For as long as I can remember I’ve had an utterly terrible relationship with food. Like the girl who constantly runs back to the bad boy despite knowing he’s no good for her, I am the bloke who keeps going back to processed, unhealthy, rubbish. I know it’s bad for me, I know it doesn’t love me back and I damn well know it will not help me achieve my goals, so why do I keep succumbing to it’s trans-fatty, sugary sweetness?!
My earliest memory of terrible food starts with when I was in boarding school. I used to wait eagerly for pocket money day to come around so that I could go running gleefully to the tuck shop and buy myself a shit load of sweets. As I got older, the sweets turned into pastries, pizzas, burgers and any other rubbish you can think of. Essentially, if it was made in a factory I would eat it. When I first joined the Army and I would go home on leave, I remember going into town to buy a double pepperoni pizza and toffee cheesecake from Iceland for the grand price of £2. That was lunch.
Now, with a little life experience and a plethora of shows like supersize vs super skinny under my belt, I now appreciate that food is directly linked to my emotions. For me, I eat rubbish when I’m angry, lonely, upset, or more importantly bored. The more I’ve studied the human body and nutrition, the more I understand the chemical and hormonal processes that make me think the way I do towards food. One of the biggest break throughs in my understanding of my emotional link to food is serotonin. Watch out, here comes the science bit:
After you eat food with a lot of carbohydrates in, you have a surge of the hormone insulin. This is the hormone that gives you that fight or flight feeling. When this happens, the levels of amino acids (the bits that make up proteins) in the blood lowers, except for tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, because of the drop in amino acid numbers, they have to compete more to get across the blood brain connection and when there is more tryptophan, it enters the brain at a much higher rate boosting serotonin production. If you eat foods rich in simple carbohydrates, like sweets, candy, fizzy drinks, white bread and some fruit, the effects of serotonin are more concentrated in a much shorter space of time. If you eat foods rich in complex carbohydrates like pasta, sweet potatoes or oatmeal, serotonin levels are raised, but potentially not to the same extent because of the higher levels of protein contained in them, meaning a lower ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids crosses that blood brain connection.
Essentially serotonin is the thing that gives you an internal high five and lets you know you’ve done a job well done. When you’ve drunk too much alcohol and you vomit, that’s serotonin patting you on the back and saying well done you’ve just got rid of all those poisonous toxins that could have done you harm. When you’ve had a great work out, that’s serotonin rubbing your shoulders congratulating you for still being alive. When you’ve eaten a shit load of carbs, that’s serotonin saying well done you, you’ve held off starvation for a while, now go have a nap.
The more often you are exposed to this kind of feeling, the more your brain and body crave it. So if you are constantly eating certain fruits, white bread, sweets and drinking fizzy drinks or energy drinks, then you are more likely to suffer from an addiction to it (not to mention diabetes). In me, I have realised that I am much more sensitive than I would let on, or like to believe. I do take things personally, I do let things get to me, and I’m not the best at vocalising it, or sharing my problems. But my body knows that if I were to eat or drink certain foods I would get a warm hug from serotonin and everything will be ok, for an hour or two at least. So what do I do, rather than face my feelings, I take the shortcut to contentment and eat an entire battenburg cake, washed down with a couple of cans of cherry coke. Ahhhh, that’s better, until the effects wear off and I still have those feelings to deal with, but now they are compounded by guilt that I’ve just filled my body with crap. I know what will make you feel better, have a pizza with a deep white crust, just so we can boost those serotonin levels again.
I try to rationalise it by saying, well I’ve come 5 steps forward so this 1 step back equals 4 steps forward, and it does, but that kind of rationalisation will never help me to deal with my feelings or problems and will inevitably lead to me never being able to break this relationship with food. Of course, I do have constraints: I have no fridge or freezer because I have no cooking facilities in my room or block; the canteen at work is a carbohydrate rich food supplier because we are a fighting Army that needs its fuel; I am giving the majority of my money to my wife and kids because it’s only right that they have everything they need and then with what’s left and I can sort myself out; but again, if I really wanted to I could find solutions to these constraints and not take them for what I perceive them to be.
And there’s the rub. I will always look to take the path of least resistance. It’s something that I am trying to work on, I’m trying to have a different perspective and I’m trying to deal with my feelings, but until I can shake off my addiction to the feelings that serotonin induce, it’s going to be a tough battle, but like Chumbawamba sang so eloquently, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”
What are you struggling with in your life? What is your relationship with food? Have you managed to overcome a food addiction?
Update: I should add that this is why I try to limit carbs to certain times of the day. The drowsy effect serotonin has on me means that carbs before bed aid a better night’s sleep for me. I don’t take carbs before working out for the same reason, what’s the point in having all that stored energy if your brain is saying “Job well done old fella, now let’s relax in a nice bath!” I leave carbs to post workout. This is also the reason why I do not have carbs for breakfast, having carbs before bed means that my glycogen levels are pretty full anyway (carb backloading) so I have a fatty, protein rich breakfast to avoid that mid morning crash post serotonin depletion.