothalamus’ ability to sense when we are full.
If you didn’t already know, our brains have three systems that directly influence and impact what foods we eat and how much food we eat.
- The appetite control system, regulated by the hypothalamus
- The dopamine reward system
- The executive control system
The dopamine reward system and executive control system are both located in our prefrontal cortex and and have the ability to override all of our bodies other systems if needed.
You may be wondering, why would these systems need to override all other systems?
Well, if you think back to hunter-gatherer times when we weren’t surrounded by food choices like we are now, these systems helped our ancestors make sure they ate enough high calorie foods when they were available, while also helping them remember where to find these foods in the future.
I find this all so fascinating, but what I find especially fascinating is the research being done on the dopamine reward system. There is currently some exploring being done on our gut microbes and how people with unhealthy gut microbiota may experience feelings of depression or sadness when they aren’t able to eat the palatable foods they crave. This is most likely due to unhealthy gut microbiota trying to keep up their health, while at the same time destroying ours. Most people wouldn’t consider food to be as serious an addiction as smoking or drinking, but the effects are just as—if not more—harmful to our bodies.
The ads you see on TV and online for takeout are all designed based off of our dopamine reward system, causing people to go to the kitchen or pick up the phone even when they aren’t hungry. A statistic I found incredibly eye opening, is that 20% of obese people suffer from food addiction.
It all goes back to how we were designed, and how in pre-historic times, these systems all helped to keep people alive in times of fighting and famine. Yet, again, very little people today are living a pre-historic lifestyle. Instead, many of us are swimming in a sea of restaurants, services that deliver food from restaurants to your door, grocery stores, convenient stores…the list goes on. And many of those foods aren’t in their raw form, but have been processed to the max with strange ingredients only a small percentage of people can pronounce the name of.
I say all of this to make the point that, the cravings you have for food aren’t just happening in your mind. They are happening in your gut too. And when you experience a craving it might be helpful to ask yourself:
- Why am I having this craving? Is it because the food I’m craving has brought me comfort at other times in my life and right now I’m in need of comfort?
- How do I want to react to this craving? Is eating the ice cream in the freezer going to bring me some sort of release and relaxation, or is it going cause me guilt, a binging episode, and an all-or-nothing mindset?
- Is there something about this food, or a pattern in the times I crave this food?
- If this habit is becoming unhealthy, how can I better cope when this craving onsets?
Restricting myself from the foods I loved during my eating disorder and being overly obsessive over an assortment of things, caused me a lot of stress and heightened the secretion of cortisol levels in my body, therefore making me act out in binging episodes where I felt weak and incapable.
However, if we can learn to engage in stress management techniques (because stress is only normal and bound to be a part of all of our lives), we can start to be more mindful of our food cravings and why we are experiencing them. We can hopefully also, practice intuitive eating while enjoying meals of all kinds, guilt free and in moderation.
Dear friend, I hope you know:
Eating a cookie will not equate to 5 pounds on your body.
Getting seconds of your mom’s famous meals do not deserve you punishment.
You can enjoy the pizza just as much as your friends do, without worry.
Being inside your head doesn’t have to feel like being inside a prison.