Why We Love Comfort Food + 3 Steps to Cut the Cravings

Mac & cheese
Rice pudding
Cream of chicken soup
Cookies
Asian noodles

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.

Know someone who this might help? Share using any (or all!) of these buttons:

image by aschaeffer via freeimages.com

What’s for Breakfast?

Readers have been asking: “What’s the best way to start the day nutritionally?”
I’ve been having many conversations about breakfast with clients.
It’s time I wrote about the most important meal of the day.

It really is. Here’s why.

The way you start your day sets the stage for the rest of it.

Think about it:

How does your energy improve when you go for a run first thing?
How does your focus shift when you wake up with a few sun salutations?
How are your moods when you’ve meditated in the morning?

What happens on the days when you don’t feel like it, when you don’t have time?

What you eat at that time of day makes a difference as well.

Consider the client who came to see me about energy levels and about getting enough food to help her sustain a rigorous physical routine – she runs, does Pilates and martial arts. One of the first things she said to me was that breakfast is her favourite meal. She LOVES a full breakfast (eggs, sausage, toast or potatoes). She proceeded to tell me that she works out, then has a green drink “because it’s healthier”. I don’t know how it’s healthier if she can’t focus on work by 11, and she’s ready to eat her agenda by 3.

We have a tendency – because of time, health, lack of a.m. hunger – to skimp when it comes to breakfast. Sure a coffee and a bowl of cereal will get you out the door and through traffic to work. Once you get there, the small burst of energy will be done (and your blood sugar will drop) so you’ll need the next cup of coffee and/or muffin to keep you going.

Then, for the sake of your health – or let’s be honest, your waistline – you have “just a soup or a salad” for lunch, maybe with a bit of tuna or turkey. Come 3:00, you got it, the blood sugar takes another dive (naptime anyone?).

Let alone the meltdown you have when that thing you’ve been working on for weeks hits a major roadblock or your computer dies in the middle of a launch.

Then you start grazing the minute you walk in the door (I used to start with the lunchbox leftovers) and keep going all the way through supper prep, sometimes not stopping until you hit the sack. Feeling like shit and resolved to “eat less” tomorrow.

Yes, it has to do with healthwise choices (which I’ll get to shortly), but it also has to do with the mindset that goes into the planning and preparation of a decent breakfast. I make it pretty clear around here that nourishment involves much more than nutrition.

There’s more to your breakfast than a collection of nutrients.

For one thing, have you ever noticed that breakfast food tends to be pretty beige – cereal, toast, etc. The green drink craze has at least introduced a level of vibrancy to the morning.

Nourishing your body with a variety of colours awakens you at a different level. As I tell 5-year-olds, when you eat more colours your cells will be as happy as when you see a rainbow. To put it in more adult language, the colour of the food you eat will resonate with your chakras (the body’s energetic “rainbow” and emotional centres).

And that’s just one sort of sensual enjoyment you can get out of a meal. We tend to be one-hit wonders in terms of morning flavour as well: sweet. It’s quite stimulating to experience a bit of salty, a burst of sour, a hint of bitter, maybe even a touch of spice. When was the last time you took a bite of your breakfast and thought, “Delicious!”?

Taking the time to prepare and eat an adequate meal in the morning sends the message to your entire being that you’re worth the effort. Breakfast is an act of self-love.

And I’ll bet if you’ve taken the 15-20 minutes to cook a beautiful breakfast, you’ll want to sit down and enjoy it fully.

When you provide your body with the food it needs to efficiently get through the morning, you’ve set yourself up for success.

I had recently recognized that my own morning choice – usually the unconscious bowl of cereal (granted organic, gluten-free and bulked up with seeds and dried fruit) – wasn’t cutting it when it came to getting me through the day. I often ate lunch at 10, then needed a 2nd one at 2. I knew I had to make a change.

Synchronicity brought my attention to an online breakfast challenge (Laura Hames Franklin’s Superhuman Breakfast). I’ll admit, it took a few days of resistance to get me through the initial commitment, but the difference it made to my day was instantly remarkable.

Since making the commitment to eat well in the morning, I can sit down and work at my desk without visions of sugary snacks distracting my writing. I can be present for several clients or teach a whole class (often talking about food) without my stomach rumbling from any lack.

Without the requisite blood sugar drop that comes with the standard muffin or green smoothie, your moods stay on an even keel. You can now cope with whatever the day brings with grace.

Imagine: no embarrassing rumbling, no slump, no need for a cookie (or 3) mid-afternoon, a good night’s sleep and enough energy to get up in the morning.

Sure, I’ve adapted what I learned to suit me more fully, but the basics have been established in my mind as the way to go.

The recipe:

  1. A full, colourful, warm, delicious meal.

In nitty-gritty terms, you want to make sure that your morning meal makes up 25% of your daily calorie intake. Include protein, complex carbohydrates and a fermented food for ease of digestion.

If you’re trying to cut down on animal protein, this is the meal to eat it!

(Enter your email in the blue & orange box below to receive more details, the reason each part is so important and a handy PDF to pin to your fridge.)

  1. Play with your food.

OK, you know I don’t mean finger-painting in your porridge.

I mean play around with different foods, new ways of preparing old favourites. What happens in your day if you have an egg along with your green drink? What happens if you have a sweet potato instead of toast? How would you feel after eating another helping of last night’s casserole or a bowl of the lentil soup you just warmed up for your kid’s thermos?

My friend Sue Ann runs an online community called Chocolate for Breakfast. Whether you literally eat chocolate for breakfast or not (she does!), it engenders the idea that all of our meals need to be infused with pleasure.

What works for YOU?

You should have seen the look of relief on my client’s face when I gave her “permission” to eat a full breakfast again.

Bon Appétit!

Now I’ve got a challenge for you:

In the comments, share your fave breakfast & whether it works for you. THEN, spend a few days playing around with different options and let us know what you’ve discovered. When you share your thoughts, you open the possibilities for others.

Give your friends the chance to improve their day too: share this post by clicking any (or all!) of these buttons.

 

To help you get going, I’ve made a PDF to post on your fridge: the basic recipe (and why each element is important) + suggestions and room for you to add a few ideas of your own.

In Defense of Carbs

I’m getting tired of the bad rap given to carbs these days. I hear it from my clients, I hear it at book club, I read about it in magazines: everybody seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of “I’m avoiding carbs”.

Does this have something to do with an innate need we have to make part of our food the bad guy? It’s like we have to find some outside source to blame for the state of our health, not to mention those extra few pounds we can’t seem to shake.

Even the current term for belly bulge points the finger of blame on this part of our diet: muffin top.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have an unhealthy relationship with carbs, but that’s only part of the story. As we discovered with fats after the extreme diets of the 90s, it’s more about quality, sources and combinations than about quantity.

So, let me dispel a few of the myths we’re perpetuating and demystify some of the facts about carbs, so you can let go some of your fear and embrace this vital family of nutrients.

fiber-rich-foods crop1. Carbs is NOT a 4-letter word!

That’s right, it’s actually 5. Like heart, like blood, like brain. Essential to life.

Carbs is short for carbohydrates, molecules that contain carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate). It’s an umbrella that includes sugars, starches and fibres. And just like fats, there are healthy & poor choices.

2. MYTH: Low carb diets are good for you

I wish more nutrition experts, writers and speakers would be more specific in their use of language.

More accurate truth: Low refined &/or white carb diets are good.

Carbs provide our main source of energy.

Depending on your gender, age, build, activity level & health status, 55-75% of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates – or, to put it another way, carbs provide the fire that keeps your engine burning.

No fire = no heat. And with winter around the corner, heat is just what you need!

To boot, adequate carbs spare the protein in your body for its essential jobs. Which also means the protein’s not “wasted” as an energy source that actually uses energy to make and produces potentially toxic bi-products in the process.

Good carbohydrate sources contain fibre, protein &/or fat to slow their release into your bloodstream and improve their impact on your body.

“Bad” varieties have a high sugar &/or starch content, without the benefits of the above.

To put it another way, your body deals with straight starch as if it were sugar – with blood sugar peaks & dips, stress response and fat deposits.

I keep that word, bad, in rabbit ears because the same food can be healthy as part of a balanced meal, as an occasional food, to boost glycogen stores after exercise, or to fuel the energy needs of a growing child.

Get the full skinny on “good” and “bad” carb sources at the end of the post.

3. MYTH: Whole grains = whole wheat bread & pasta

Bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, bagels, etc. are all flour products. As such they fall under the heading of refined carbohydrates.

Sure, flour made from the whole grain is higher in nutrients that its white cousin. But the milling that grinds the grain into flour makes the starch more readily available, and can be part of the problem in the way your body deals with it.

4. MYTH: Gluten is the root of all evil

For some it is. About 1% of North Americans are afflicted with Celiac disease, meaning these people don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest gluten, to painful effect.

My own respiratory system cleared remarkably after a colleague suggested I give up gluten a few years back. This was just before the whole gluten-free trend really took hold, which meant that I basically gave up pasta and baked goods entirely.

However, thanks to all the products showing up at the supermarket by the truckload, we’re I’m getting back to eating too many flour products again. And true to my argument about starches and sugars, my nose and lungs reflect the excess when I let the temptation of cookies get the upper hand. Regardless of gluten.

Still not convinced?

Here are a couple more reasons to indulge your craving for carbs this Fall:

5. Carbs improve your mood

November has a bleak quality about it because of the diminished light. Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) cripples 10% of the population in northern countries with depression. The decreased exposure to sunlight upsets the balance of melatonin and serotonin in the brain, resulting in varying degrees of symptoms.

Tryptophan in whole grains and squashes converts into serotonin in the body, when the diet is also rich in the nutrients necessary to support that conversion. Good quality protein, B vitamins, certain minerals, all found in…you got it!…whole grains & squashes. Paired with a vitamin D supplement to enhance some other benefits of sunshine, carbohydrates ground you on a mental-emotional level all winter.

6. Carbs help you lose weight

Complex carbohydrates (read: whole plant foods) contain soluble & insoluble fibre. Necessary to keep the blood clear of excess cholesterol and other fatty waste, fibre is Nature’s delicious way to maintain weight and reduce many disease states.

Distinguishing the “good” from the “bad”

Poor carb choices include:

  • Added or excess sugars of any kind – yes, even the “natural” ones

Baked goods, soft drinks, chocolate bars & other candy, coffee chain drinks are obvious no-nos. Even with the organic stuff from the health food store, be wary of packaged cereals, cookies, granola bars, juices.

  • “White” food: white rice, pearled grains (like barley), split peas, flour products
  • Alcohol

Limit whole grain flour products.

“Good” carbs = whole, complex carbohydrates:

  • Whole grains – the grains themselves: quinoa, brown rice, barley, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, steel cut or rolled whole oats, rye flakes; spelt, kamut, or wheat berries; sprouted or sourdough breads.
  • Starchy vegetables: squashes (spaghetti, acorn, butternut, pumpkin, zucchini), roots & tubers (sweet potato, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips)
  • Legumes (beans, pulses): kidney, chick, navy, black, lentils, adzuki, mung. Throw a handful into a pot of soup, make turkey & white bean chili or garbanzo & cheese loaf
  • Cabbage family (cabbage, bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, rapini, Brussels sprouts, kale):  Cook to avoid the goitrogenic effect that impacts your thyroid, i.e. your metabolism.
  • Leafy greens (mustard, turnip, collard, Romaine, chard, spinach)
  • All vegetables are full of fibre, plus protein, fats, vitamins & minerals that support the healthy use of carbs in your body.
  • Raw or dry-roasted nuts & seeds, dried fruit: In moderation.

If you have a particular condition, please consult your health practitioner for details on the most effective sources and quantities of carbohydrates for you.

Click here for easy steps to eating more vegetables.

If you found value in this post, be sure to spread the wealth by using any (or all!) of these share buttons: