That 1 Food You Can't Give Up...

by Tara Shimer

...or maybe, it's more than 1.  Maybe you can't give up the gluten, or the dairy, despite that you think you might be sensitive.  Maybe you're Italian, and think it would be blasphemous for you to cut out pasta.  Maybe you can't adhere to a ketogenic diet because your mouth watering for grandma's freshly baked coffee cake is simply too much for you to ignore.  Or maybe, your family is Russian/Slovak/Polish, like mine is, and you think you'd die before you could give up the pierogies, piroshkis, blinis, halushki, halupki....I could go on.... But what is the driving force behind this strong attachment to specific foods?  I can tell you one thing: it's likely complex, and multi-dimensional.

A plate of fried pierogis

Food protectionism is a pervasive issue in American culture, and America being the "melting pot" that it is lends itself to this issue.  Humans are naturally rebellious, but to be a rebel in America in the context of culture, one must either be part of a subculture, or must cling tightly to the culture of his or her ancestors.  Meanwhile, to be a rebel in a country with a unified main culture, such as Italy for example, one can easily fulfill his or her need to rebel by eating differently from everyone else.  Another way to rebel in America is to intentionally eat "crappy carbage," and trans fat-laden foods, in the face of America's burgeoning health crisis.  Perhaps you were raised by parents who had forbade you to eat those sorts of things, so you satisfy your need for control by eating them, now!  But rebellion is just one motivation behind food protectionism.

If you can't give up a food, then it is likely hyperpalatable and full of carbohydrate; that is, it likely causes you to derive pleasure - too much pleasure - from eating it.  As humans, our drive to eat is hardwired because otherwise, the human race would not have survived to this point.  We all have chemicals in our brains called neurotransmitters, which help to drive human behavior.  Certain behaviors, such as eating, are necessary for the preservation of life.  In this way, our bodies are perfectly designed to survive, as we will always seek out food, no matter how scarce it is.  Would we do this if it didn't induce pleasurable feelings?  Probably not.  Would humans, thousands of years ago, risk hunting in extreme conditions were it not for their taste for food?  Taste and the instinct to survive are synergistic.  Poisonous plants will always taste unbearably bitter to us.  On the other hand, sugar triggers the brain to release endorphins, (which relieve pain and stress), serotonin, (the body's natural antidepressant), and dopamine, (the reinforcement hormone, and the one that is most closely associated with addiction).  But like with any addiction, that "feel good" doesn't last.  In a country where food is overly abundant, we must try to find a balance between what tastes good, and what makes us feel our best.  Thankfully, dietary fat fits this bill.

Food is comforting.  Hyperpalatable food is even more so.  Meanwhile, we are more chronically stressed out than we've ever been  Thus, stress eating, or emotional eating, is now a well-established phenomenon given that so many of us do it.  Chronically elevated cortisol, or dysregulation of the HPA-axis, (i.e., the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal connection), has been shown in research to cause "impaired sensitization of satiety signals" (Adams & Epel, 2007).  Additionally, a dysregulated HPA-axis can lead to fluctuations in the adiposity-signaling hormones, leptin and insulin, both of which place key roles in "brain reward circuitry."  In other words, when you're stressed, you may find yourself feeling more hungry, and less inhibited; you may even find that food tastes better than it normally does.  A heightened reward response to highly palatable foods, in concert with a diminished ability to feel sated, as well as the ensuing guilt from consuming those foods that you'd previously deemed "forbidden," creates the perfect storm.  It might be intermittent, and occasional, these "cheats," but each time you return to "crappy carbage," you stoke the flame of addiction.

Perhaps most intrusively there is the subtle motivation for food nostalgia.  Pierogis and onions, fried in butter and dipped in applesauce and sour cream, is a nostalgic dish for me.  The heavenly aroma of it has the power to transport me back in time, to an age when things were much simpler, when I had no:

  • health conditions to manage
  • twelve-page essays to write
  • grandparents to care for
  • human resources to manage
  • bosses to please
  • business to run
  • friends to make time for
  • appointments to schedule
  • bills to pay
  • chores to do

You get the point.  Moreover, at that time, (say, age seven or so), I had not undergone some of the traumatic experiences that I have since undergone, many of which I am still healing from.  So of course I want to revisit those feelings!  Innocence, freedom, peace - these are just some of the feelings I'm talking about.  But guess what?  I don't need food to attain them.  No - instead, these days, I consciously work on forgiving myself, building a relationship with my higher power, tuning in to my higher self, (i.e., the person I've always wanted to be), doing selflessly for others, and all-in-all, becoming a better person with each new day.

When you socialize, is food usually present?  While humans can have a tendency toward rebellion, we are also hardwired to want to belong and be accepted.  One could easily argue that, in America, food is the number one social complement; thereby, in the minds of many, it is a required component of any social gathering.  This is not a new thing, nor something that is confined to America; after all, the Ancient Latin word for bread is "panis," meaning that the English word "companion" literally translates to "with bread."  But with the social implications of food comes the pressure to fit in, to appease others, and to not offend.  I've heard many say that they "cheated" when they went to a family gathering because they felt pressure to eat what was offered to them.  I don't know about you, but numerous friends, co-workers, and family members of mine have preemptively defended their food choices in my presence.  "Don't judge me," they'll say, perceiving my refusal to "cheat" as a matter of willpower, and somehow threatened by this.  What they must not realize is that the option to eat a donut with them is simply not an option in my mind; I choose to put myself first, above all else, and to honor my body.  In my experience, willpower is not as much of a struggle when your priorities are in order.

Thankfully, there are so many creative people out there creating near-replicas of our favorite foods using low carb, healthy ingredients.  I've not found a good enough Keto pierogi recipe yet, but that's another thing: it's been so long since I've had one that my brain barely perceives them as food anymore.  If you're struggling to stay away from foods that you know won't make you feel well, try an abstinence-based approach; it might be difficult for a time, but it will be so worth it!  Not to mention, you can have it both ways with our Gra-POW! Cookie Granola!

References

Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior, 91(4), 449-458. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Benjamin Cole