How did the packet end up empty?

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway, and realised that you have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the journey? Perhaps you commute to work, and you find yourself at your desk, with minimal or no recollection of the various trains or buses you took.

When behaviours become habitual, or regular, our brains relegate them to the subconscious. We don’t need to focus on them, so the brain allows our consciousness to focus on something else: our phone, our worries, our plans.

Unfortunately, this same mechanism can come into play when we have regular eating habits or addictions.

The brain is used to us thinking: “Hmm, that was a stressful day. I really could use some … (insert ‘comfort food of choice’)…” And it knows exactly how to get us to the shop to buy some, and get the food into our bags and then into our mouths.

Many people have told me that they have believed that they were sticking rigorously to their diet, only to find themselves sitting on their couch with an empty food packet on their lap, and no idea of how it happened.

One of my first clients was a Mum called Maureen. She would insist that she ate without realising it. “I opened the packet, it was a packet of granola. I buy it for my kids, I don’t eat it, it’s too fattening. But I just wanted one of those banana chips, so I opened it to find one of those. There was one at the top, and I ate it. I recall delving back into the bag for a particularly large clump with a sultana in it. And the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes or more had passed, and the bag was half empty. I honestly don’t remember doing it!”

The brain has well-worn paths. It is used to a flood of sugar at certain points in the day, and can turn off your consciousness while your preprogrammed behaviour runs, acquiring the substance, and then ingesting it, all without realising it.

I have, in the past, sworn off sugar, only to have a friend point out the chocolate I was shovelling into my mouth from the bowl on her table. It was in front of me, and my hand reached for it, bypassing all my declarations that I was never going to eat it again. A tad embarrassing.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to deal with this.

When Food is Love…

Some foods can feel like love. They fill us, soothe us, comfort us. They are there for us after a hard day, no matter what. A few mouthfuls later and a sensation of bliss flows through our bodies. It can feel as safe and nurturing as a mother’s embrace, as sublime as a lover’s kiss.

Often, these are foods we have learned to crave since childhood. Strong memories and associations underpin some of the meanings they hold for us. Somewhere in the past we have had experiences where we made a connection between the food and the emotions.

A friend told me: “I’m going home and I just know that Mum is going to ply me with cake. She’ll have baked just for me, and I both want to gorge myself on it, and want to refuse it. Because I’ll feel crap the next day.”

Who wouldn’t want to gorge themselves on their mother’s love? To feel replete with worthiness, safe as a fluffy chick in a nest.

But food isn’t love. And cake isn’t worthiness.

They can feel similar physically, which is part of the mix-up. Both trigger dopamine, and can release endorphins and other chemicals that do indeed make us ‘feel better’. We have a physiological response both to hugs and love, and to certain foods, and that response in our body is close enough for us to get confused. In fact, it not only gets us confused, it can make us rely on  one when the other (usually love) isn’t available, or doesn’t feel like it is.

One of the first things we can do is to recognise that we have conflated the two, confused ourselves by mixing love into the pie.

Then, if we find ourselves turning to food, when what we really want is love, we need to ask what else might serve in its place? Would curling up under a blanket do it? Or walking in nature? Do you need to be with a friend, even if its on the other end of the phone? Or can you bear to be with yourself, take your need for love and treasure it, and love that need in yourself enough that all thoughts of cake fade away?

 

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