Women

Brain Fed-Connection To Food (part 2)

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Making Connections

First, these relationships begin on a basic emotional level very early in life. “We have a complicated relationship with food that began when we were toddlers,” says Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less (Hyperion, 2009) and one of the world’s leading experts on simplicity and productivity. “This relationship has become more and more complicated through endless amounts of advertising, dieting, of eating when we’re sad and lonely and happy and bored and at parties and going out and on dates and watching TV and so on.” The result? Food is no longer just integral to survival— it is a symbol of comfort, enjoyment, happiness, celebration and prosperity.

But negative experiences can also have a profound effect on our relationships with food. Who hasn’t reached for a tub of ice cream after a break-up, or zipped into a drive-thru after a bad day? In fact, research shows that stressed-out eaters tend to eat sweeter high-fat foods and more energydense meals than those that are more chilled out.

“The brain is always creating associations,” says adjunct professor and member of the American College of Sports Medicine, Mike T. Nelson. “If you eat when you are sad and feel better, you strengthen the association that food makes you feel better. If you eat when you are bored, your brain will suggest food as the solution the next time you are bored.”

Your Brain on Food

Your emotional connections with certain foods are largely due to the way your body responds to them on a physiological level. When you eat, your brain releases powerful chemicals such as endorphins (that make you feel good) and dopamine (which can motivate you to keep munching). For instance, decadent treats such as cookies or ice cream release an enormous—even addictive—rush of endorphins, more than when compared to eating something naturally sweet, and potentially healthier, such as fruit. True, both of these foods contain sugar, but the types of sugars affect the body very differently. For example, a large banana has approximately 17 grams of sugar, which is about the same amount as a chocolate-glazed doughnut. Given the choice between the two, many people reach for the doughnut to cure a sweet tooth. Why? The highly processed, refined sugar reaches the bloodstream faster than the naturally occurring sugar from the banana, which creates a speedier (but shorter lived) endorphin rush than the fruit. That instant spike of feel-good chemicals could be the reason you reach for a second doughnut despite your better judgment, or, continue to crave them after the box is empty.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. The thoughts you’re having while you chomp on that doughnut actually play a role in how you metabolize it. So, if you’re feeling guilt or shame about eating the extra calories, you trigger a stress response that can slow digestion and even increase fat storage. The same goes if you’re having negative thoughts about a healthy meal (“Ugh, chicken and broccoli again?”). Here’s how it works: the negative neural signals initiate an inhibitory response in the digestive organs, preventing the body from fully metabolizing the food. This inhibitory response also affects hormones (such as increased insulin and cortisol), which can lower the calorie burning efficiency of our  body and cause us to store more of the food as fat.

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Percentage of people surveyed that reported increasing food consumption when stressed that were also restrained eaters or dieters

Change Your Mind

The good news is, finding non-food alternatives for cheering yourself up or passing the time can slowly reverse these psychological associations of eating for comfort. For example, the next time you reach for a 4pm snack, ask yourself “Am I really hungry, or am I just bored?” If your desire to nosh is out of boredom and not necessity, try out a new way to refresh your mind. Get up, move around, bang out some push-ups, jump up and down, or chug a glass of cold water. Over time, you can actually rewire your brain so that food is not the only solution.

And although reaching for edible comfort during stressful times can sometimes feel like the easiest and most convenient solution, Nelson confirms that it is possible to limit this emotional reaction through awareness. “The key is to reduce your impulse to eat while in a poor state or mood,” he says. “Start by journaling what you eat, how it makes you feel, and why. Once you are aware of your habits, you can begin to change them one by one.”


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