Mac & cheese
Cream of chicken soup
What is it about certain foods that calm you under stress? That call your name when you’re feeling down? That make you feel better like nothing else can?
Is it possible to feel better without them?
For me, it’s always something creamy – pudding, ice cream, fettuccine alfredo. You might prefer chips & onion dip, or go for a bagel with melted cheese.
Looked at rationally, through my “professional” lens, most people I ask come up with some form of starchy carb, often accompanied by dairy. Inevitably, it’s something from the naughty list.
In times of strife, we don’t tend to crave the healthy choices. Nope. We want the sweet, fatty, starchy, salty, oily stuff that we so piously avoid on the good days.
“Bad” as they are, those choices make nutritional sense.
When you’re in stress mode, the hormonal cascade acts to draw more glucose into your blood. It’s the fuel necessary for you to flee from or fight with the tiger at hand. The liver will access that energy by tapping your small storage reserves, then by converting fat & protein to make more.
This is great if you’re dealing with a short-term situation (or going for a fat-burning power walk). Your body will rebalance in the hours following the episode.
But when the stress continues all day – when the tigers keep showing up in the form of traffic jams, computer glitches, unruly kids, etc. – the recovery doesn’t happen. Your body continues to use and need glucose to drive you through the ongoing crises, shunting this key nutrient away from your brain & nervous system. Read: your ability to think straight and stay emotionally calm goes out the window.
Step in the cravings:
The (starchy, refined) carbs are the quickest route to more glucose.
You want dairy because it’s full of the calcium to nourish & calm your nerves. Plus, when it’s main protein (casein) is broken down, it creates opiate-like compounds that keep you happy & ease your pain, just like endorphins during exercise. (There’s a reason your grandmother gave you warm milk before bed.) Cheese, with its relatively high protein content, is the biggest source of these casomorphins – a fact which makes cheese highly addictive.
Salt, sugar and fat stimulate the brain to release dopamine and other pleasure chemicals in the brain, making you feel better.
Unfortunately, sweet & salty also stimulate the adrenal glands, keeping them pumping out the stress hormones, which can set up a vicious cycle. Coffee, and anything you’ve got an underlying allergy to, also perpetuate the drama in the same way.
Beyond the nutrient factors, and possibly more influential in your choices, you quite likely have an emotional association to the comfort food of choice.
My mother’s a big one for offering snack to a child who’s out of sorts. (This is something I notice more from how she treats her grandchildren than from any conscious recollection from my own childhood.) She’s working from the innocent premise that the moodiness stems from low blood sugar. But even in the face of a child who’s hurt or needing emotional solace she’s not equipped to offer, out come the cookies.
It’s a case of the spoonful of sugar replacing the necessary medicine.
A client once told me how she can easily eat a large bag of chips in lieu of supper when she’s upset. I delved deeper into her story: it turns out that the only time she got anything resembling positive attention from a violent, alcoholic father, it was when he was on an upswing, and he’d bring home chips to have a party. There would be a brief window of laughter and hugs. For her, chips = love.
That’s powerful stuff.
I could ask you similar questions about your own cravings. Maybe not such an extreme case, but I’ve no doubt that you have an emotional connection, a fond memory of a loved one or a special time in your life, linked to what you want in times of strife.
Which becomes the key to moving past the craving for that food.
Before I go there, let me step back into the nutrition piece.
Reason #742 of why it’s important to be well nourished on a regular basis: Eating a solid breakfast and well-balanced meals throughout the day lays the foundation on which you build your health.
When you’re well fed – when your reserves are stocked up – you’re prepared to deal with a crisis if and when it comes up. And this can be anything: a car accident, a sick child or parent, a break-up, losing your job, getting a new job, a move, a death,…
In the midst of the turmoil, if you fall off the good eating wagon, for various understandable reasons, it won’t harm your in the long run, and you’ll recover more quickly.
You can nourish yourself in a similar way on an emotional level. Doing the inner work beforehand prepares you for the acute times as they happen…and they will happen.
It’s a 3-Step Process:
1. Get relaxed and tap into the person or memory that’s connected with the food.
What did/does this person mean to you?
What was she/he providing along with the food?
Hot buttered toast brings me back to my grandparents’ kitchen with the smell of fresh-baked bread coming out of the oven. This was a place where I felt appreciated and understood.
Or, What did the food convey that they could not?
Again, my mother’s cookies and ice cream replace the warm hug and words of encouragement a child needs after a disappointment or a fall.
2. Think of the last time you craved that food.
What was happening? How were you feeling?
What did you need, deep down?
How are those needs met by the feelings you associate with the comfort food?
Rather than pop some bread into the toaster, I might ask myself in what way do I need to be appreciated or understood in this current situation. Do I need loving arms and encouragement rather than a cookie.
3. Fill the void by fulfilling the underlying need.
Get help if you need it.
Talk to a friend.
Call the person in question, even if just to connect.
Who else do you know who can provide what’s missing?
How can YOU be the one to give you what you need?
That said, sometimes, a cookie’s just a cookie, and it’s ok to simply want it.
What do you crave when you’re upset? What do you think it’s doing for you emotionally? When you share in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.
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