Stuffing food into a hole that isn’t food-shaped

 

A couple of weeks ago, a member of a Facebook support group that I belong to, for people following a healthy plant-based diet, asked what she should eat when she’s craving a sweet treat. (This is also a question that a LOT of my clients ask me!) Most of the members who responded to the post suggested nutritious swaps for junky treats, such as dates, frozen banana ‘nice cream’ and bliss balls.

My response was rather different. I asked her to consider what she really needs in that moment when she’s feeling the craving… because it almost certainly isn’t food. And when we try to use food – even nutritious food – to fill a hole that isn’t food-shaped, we reinforce a pattern of behaviour that is potentially destructive to both physical and psychological health.

In terms of physical health, while trading ‘healthy treats’ for the fatty, sugary rubbish you usually eat to quell a craving will almost certainly result in some degree of health improvement, overeating is still overeating, whether it’s dried fruit and cashews, or chocolate and doughnuts that you’re pigging out on, and it can still lead to weight gain (or difficulty losing weight) and all manner of metabolic dysfunction that may eventually result in chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or various types of cancer.

These diseases are remarkably absent from cultures in which overeating and frequent eating are frowned upon, such as the traditional Okinawans: inhabitants of the southernmost island of Japan, one of the five so-called Blue Zones in which there is (or was, until Western-style eating came to Okinawa) a higher proportion of centenarians – people living to the age of 100 or more, and enjoying good physical and cognitive health until close to the end of their lives – than anywhere else on earth. One of the guiding principles among the traditional Okinawans was ‘Hara Hachi Bu’ – eat until you’re about 80% full; snacking between meals was discouraged.

And in terms of psychological well-being, while you’re chowing down on those sweet treats, you’re ignoring the true need that your craving indicated. More often than not, that need has absolutely nothing to do with food.

For example, many people experience food cravings when they’re tired. Resorting to eating frequently instead of restructuring their lives so that they get enough rest and sleep, keeps them locked in a perpetual cycle of using food (and caffeine) as a stimulant to get them out of bed in the morning, alleviate the 3 pm slump, and stop them falling asleep in front of the TV after dinner… all of which results in a poor night’s sleep and waking up tired again tomorrow.

Another common scenario is the procrastination-fuelled craving. When faced with a daunting task, many people experience strong cravings for ‘comfort foods’. Indulging in those cravings doesn’t just delay the task; it’s a lost opportunity to delve into the resistance to the task so that we can better understand what is holding us back from getting started. Are we afraid of failing at the task? Afraid of success? Overwhelmed and unclear about where to start? Afraid of how others will react? I’ve worked on procrastination behaviour with countless clients, and all of them find that once they permit themselves to face their fears, those fears dissolve and they become excited about beginning the task they’ve been putting off.

And of course, many people experience cravings when they’re sad, angry, lonely, anxious or feeling pretty much any other unpleasant emotion you care to name. Stuffing those emotions down with food a) prolongs our period of suffering, since the emotion usually pops straight up again as soon as the food-induced anaesthesia has worn off and b) traps us in a state of perpetual emotional immaturity, in which we never learn to work with our emotions in an adult way.

Emotions, after all, are not random experiences, but information that comes directly from our body-mind. When we pay attention to them, they can guide us toward greater self-understanding and better decision-making.

A client whom I’ll call Tanya provides the perfect example of this. Tanya came to me for help with weight loss. It soon became clear that her problem was not ignorance of what she should be eating, but overeating to stuff down her emotions – loneliness, dissatisfaction with her job, and a nagging sense of discontentment with herself. Like most of us, Tanya’s upbringing had not equipped her with an ’emotional tool-box’ to handle these distressing emotions when they came up, so she used food to try to blunt them. Of course, each time she reacted to her emotions this way, she reinforced her sense that these emotions were something to be feared and evaded. Quite naturally, since her feelings were trying to send her a message which she refused to listen to, they had become progressively stronger and more intrusive, to the point where they were triggering food cravings day and night.

I taught Tanya how to use Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to process her emotions as they arose. This progressively lowered her fear of her own emotions, so that she could tolerate them when they popped up, rather than feeling compelled to blot them out with food. As we worked together on childhood incidents that had shaped her beliefs, and she continued to use EFT whenever a distressing emotion came up, she began to make changes in her life. She allowed her work dissatisfaction to prompt her to apply for new jobs, and eventually found one that engaged all the talents and strengths that her previous job had no scope for. When the old, familiar feeling of loneliness surfaced, she reached out to friends and work colleagues, and found they were keen to spend more time with her. Her emotions became powerful guides to action instead of feared experiences that she was compelled to suppress with food.

I think it’s fair to say that as a society, we’re obsessed with food. Cooking shows dominate both television programming while food commercials dominate the advertising space; Instagram and Facebook overflow with ‘food porn’; and every human celebration and commiseration from christenings to wakes revolves around food.

It’s supremely ironic that in industrialised societies, where efficient agricultural production has liberated most of us from the burden of having to spend each day working hard to secure enough food to eat (in stark contrast to our gatherer-hunter ancestors whose lives were dominated by the effort required to avoid starvation), many people feel enslaved by their addictive food cravings. EFT provides a powerful tool for setting us free.

P.S. A form of intermittent fasting – specifically, time-restricted eating – is another extremely powerful tool for breaking the grip of food cravings. I’ll cover that in next week’s post!

Are food cravings derailing your attempts to live a healthy, happy life? Apply for a Roadmap to Optimal Health consultation today to find out how I can help you get back on track.

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2 Comments

  • gypsy

    Reply Reply June 7, 2017

    Wow. All very true. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I suffer from all of these problems and EFT is definitely helping me deal with it

    • Robyn Chuter

      Reply Reply June 7, 2017

      Keep tapping! Most of use have lots of ‘stuff’ around food, but each time you tap, you peel another layer of the onion :).

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