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What’s Your Food Issue?

What’s Your Food Issue?

    Cheesecake-a-holic

    So, what’s your food issue? Come on, you can tell me. It’s just us. Is there just one issue or are there several? Is it a constant or does it come and go? Do you over-eat? Under-eat? Perhaps you alternate between the two? I have in the past. Is your issue minor or major? Do you lie about it? Have you? I have. Does it have a negative impact on your emotional and mental states? Your life? Relationships? Career? Is it worse in certain situations or under certain circumstances? Are there specific triggers? That cheesecake photo doesn’t help! Do you ever feel out of control? Weird? Ashamed? I have. Are you ever preoccupied with food? Only when I’m awake. Have you started and stopped a bazillion diets? Like… totally. Do you eat one way when people are around and another way when you’re alone? What hidden chocolate? Do you eat when you don’t need to? Yep. Do you medicate with food? Reward yourself (or maybe your kids) with it? Are you ever defensive about your eating habits? Am not, you are.

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    A Common Issue

    In my humble opinion (and it’s almost impossible to verify and quantify this educated guess-timation), almost everyone has some kind of food issue. It might be some occasional (and relatively-minor) over-eating, it could be a full-blown eating disorder (with potentially life-ending consequences) or it could be anything in between. There is indeed a lot of space between disordered eating and an eating disorder. If a score of ten on the Healthy Eating Scale (the one I just invented for this post) is perfect eating (does it actually exist?) and zero is total dysfunction, I think the majority of us live someone between three and seven with occasional visits to one and nine. These days, I mostly live around seven to eight but back in the day, I spent plenty of time in the vicinity of three. So, where do you (mostly) live on the soon-to-be-world-famous Craig Harper Healthy Eating Scale?

    Honesty

    When it comes to exploring and dissecting people’s eating habits, one of the most elusive things to find is total honesty. Complete transparency. Why? Well, lots of reasons but mostly because we don’t want people to think we’re freaks. So, in order to look and sound normal (which is a myth anyway) we lie our arses off. Ironically, we actually lie our arses on.

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    Think about it.

    And it’s this lack of honesty (that is, deception of others and deception of self) that is probably the biggest barrier to health, healing and transformation for most of us. As long as we keep bullshitting ourselves and others (about our eating habits, behaviours and decisions), we fail to address the underlying issues (they’re always there) and we continue to inhabit our make-believe world. We also fail to deal with our food issues in a logical and practical manner and finally, we keep the cycle of mental, emotional and physical destruction in motion.

    A Story

    A few years back, I worked with a woman who would wait until everyone was asleep (husband, kids), roll her car down the driveway, start the engine on the street, drive to a twenty-four hour store and buy herself a large tub of ice-cream. Following her purchase, she would sit in the car and shovel in four litres (a gallon-ish) of ice-cream with a spoon she had brought from home. She would then dispose of the evidence and drive home. Usually in tears. She ‘enjoyed’ this nocturnal ritual at least three or four times a week.

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    When I met her, she had been doing this for years. After a month of reading her (largely fictitious) food diary (the one I asked her to keep), I knew she was lying about her eating habits and I told her so. That went down well.  One day in the middle of a rather heated and emotional exchange, she blurted out the truth to me. I was the first person she had ever told. Tears, snot, anger and finally, some acknowledgement and honesty. And a little relief.

    Progress at last.

    I later discovered that the ice-cream trips were just one part of a destructive eating cycle that had been going on for years. It started when she was a teenager and continued for two (and a bit) decades. The day she told me the truth was the last time she ever binged and the first time she had been totally honest with anyone (about her eating issues). Yes, I’m sure. It was also the catalyst for significant (and lasting) weight-loss (over 20 kgs). When she revealed her secret to me, I didn’t judge her, criticise her or question her. I simply hugged her and told her I was proud of her for being courageous and honest. We then put our minds to creating a practical plan for her to do better. Her embarrassment, fear and shame simply fizzled out of existence as we consciously and constructively went about the business of change. It’s amazing what can happen when someone receives love, acceptance and support rather than (the anticipated) judgement, condemnation and criticism.

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    Doctor Who?

    To illustrate how broad-reaching this issue is, I’ll share with you an interesting fact about my client: she was (and still is) a doctor. That’s right; intelligence, education and knowledge don’t necessarily have anything to do with how we complex creatures behave around food. Knowing what to do and doing what we know are very different things. Her career was a big contributor to her embarrassment about her eating habits. When she started to communicate with me like a person with issues – rather than a qualification with a reputation – the floodgates opened and the wheels of progress rolled into action.

    While I don’t have an eating disorder (as such), I have certainly been a skilled exponent of (periodic) disordered eating over the years. Apparently forty-ish year-old (am so) endomorphs don’t need a slab of cheesecake each day. Who knew? So not fair.

    While there’s no simple answer, quick-fix or one-approach-fits-all solution to this problem, a good place to start is honesty, awareness and acknowledgement. Not self-loathing or self-pity, just total honesty and a genuine willingness to do and be different.

    Now, I know you have thoughts, ideas and experiences you’d like to share on this topic, so start writing. Even you Scaredy-Cats who never comment. We don’t bite.

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    Craig Harper

    Leading presenter, writer and educator in the areas of high-performance, self-management, personal transformation and more

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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