(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ― Virginia Woolf
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” ― Charles M. Schulz
Most people know the old adage “you are what you eat”. Physiologically speaking, this is literally true – we are actually composed of the three things that we put into our body: the air we breathe, the liquids we drink and the food we eat. If you think of your body as a machine, you will realize that it’s a machine that is always on. Your heart beats whether you’re sleeping or awake, your lungs fill up and exhale 24/7, your brain is functioning all the time – in conscious or dream mode. Any machine that functions around the clock needs a constant supply of fuel, and in our case, quite simply, that fuel comes from the food we eat. It also goes without saying that what is in that fuel is critical to our physical and mental wellbeing. The nutrients you give yourself through your food not only affect the structure of your body, they have a direct impact on the functioning of your brain, and as a consequence, your mood. In other words, few things could be more important that putting the right foods into yourself. In this chapter, we hope to illustrate the importance of this, so that you treat your body as the special edition, top tier, high-performance machine it is.
For millennia, human beings have had a largely plant-based diet except for cultures that live in extremely cold or desert-like conditions. Even though we’ve always hunted or herded animals, we could not afford to eat meat for every meal, or even every day. So by and large, humans have historically eaten a diet high in roughage and nutrients. There were three types of foods that used to be in limited supply until much more recently: fat (wild game has only about 10% fat, compared to anywhere from 20%-80% in supermarket meats today), sugar (there was no refined sugar – only sugar from fruits), and salt (before we learned to make it, salt was only available to us from the blood of animals). It is also worth noting that we should distinguish between healthy fat which is necessary for our bodies, and unhealthy fat – more details on this in the resource section.
In the present day, we find ourselves in a historically unusual predicament: we have unlimited access to the foods that were once rarities. Every grocery store has hundreds of products that provide us fat, sugar and salt, and many that give us all three in one. This is where ‘Lizard Brain’ comes in. The limbic cortex is a part of the brain that is in charge of our most basic impulses (fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up and fornication). It’s commonly called ‘Lizard Brain’ because a lizard’s brain is pretty much comprised only of the limbic system. Our lizard brains still carry the ancient memory that fat, salt and sugar are rarities, and we need to get them while we can. It hasn’t yet caught up with the fact that we have an abundance of these things today. So fat, sugar and salt tend to bypass our normal fullness mechanisms and we don’t ever get the signal that we’ve had enough. Taste is one of the most direct connections to the body’s reward system, and our ancient reward system is still hooked into tasting these things and feeling like you’ve hit the jackpot. It sends off a great deal of pleasure signals, and this only results in you wanting more. This is the same reward system, or the same biochemistry that gives us orgasms, or make us addicted to drugs. So it’s extremely hard to be in control of this.
Nobody knows this fact better than the food industry. For decades food manufacturers have been tweaking the amount of salt, fat and sugar in their products to hit the bullseye in the centre of our lizard brains. What they really want, is for the customer to take one bite, and then have the lizard brain take over. “Betcha can’t eat just one!” was one of the most famous advertising bylines for a food product, and we all know the feeling of starting on one chip, and staring at an empty bag two minutes later. There are two pinnacles of food engineering: the cookie and the chip. Commercial manufacturers of these two products have hit upon a combination of ingredients, textures, colours that make us devour them to the tune of several billion dollars every year. One study showed that rats, given a choice of foods like these, or drugs like morphine or cocaine, responded with equal enthusiasm.
There is a strong relationship between stress and wanting addictive foods. Studies have shown that people will eat 45% more red meat and increased quantities of sugar during periods of stress. When things aren’t going so well, we search for those reward centres in our lizard brains. And as we said earlier, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain, and therefore your mood. Processed or refined foods, and foods high in sugar are actually harmful to the brain and impair brain function. They increase inflammation, worsen your body’s regulation of insulin and worsen symptoms of mood disorders, like depression. It’s easy to see how this can all quickly become a vicious cycle.
So what do we do about this? How can we fight impulses that strong? Here are a few tips for you:
- Remove temptation. The simple answer is that the very best thing you can do is just not take that first bite. If you know that a food substance is addictive for you, and that your lizard brain is going to take over once you taste it, just keep it away from you. If you have temptations in your kitchen, you are left with a decision either to open the bag, or not. If they’re not even there, you don’t have to struggle with that decision. So control your environment – don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods at home.
- Question your cravings. When you have the urge to eat something, ask yourself if your hunger is physical or emotional? If you ate within the last few hours, you’re probably not physically hungry. Give it 15 minutes before you act on your craving and do something else instead – ideally something physical like a quick walk. More likely than not, your craving will pass.
- Get support. You’re more likely to succumb to emotional eating if you’re doing this on your own. If you have a partner, involve them in the process, or members of your family. Let friends know how they can support you in healthy eating, or consider joining a support group.
- Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, make sure you’ve got healthy snacks within reach. Fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, drief fruits and nuts. All of these can take the edge off a craving without harming you. Make sure you keep healthy snacks in your desk at work or when you’re watching TV – times when you would otherwise reach for a bag of chips or a cookie.
- Go easy on yourself. Extremely restrictive diets which limit calories too much and banish treats can sometimes serve to increase your food cravings. Especially if your cravings are in response to stress. Instead, eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, and enjoy occasional and controlled treats help with your cravings. Don’t be too hard on yourself about your past eating habits. Encourage yourself to start fresh from where you are now without judging yourself and work on eating behavior that feels healthy and positive.
Let’s link this all back to the adage we started with, “you are what you eat”. We ask that you visualize a direct correlation between the food you are putting into you, and what you become as a result. Your body and your brain function best when you give them premium fuel. Good quality foods that contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, protect you from stress, cellular damage and keep your immunity high. If you were told that you could have a Lamborghini for free, and the only caveat was that you had to use the premium fuel that the manufacturer recommends, you would most likely accept that gift, and make sure that you filled it with the right fuel. What you have been given in the form of your body is a machine much more complex and finely tuned than any luxury supercar. Give it the fuel it needs to do its best, and it will respond in kind.