Food/Mood Connection

Published with Good Morning Guru.

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Our diet has much more to do with our mood than we often realize. If you’re like me, you may notice yourself getting a little cranky if you’re hungry (the word hangry describes this perfectly) or you may find yourself feeling pleasant after a delicious meal – the foods we eat affect our mood on a chemical level.

Much of this mood regulation has to do with something called serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is found mostly in the gut – in fact, up to 90% is produced in the GI tract. A low level of serotonin is often characteristic of depression. This is another reason why a nutritious diet is so important. Eating a balanced diet that is composed mostly of whole foods and low in artificial additives or preservatives helps to support our gut health, which in turn, supports our mental and emotional health.

When we’re feeling depressed, however, we may be more likely to search for comfort through our food choices – seeking out options that are often high in calories and sugar, while being low in actual nutritional value. The kicker is that these foods often end up making us feel worse both physically and emotionally.

A recent randomized control research study actually found that individuals suffering from depression were able to significantly reduce their symptoms by switching to a whole-foods, Mediterranean style diet and limiting their consumption of processed foods and sweets. After just 12 weeks, the group that changed their diet showed demonstrably improved status compared with the group that received social support, but didn’t alter their diets. So although our natural tendencies may be to seek out comfort foods when we’re stressed or have a lot on our minds, mindfully making diet a part of our self-care routines during these times affects much more than our energy levels.

Of course, depression is complicated and a few different interventions may be utilized, but this study shows that diet is certainly one that should be considered and offers interesting implications as to how closely our moods are affected by the foods we eat.

This concept of the food/mood connection absolutely fascinates me – can’t wait to share more on this topic! 

Another Type of Food Waste

Published with Good Morning Guru. 

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Food waste is something I’ve discussed on the blog before, but a new finding has me thinking of a different kind of a “waste” of food. A new research paper has determined that approximately 20% of all food produced worldwide is lost. This comes not only from the traditional way we think of food waste and how I’ve discussed it previously, but 10% of that can be attributed to overeating.

When I was at the Buddhist monastery, one of the things that struck me most was how mindful the residents were with each grain of rice that crossed their paths – the thinking here was that by taking more than you need, you’re ultimately taking away from someone else.

As a trained chef, I have a deep appreciation for delicious foods. Like super deep. But reading this research paper definitely caught my attention and reminded me that taking more than I actually need (especially on a regular basis!) is contributing to this other sort of food “waste.” In fact, based on this paper’s findings, we overeat at least as much food as we throw out – which is a ton.

One of the tools, I’m trying to use more is the hunger scale to help me tune in and make more mindful portion decisions.

Here it is!

Hunger Scale

1. Starving

2. Uncomfortably hungry

3. Very hungry

4. A little hungry

5. Not hungry or full

6. Satisfied and light

7. Comfortable, but a little too full

8. Very full

9. Uncomfortably full

10. Thanksgiving dinner full

The goal of the hunger scale is to take a second to check in and notice how hungry you actually are before eating or overeating. Ultimately, we want to stay between a 3 and a 6 and avoid extremes on either end of the scale.

I’m finding staying within this range to be tricky, but am considering it a fun challenge. Not only do I know that it’s better for my health to stay within this range, but this insight adds a new dimension to the practice making me want to commit to it even more.

Here is the paper if you’re interesting in checking it out!

Stress and Diet

Published in Institute for Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Training Program Curriculum. 

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Stress refers to your body’s response to challenges that it may face. Stressors – factors leading to stress – can include everything from work to physical activity to family life to relationships to major life events or changes. Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional.

Perceived stress refers to the amount of stress that an individual feels he or she is under. Two people in the exact same situation may perceive the amount of stress caused by it completely differently. The degree to which stress is perceived will determine the degree to which a response is necessary to cope.

When faced with stressful situations, people have to find ways to cope appropriate with the level of stressed perceived. Coping mechanisms may be different for everyone and wide-ranging, but one thing that many people turn to when faced with stress is food. Food offers a momentary escape or an immediate pleasurable experience in the midst of an unpleasant state, making it an attractive option for a quick fix to alleviate stress.

Stress can be acute or chronic – both of which can affect your diet.

Acute stress refers to stress we experience for a brief amount of time. An example of this would be preparing for a big exam or presentation or running late for a meeting and being stuck in traffic. Acute stress is likely to increase your drive to eat even if you’re not hungry.1

Chronic stress refers to stress that is experienced continuously over an extended period of time – typically over the course of months. Chronic stress takes a major toll on health and creates a pro-inflammatory state associated with a variety of chronic disease states – most notably obesity. Research has shown that chronic stress affects the specific foods that are consumed; it alters the brain’s response to highly palatable foods and leads to an increased drive to seek out such foods and disinhibited eating practices.2

A small amount of stress (called eustress) can be beneficial. It may help increase focus and tap into the motivation needed to accomplish a difficult task. When stress becomes overwhelming and constant, on the other hand, it affects your health and emotional state and almost certainly will affect your diet.

During times of mild stress, people are often driven to eat more. During times of extreme stress, however, like a major life change or traumatic event, people may have less of a desire to eat. Once again, the degree to which stress is perceived will make a big difference in regard to eating behavior.

Stress typically affects the diet in two main ways – first, stress affects our behaviors around food driving what and how much we eat. Second, stress creates the perfect scenario for fat storage and promotes an obesogenic state.

Stress and Food Preferences

Have you ever noticed the types of food you crave when you’re feeling stressed – pasta, cake, cookies, or ice cream? Stress has a major impact on the types of food one tends to seek out and you’re much more likely to choose these types of comforting foods or snacks than celery sticks or asparagus. What these craved foods have in common is that they’re considered hyper-palatable – they’re high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar items that are hard to turn down at any time, but especially difficult if you’re stressed.3 There is an explanation behind this phenomenon, particularly in regard to high-sugar foods, which provide a quick source of energy that the body needs when it is stressed as it prepares for “fight or flight.”

Highly palatable foods also lead to the release of dopamine (the feel-good hormone), which is particularly attractive when you’re stressed. Overtime, it may lead you to seek out that feeling more and more, but eventually you don’t get that same reward and need to consume more highly palatable foods to do so. This can create addictive-like or compulsive-eating behaviors that become difficult to control.4

Stress and Body Weight

As overweight and obesity rates rise throughout the world, knowing factors that contribute to them is a crucial part to ending the epidemic. Stress is a main contributor of obesity – a major risk factor for things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.5 Stress is linked, in particular, with increased weight around the belly region – remember, people who carry most of their weight around the belly (versus around the hips) are more at risk for heart disease and diabetes.6

People under stress are naturally driven to eat and are more likely to exceed their needs. Being able to stop eating also becomes more difficult as your hormone response is affected by stress.

Reducing Stress’s Impact on the Diet

Stress management may naturally help support a more nutritious diet as it’s likely to reduce the instances when one is driven to consume high-calorie or high-sugar foods and may also help balance the hormones related to appetite and weight regulation. This may lead to better dietary choices and eating a diet more in line with your actual needs.

Incorporating mindfulness-based practices like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, body scanning, and loving kindness exercises seem to be particularly effective in helping to mitigate stress’s impact on the diet.7

Highly palatable foods may provide a form of short-term relief for some, but if the stressor isn’t addressed, preferences for these foods may strengthen and the risk for obesity may increase. Remember to always go back to the root cause. Determining how to alleviate stress can be difficult, but its impact on your health goes beyond your waistline and helps increase longevity, health, and happiness.

References

1. Rutters, F., Nieuwenhuizen, A. G., Lemmens, S. G., Born, J. M., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2009). Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger. Obesity 17(1), 72–77. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18997672

2. Tryon, M. S., Carter, C. S., Decant, R., & Laugero, K. D. (2013). Chronic stress exposure may affect the brain’s response to high calorie food cues and predispose to obesogenic eating habits. Physiol Behav 120, 233–242. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23954410

3. Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol 38(3), 255–267. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

4. De Macedo, I. C., de Freitas, J. S., & da Silva Torres, I. L. (2016). The influence of palatable diets in reward system activation: A mini review. Adv Pharmacol Sci 2016, Article ID 7238679. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27087806

5. Sinha, R. & Jastreboff, A. M. (2013). Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addition. Biol Psychiatry 73(9), 827–835. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23541000

6. Aschbacher, K., Kornfeld, S., Picard, M., Puterman, E., Havel, P. J., Stanhope, K., Lustig, R. H., & Epel, E. (2014). Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocriniology 46, 14–22. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24882154

7. Daubenmier, J., Kristeller, J., Hecht, F. M., Maninger, N., Kuwata, M., Jhaveri, K., Lustig, R. H., Kemeny, M., Karan, L., Epel, E. (2011). Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: An exploratory randomized controlled study. J Obes 2011, Article ID 651936. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21977314

Navigating Cravings with Mindfulness

Published in Institute for Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Training Program Curriculum. 

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There are many causes of strong cravings for particular foods or flavors (refer back to Eight Causes of Cravings to review a few!). This may make navigating them seem tricky, but gaining a deeper understanding of how cravings work allows you to best respond to your bio-individual cravings.   

Navigating cravings with mindfulness means to:

1. acknowledge cravings as they arise

2. explore  the origin of cravings  with non-judgmental curiosity, and,

3. proceed from a place of empowerment.

Whether you choose to move forward with fulfilling that particular food craving or if you decide to explore another option to nourish yourself,  the point is that you want to do your best to make educated, empowered decisions that work for you.  

Before diving in, let’s get something clear: having craving isn’t a bad thing – in fact, they are sometimes a good barometer for when you’re not getting the nourishment you’re seeking, which you may find sometimes doesn’t have anything to do with food at all.  

A craving might be a message from your body that it is seeking a particular food to promote health and wellbeing (e.g. craving nourishing soups if you’re not feeling well), but cravings can be precipitated by our emotional state, our physiological state, our diets, our routines, and even our surroundings - when they arise they can be a symptom indicating imbalance that is occurring elsewhere. This is why investigating cravings is a great opportunity to treat the cause, not the symptom.

Being aware of the different factors that may contribute to cravings can help you to explore the choices that are best for you – if that’s ordering an ice cream, great – if that’s opting for carrot sticks, that’s also great – maybe it’s even setting aside time unwind, which after some investigating, you might learn is what your body ultimately is seeking. Keep reading to learn how to navigate cravings with mindfulness!   

Steps to Approach Cravings with Mindfulness

To navigate your cravings mindfully and help determine which choices are best for you, there are a few steps you can take to help. 

1. Acknowledge Cravings

If cravings arise, acknowledge them and give them space. Ignoring cravings often makes them seem even stronger and more powerful. When you put foods that you want to eat off limits, it usually has the opposite effect that you intend it to have. Rather than leading you to forget the “off-limit” foods, you end up more preoccupied by them and less equipped to control yourself when you’re around them.1,2

In this case, mindfully acknowledging and fulfilling a craving may be more productive than actively trying to avoid it. The simple act of acknowledging your craving also may help to reduce its power and allow you to dis-identify with or dissociate from it.

2. Explore the Origin of Cravings with Non-judgmental Curiosity

In exploring the origin of your cravings, there are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

1. Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?

2. Is this craving for a highly palatable food?

3. Is this craving tied up in a habit?

4. Is this craving guiding me towards a food that would support my health or wellbeing?

Let’s look at each of those questions one by one and explore  their role in the origin of cravings.

Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?

Stress, fatigue, loneliness, and even boredom can all lead us to crave particular foods. In these cases, food won’t solve the problem – it would be treating a symptom; which works in the short-term, but probably isn’t in our best interest in the long-term. Making this distinction can be an empowering feeling.  It allows you to pinpoint and treat the actual cause which is likely to promote the balance you’re seeking.

Although there are many physical and emotional feelings that may lead us to crave particular foods, here’s what the research says about two very common feelings, stress and fatigue, and how they affect our diets.

When people are tired, they not only eat more, but are also more likely to make poor dietary choices. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to crave snacks and consume more calories over the course of the day. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase the preference (or cravings) for calorie-dense foods, in particular. Frequent cravings for these sorts of foods may be a symptom of lack of sleep. 3,4

The more stressed people are, the more they tend to look for comfort in food – this is just one of the mechanisms in which stress leads to weight gain. 5 During stressful times, cravings for energy-dense, less nutritious foods are common.6  Including an activity that helps you manage stress efficiently can have a major impact on your dietary choices.

Is this craving for a highly palatable food?

When it comes to exploring the origin of your cravings, there is another important aspect to consider in terms of which foods you’re craving. In this sense, not all foods are created equal. In order to make an empowered choice about these foods, it’s important to know that certain foods, called highly palatable foods, are designed to be craved. It’s, of course, fine to enjoy these foods, but part of being empowered in navigating your cravings, is being aware of the power that some of these foods may hold.

Let’s take a look at what might be playing a role in frequent cravings for high-sugar or processed foods.

If it feels like you’re craving sugar, you may be seeking a quick source of energy (it could actually be another symptom of lack of sleep), but research has shown that the more sugar people consume, the more they prefer it.7,8 In a way, you build up a tolerance to sugar – requiring you to seek out more concentrated sources or consume larger amounts of it to create the same pleasurable eating experience that it originally produced.

Processed foods are designed to make consumers crave them. In fact, the food industry created what has been described as the “bliss point” – the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat that makes processed foods difficult to resist. Often, this combination is created mathematically to appeal to the most people.

These products may take years to be fully developed and a team of researchers, flavor specialists, engineers and even statisticians may be involved in creating a food with optimal flavor, texture, and mouthfeel.  Frequent exposure to these types of foods is likely to increase our desire for them.9 These craved foods tend to be higher in calories and fat and lower in protein and fiber – they usually don’t offer a ton of nutritional value aside from energy.

Is this craving tied up in a habit?

Sometimes people simply desire a food or snack because they’re used to having it at a certain time or place. In other words, you may gravitate towards a particular food out of routine.10 For example, it’s common for people to feel a drop of energy in the late afternoon – this is often when people reach for sugary snacks or drinks. Eventually, you may start craving snacks during this time of day simply based out of habit.

Rather than going on auto-pilot, take a moment to tune into your body. A brief moment of mindfulness may be enough to help you distinguish between craving something out of habit versus craving due to actual hunger or a desire to mindfully and intentionally enjoy a particular food.

Is this craving guiding me towards a food that would support my health or wellbeing?

Have you ever come home from a trip where you enjoyed frequently dining out and eating rich foods and then you came home and craved something highly nourishing like a big salad with tons of fresh, colorful vegetables? This is your body’s attempt to return to balance. In this scenario, food treats both the symptoms and their cause.

Fulfilling a craving may also contribute to your well-being. For example, craving a piece of cake to enjoy among friends and family might provide a strong feeling of connection and love. This may be a powerful form of primary food nourishment for some.

3. Proceed from a Place of Empowerment

Once you acknowledge your craving and have determined its origin, you give yourself the power to dis-identify with it and determine how to proceed in a way that is best for you. Listen to what your body is telling you and enjoy exploring the deeper message that may exist in some of your cravings. Rather than feeling controlled by cravings, the empowered approach allows you to be a curious investigator seeking out the best choice for you at the time – don’t forget we’re always changing.

Consider cravings as a barometer for if something is out of balance – so whether food will ease that craving or if there is another form of nourishment your body is seeking, respect and acknowledge your bio-individual cravings as they come up. 

Cravings are something we all experience from time to time. These tips can help you to better navigate them when they arise. Pay attention when cravings arise and explore what your body might be trying to tell you. Acknowledge them, non-judgmentally explore their origin, and proceed from a place of empowerment.

 

References

1. Massey, A., Hill, A.J. (2012). Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 58 (3): 781-785. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020

2. Polivy, J., Coleman, J., Herman, C.P. (2005). The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. 38(4): 301-309. DOI: 10.1002/eat.20195 

3. Greer, S.M., Goldsteine, A.N., Walker, M.P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications. 4(2259): 1-7. doi:10.1038/ncomms3259

4. Hogenkamp, P.S., Nilsson, E., Nilsson, V.C., Chapman, C.D., Vogel, H., Lundberg, L.S., Zarei, S., Schioth, H.B. (2013). Acute Sleep deprivation increases portion size and affects food choice in young men. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 38(9): 1668-1674.

5. Chao, A., Grilo, C.M., White, M.A., Sinha, R. 2015. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. Journal of Health Psychology. 20(6):721-729. 10.1177/1359105315573448

6. Groesz, L.M., McVoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N., Laraia, B., Epel, E. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite. 58(2): 717-721. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.028

7. Lustig, R.H., Schmidt, L.A., Brindis, C.D. 2012. Public Health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature. 482: 27-29. doi:10.1038/482027a

8. Wise, P.M., Nattress, L., Flammer, L.J., Beauchamp, G,K. (2016). Reduced dietary intake of simple sugars alters perceived sweet taste intensity but not perceived pleasantness. Am J Clin Nutr. 103(1): 50-60. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.112300

9. Gilhooly, C.H., Das, S.K., Golden, J.K., McCrory, M.A., Dallal, G.E., Saltzman, E., Kramer, F.M., Roberts, S.B. 2007. Food cravings and energy regulation: the characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and weight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction. International Journal of Obesity. 31: 1849-1858. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803672

10. van’t Riet J., Sijtsema, S.J., Dagevos, H., De Bruijn, G..J. (2011). The importance of habits in eating behavior. An overview and recommendations for future research. Appetite. 57(3): 585-596. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.010

Sneaky Factors that Lead to Overeating

Published with Good Morning Guru

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Have you ever finished a big meal and thought to yourself, “Why did I eat so much?” Well…there are a bunch of reasons why we might overeat. We make an estimated 250 food decisions each day and most of the food decisions we make, we don’t even realize we’re making. Many of these unconscious decisions lead us to overeat. A few extra calories here and there won’t do a ton of harm, but constantly eating more than we need will end up causing us to put on weight, which increases our risks for chronic diseases down the road.

Sneaky Factors that Lead to Overeating

Manners:

In an unconscious attempt to be polite, we often mirror our dining partners’ eating habits. If someone we’re with orders fries or takes seconds, we are more likely to do so as well. We also tend to match the speed with which our eating companion eats, so if you’re with someone who eats quickly, you may find yourself eating faster than normal and more likely to eat more.

Stress:

During times of stress, we’re not only more likely to overeat, we’re more likely to choose higher calorie foods that are packed fat and sugar. If we’re frequently trying to manage stress with our diet, we’re probably overeating and suffering from a decrease in dietary quality.

Distractions:

This one might be a bit more obvious, but if we’re not totally focused on our meal, it make take significantly more of it for us to feel satisfied. Distractions like working while eating or watching a show during dinner give us external cues about when the meal should be finished, so rather than being able to notice that we’re no longer hungry, we tend to stop eating either when the show is over or when the clock says lunch is over.

 Oversized Portions:

We tend to eat what we’re given – if we’re given a lot, we eat a lot and if we’re given a little, we eat a little. The problem is, that our concept of proper portion sizes has steadily increased.  Our serveware has even increased in size to match it. Dinner plates have expanded from 9 inches in diameter to 12 inches – that extra space prompts us to fill it with food. Larger plates lead us to take larger portions and we eat nearly 25% more calories today than what was typically consumed in the 70s.  Simply switching to smaller plates can help us to avoid overeating while still feeling satisfied with the meal.

To avoid being affected by these factors, try to slow down when you can, take a breath and be mindful of the food you’re consuming. It also helps to pick up some smaller plates...

Redesigning Dietary Habits

Published with Good Morning Guru.

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So many of the dietary choices we make are simply due to habits. Although some habits may naturally be beneficial – like packing a nutritious lunch for work every day – many simply don’t serve us.

Interestingly, we tend to easily adopt others’ eating habits, for example, when we’re eating with others we tend to match both their eating pace and their portion sizes. If someone decides to spring for a dessert or extra drink, we’re likely to go along with it. If we’re constantly having meals with others’, we slowly begin to take on their habits as our own.

Meal time is such an important opportunity to connect with our loved ones, so this is something we should all be able to enjoy, but becoming aware of our habits and how they may be affected by others can be empowering and allow us to better make choices that work for us.

Have you heard the phrase, “You are the company you keep?” When it comes to eating habits, this is especially applicable – you essentially take on your friends’ and family members’ eating habits.

I’m a firm believer in following a diet that you enjoy, but we don’t want that to come at the cost of our health. So although, it’s great to give yourself the flexibility to indulge if that’s what you’re feeling at that moment, knowing how affected our diet is by those around us, can help us to make mindful and deliberate dietary choices where we can enjoy our food without constantly getting swept up in others’ habits.

This information helps to give you back some of the power in these decisions – allowing you to mindfully and consciously opt for a certain food rather than having it simply because someone else is having it.

Tricks to help you naturally default to more nutritious options:

  • Keep a few nutritious, plant-based cookbooks on hand – seeing these as you cook may help to inspire you and create an environment that subtly nudges you to wholesome meals
  • Consider following your favorite chefs, nutritionists, or food bloggers who create dishes that you think look not only delicious, but nourishing – although it’s digital, these personalities become part of your network and your overall food environment, so what you see when you’re scrolling through Instagram may have more influence over your food choices than you think. Similarly, you may want to unfollow accounts that might be nudging you in the other direction.
  • Chat with your partner, roommate, or family member – whoever you share the majority of your meals with. This may seem silly, but it’s a great opportunity to talk about your shared food environment and explore the habits that may or may not be working for each of you and how your food environment is contributing to them.
  • Order first – if you’re out to eat, you can help set the tone by ordering foods that you know will make you feel well.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables in sight and ready to eat. The easier our fruit and veggie options are, the more likely we are to choose them.

On the flip side, this concept suggests that our healthy choices might help to inspire others to adopt our more nutritious options. So keeping doing your thing!