Monday, December 22, 2008

Is this emotional reaction to food really worth it?

I was reading Mary Fran's blog day before yesterday and it got me to thinking. She was talking about how she'd started on a downward spiral a year ago at a Christmas party. And she mentioned how she didn't really crave the sweets but once she started eating them, she couldn't stop. I started thinking about how the sugar we eats really effects our brain. I mean in a scientific way.

I know that our brains use sugar (glucose), as do other essential organs all over our bodies, to regulate it's functions and maintain normalcy. Well, it would only make sense that if we get too much sugar, it'll effect our brains. If nothing else, it'll trigger an emotional response to the sugar overload. I know not enough sugar (like after you've worked out really hard and you're dehydrated) will make you sleepy because your brain is being deprived of sugar. So, in turn, too much sugar has the opposite effect by making us hyper and excited. That, my friend, is an emotion. To be excited about something can elicit feelings of euphoria and pleasure. It's like, the more sugar, the better we feel, the happier we are—emotionally.

Then in the car, I heard a story on NPR (my favorite station on the planet!) about a listener who called in about her comfort food (they were having a segment about our comfort foods). When she was a child, her mother bought some sweetened condensed milk one time and she tried it and said it tasted like a little drop of heaven. She immediately wanted more. Her mother was sensible and told her, no, she could only have one teaspoon a day. So her mother set the can of condensed milk up on top of her wardrobe and there it sat starring at her as she laid in bed. She couldn't wait to have more. Now, as an adult, whenever something wonderful happens where she wants to reward herself, she gets a can of condensed milk.

That sounds like a perfectly normal response to me. She associated the sweet milk with a pleasurable emotion she had as a child. She would dream about that milk. Couldn't wait for her next taste. She had built a pleasurable emotion around that milk. That milk made her so happy.

And finally, I got my new Cooks Country magazine today and on the first page is the letter from the editor (Christopher Kimball) where he talks about how his strongest memories are built on taste. "Drinking grape soda in the front seat of a green Ford pickup ... Or the taste of penny candies purchased at the Weston Country Store ... Watermelon slices, Root beer Barrels, Long strings of red and black licorice..." etc., he went on a bit further. But then after describing all of these wonderful taste sensations he had growing up, he started talking about how when we were kids, we didn't have to describe the experience of eating these wonderful things and he continued, "... that is the difference between pure, unadulterated joy and pleasure. One is ecstatic: the other is controlled. One is pure out-of-body happiness: the other is self-observed. In joy, one is overwhelmed by the senses, not merely tempted. It is what food promises but rarely delivers. ... That's why good cooks are often children at heart, easily swayed by a finger dipped into chocolate batter, their hearts open to the unexpected. We know that at any moment, we may once again fall in love with the juiciness of a peach, the flakiness of a pie pastry. We are like old lovers who continually rediscover the beauty of each other in a glance, in a thought, in a happenstance."

Wow. That is quite an observance! The "joy" of eating is one that overwhelms our sense, not just tempts us. And I love his line "it is what food promises but rarely delivers". And how he compares these joyful experiences we have with food to a love relationship. "continually rediscover[ing] the beauty of each other". It reinforces my thought about how food can really be addicting. I mean, not only do we need food to survive, but the "good" food messes with our heads. Doesn't it?

The same point was coming from two completely different people talking about two completely different experiences in life but yet their point is identical.

Why is it the most basic thing in life, besides breathing and sleeping, has, at its core, the ability to elicit such emotions from us. Come on! We need to eat! We don't have a choice. It's not like we can quit, like quitting smoking or drinking. We can't avoid it. It's there whether we like it or acknowledge it or not. And it can make us feel so good. Even the most die-hard health experts will tell you that if you eat a balanced diet of high proteins, low carbs, high fiber and low sugars and fats, you'll feel so much better. Your body will thank you for the healthy nourishment. So everyone agrees that food directly effects the way you feel and your emotional well-being.

I think, for those of us who have such a struggle with these decadent foods that give us this emotional high, we have an extra task in life to recognize which foods will give us that feeling of pleasure and that longing for a loved one, and realize that these feelings we seek from eating them are purely scientific and mechanical. Sugar=pleasure. Pleasure=indulgences. Indulgences=Danger Zone. Once we step into that danger zone, we have to realize, first, that we are there, then, second, take a look around and realize why we feel so good after eating that piece of cake, then, third, make a conscious decision to stop at that one bite or that one piece because we know that the effects of pleasure derived from it are not related to our well being but rather a false emotional stimulus that will be gone as soon as the sugar wears off. I think if we can put ourselves into that frame of mind whenever we're in that situation, we'll be much more equipped to take control and not give in to what that sense of pleasure and all it brings with it.

That being said, I'm still gonna want a piece of cake and I'm still gonna eat that piece of cake. But I have to assess that "euphoric" feeling I get when I first bite into it and realize that it's not going to "make things all better". That feeling is temporary. And if I can keep that in the front of my head, I'll be less likely to go back for that 2nd or 3rd piece of cake, solely based on how it makes me feel. If I can just keep the science of it all in my head, I can beat it.

I'm equipping myself to resist the sweets this week. How about you? Will you try and do this with me. This is the perfect week to try this. I'm not going to refrain from indulging. Come on, it's Christmas! But I'm going to stop and access my emotions after I have a bite or two and realize it's my body's chemical response that's making me feel wonderful and that if I eat the rest of it or more of it, it's not going to satisfy anything!

Think chemical. Think scientific. Resist overindulging this week.



Katschi said...

Hi Cara!
For me, one bite is too much. Will it ever change? I'm not sure but for now I can't even test the theory. Sugar for me is like a drink to an alcolholic. I must abstain.
I'm doing a 6 week challenge while I'm off work to be uber disciplined with my eating and working out. NO EXCUSES! I want to see where being super strict gets me.
Best Wishes for the week, Cara!

Deborah said...

Great post!


spunkysuzi said...

I love this post!! I'm like Katschi i just can't have one small thing it just leads me down the path of eating nothing but sugar and getting overloaded but still wanting more!!
That being said i would love to come to a place in my life where i feel good being offered one cookie, being able to eat and enjoy it and move on!!

Anonymous said...

I'm at that place where I can eat and enjoy the hell out of one small cookie, or a tiny sliver of cake. Obviously, I'm not addicted to sugar, and oddly enough, most of the binges I remember involved fried chicken, salami, occasionally potato chips. Perhaps I'm lucky in that I don't automatically go for sweet. I think that one can't discount the psychological realities of the situation-if you think eating a bite of cookie means you've failed, you may as well keep eating it, and everything else in sight. And for most women, sugar is "bad" food, thus their trigger. I've definitely been there. That's why it's okay for me to eat a bit of chocolate, which can taste absolutely amazing, but I recognize that it's not great for weight loss, so I don't keep eating it. In my life, I'm especially careful with my head and the games I will play if I let myself, and looser with the food.

MaryFran said...

I like that....think chemical!!! :-)

Donna said...

haha, this post is very helpful. I'm going to keep these words in mind after I take a bite or two of those yummy sugar cookies.

I'm not going to tell myself, don't have any... but I do need to make sure I mentally understand why I want a second one and how it will affect my body. =)


SeaShore said...

Very good post. I'm going to try this too, but no guarantees! Like Mr Kimball said pure out-of-body happiness and I'm overwhelmed by the senses.

Merry Christmas!

Katschi said...

Wishing you & yours a very Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays, Cara!

Anonymous said...

It is that emotional feeling that I am addicted to I think. I decieve myself into thinking that I will feel better. It is true that food never delivers and longterm emotional comfort. i have lost 130 lbs and learned that food is food. Yes, I know that is has millions of emotions and memories attached to it, but I just try and assess what it is I am trying to get out of food when I want to eat something bad. Anyway, that's my little thought. Great post.

Kimberly said...

Oh yes, I am all about resisting the sweets. Sugar is just so bad for me. It is like the food version of crack cocaine - one hit and it can lead to a downward spiral.

And I saw on your profile page that you like Third Day. I love them. I love the element of praise that is woven through their music. The same thing goes for Building 429.