You might be hard-pressed to find many people who never take advantage of the “elixir” effects food can have on us. For instance, I’d venture that the majority of us start our day with a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea. Some of us wind down after a long week with a glass of wine or a taste of our favorite bourbon. Even a small dose of sugar during times of excessive stress can lower cortisol (hence why some of us reach for an extra indulgence when things get rough). As long as we’re talking occasional or modest gratification, we can take advantage of these benefits without worry. But for some people, food becomes an ongoing coping mechanism or an unhealthy dependency to get them through their day. Where’s the line between normal indulgence and chronic “abuse” of food? And what do we do when we find ourselves sliding into risky territory?
The body is designed for us to enjoy eating. Lab animals that don’t produce dopamine die because they literally won’t eat without the internal motivation-reward boost. We’re naturally drawn to the scents and textures of food, along with the associations they offer. I sometimes think about certain meals as actual memories because they opened new territory of culinary delight.
Yet, other than a cup of coffee each day, I’m careful about how I use food. A few years ago I even kicked my nightly wine habit because I thought I might feel better without it. It wasn’t until I found a healthy workaround that I reintroduced it. I wanted to make sure I was getting the benefits, without the downsides.
And there’s the rub. When is an indulgence working against us, not for us?
Even if we glean some benefit from something (e.g., an energy boost from coffee or a drop in cortisol from a piece of chocolate), do we also experience a downside? And does our habit keep us from addressing the real lifestyle or emotional roots that are causing our discomfort? Are we relying on caffeine because we refuse to take responsibility for our poor sleep habits? Are we using sugar or any other kind of food to distract ourselves from circumstances we feel afraid or powerless to deal with?
In other words, are we using food as a stand-in for better lifestyle choices and/or honest psychological inventory?
Let me add one caveat before we dig in. The biology and psychology of full blown food addiction is beyond the scope of what I’m covering here. While some of these strategies may be similar to or part of a food addiction recovery plan, the picture is more complex at that level, and I’d refer anyone who thinks they’re beyond reining in their own behaviors to food addiction professionals.
Today I’m aiming for the “gray” area between normal eating and ongoing misuse/“abuse” of food, where I think many of us can find ourselves at one point or another.
That said, here are some tips.
Stop feeding the physiological cycleIt’s impossible to talk about using food as a drug without looking at the genuine neurological and hormonal impacts it has on the body. The fact is, certain foods affect us more like drugs than others.
With actual drug use, we’re not operating with innate satiation signaling. But with food, our bodies have a built-in system for telling us when to eat, how much to eat and when to stop.
In our paleolithic ancestors’ time, it worked great. Today, we’ve become our own saboteurs. We’ve known for years that sugary and processed foods (those that strategically combine sugar, salt and certain fats into a triple crown disaster) are intentionally designed to override our inherent satiation signals and hyper-trip our reward systems.
Unfortunately, our own body composition can work against us—leading us deeper into a cul-de-sac of poor eating choices and behaviors. Leptin is one key hormonal player in our satiety signaling. When we’re obese, we lose leptin sensitivity, and we’re drawn to eat despite being functionally full. This is where we get into trouble and the gate is open to food dependence—a phenomenon that looks strikingly similar to chemical drug dependence in neurological scans.
The physiology here could easily be its own post, and I’ve written about these issues in the past. Suffice it here to say that it’s time to kick sugar/high carb (same deal) and processed foods to the curb. You’ll be forever waging an uphill battle with these food products. Food chemists have you by the tail. Get the monkey off your back by going cold turkey or by gradually replacing these choices with healthier ones that won’t hijack your physiology. Regular readers, you know the drill. But for any newbies, take heed.
Assess your habits honestlyCoffee at 6:00, 8:00, 10:00, 1:00 and 3:00? Sweetened almond milk ice cream after dinner? Paleo-branded treat on your morning break? A superfluous energy drink after a regular intensity workout? Snacking after dinner?
Routine influences our desires. If we’ve done something again and again, we come to expect it. That little insistent voice inside us feels darn well entitled. It’s like establishing Wednesday night as movie night for the kids for six months, and then telling them this Wednesday is too nice to stick with the routine. Not that it isn’t worth shifting the schedule, but good luck handling the initial rebellion.
Acknowledge the crummy ruts for what they are, and come up with something new (and healthier) to put in their place.
Identify your psychological triggersIdentify what you’re feeling when you start raiding the cupboards or the candy machine. What’s really lacking when you pop the top off a soda? What are you trying to avoid when you’re reaching for that bag of chips?
Research shows that emotional awareness impacts our food choices. So when you start to fixate on the thought of a food or a lot of food, pay attention to what’s going on in your body, mind and environment. Observe and note for as long as you can. Get the whole 360º on that sensation. Write it down if you have to. Next time do the same thing. Keep doing it until you begin to catch that feeling before the craving hits. Then work on redirecting.
Ask where you’re stuck in lifeYou may find patterns in those psychological triggers. Maybe they’re the ones you’d anticipate, or maybe they surprise you. Who, what, and where tend to be associated with these triggers? This doesn’t mean you can blame your unhealthy behaviors around food on someone or something else. But it begs the question: if you’re using food to self-medicate, what exactly are you trying to medicate?
Sometimes our poor lifestyle choices are a half-conscious response to stressful or otherwise unfavorable life circumstances. The Primal strategies in these cases remain the same, but a bigger set of overarching choices come into play. We should ask the questions that feel too big to ask.
Make food substitutions (or not)Sure, you can swap a sugar-laden “chocolate” bar for 80% dark chocolate squares, real cocoa nibs or a chocolate protein shake with a little extra pure cocoa powder mixed in. You can create Primal versions of just about every favorite comfort food you can come up with.
For some people, even eating anything close to the original can send them over the edge and balloon cravings rather than satiate them. These are foods where moderation has no meaning.
Be honest about all those good intentions that never stuck with a particular food or group of foods. Lose the guilt or the nagging voice that says you “should” be able to control how much of X food you eat. What’s the point? Admit that it isn’t good for you as an individual and move on. Case closed.
Call food advertisers’ bluffsIn Grok’s day, food was food. Beyond those involved in communal ritual or those that were simply harder to come by, food didn’t come with layers of marketing hype.
I like (real) chocolate as much as the next person, but let’s be honest. If you’d never seen an ad for chocolate of any kind and never heard a cultural reference about its “powers,” would it have the same appeal? What about chips and soda? And foods from certain mostly fast food restaurants? The list could go on here. What stories do we start to believe about certain foods that only make them seem more enticing?
Stop subjecting yourself to commercials and other advertising that encourage you to think a food offers anything other than calories and nutrients (or not). And when they do come along, call them on their bluff. Contrary to what the ad made it seem like, eating a square of Dove chocolate didn’t send me into an unbridled state of euphoria.
Use routine to your advantageSome people find it helpful to eat the same thing each day for a meal or two. Research shows habituation through exposure to less food variety can encourage people to eat less. Switch it up when you get entirely bored. But over time, your body will anticipate the taste of what it comes to expect. Make the routine healthy to make it work for you.
Eat mindfullyEating for a “hit” of some kind means we come at food for an immediate feel-good outcome. Mindfulness reminds us the real action (and enjoyment) is in the process. How we eat can very well influence what we eat.
Consciously choose what you will eat, and bring your attention fully to the food—its preparation, its presentation and your enjoyment of it. For many people, it can feel like a ritual. Mindful eating puts us in a different relationship to what we’re eating and to the act of eating itself.
If you feel drawn to foods you know you’re trying to kick, use mindfulness to get curious about what is pulling you toward making that choice. What emotions are coming into play? Research tells us that our eating plans are dictated by rational thought, but our actual eating behaviors are driven by emotion.
Stay with the instinct and the feelings tied to it, but observe it rather than identify with it. Over time, this will help you detach from your instinct and offer some emotional room to make a better choice.
Pursue other means of feeling goodWhen’s the last time you did something that elicited real euphoria? How long has it been since your last vacation or weekend road trip, your last massage, your last afternoon with your best friend? Do you take substantive breaks in your day to sit in the sun or walk in the moonlight? How often do you listen (or make) live music or dance or have sex or make a fool of yourself just for the fun of it? Would you be good company for Grok, or do you bore yourself these days?
When we routinely keep ourselves on too short a leash—forgoing the thrill of unplanned/planned adventures, taking for granted or never leaving meaningful time for our closest relationships, neglecting to practice hobbies, visit the places or read the books we love—we’ll settle for that cheap substitute of a food craving.
So whether you’re looking to stop abusing clearly unhealthy foods, or even primal-approved indulgences, I hope these tips can help.
That’s it for today, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, since I know most of us have some experience with it. How do you manage the healthy use of food?
By Mark Sisson
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