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Ending Our Body’s Stress Cycle with a Simple Habit Change

 

By Ellen Holton for HartsSpace

*Please note that some of the following information was adopted from the book entitled The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.*

Last week my work hosted a potluck for “February Birthdays.” There were a variety of foods, including many desserts. I put aside a cupcake to enjoy for an afternoon snack.

The cupcake was delicious! The chocolate cake was moist and the frosting creamy and sweet. My taste buds were soaring.

Shortly after finishing my cupcake, however, I felt lethargic and my stomach was in knots.

The lesson I learned? That maybe a cupcake served solo does not serve my body as a good three o’clock snack.

Have you ever had a sweet or high-carb snack that was satisfying initially but left you feeling poorly shortly after?

In The Mood Cure, Julia Ross explains this process clearly and the stress that it can have on our bodies.

When we consume foods like cupcakes by themselves, it is harder for our body to recover verses when we have a cupcake after a nice meal.

Let’s go back to the cupcake. What happened when I ate it?

  1. The carbohydrates (sugars) in the cupcake caused my blood sugar (blood glucose) to spike, which my body interpreted as a stressful situation

  1. My adrenal glands (located atop the kidneys) released adrenaline in response to the stress

  1. My pituitary gland in my brain released endorphins, which caused the comforting and pleasure feeling I got when eating the cupcake

  2. My pancreas also began secreting insulin into my bloodstream to act on glucose (this step is actually affected in those with diabetes, where the body no longer produces or responds to insulin)

  1. The insulin bound to glucose in the bloodstream and migrated to my muscles, where it may eventually turn to fat cells for storage

  1. My blood sugar level was then too low because all the sugar was taken to my muscles

  1. Low blood sugar is even more of a stressful state than eating a cupcake, therefore my body secreted cortisol (the long-acting hormone in a prolonged stressful situation) to prevent me from going to a coma, hence “food coma”

Now we know why I felt so poorly after my cupcake. My blood sugar spiked, then plummeted, all at the expense of stress hormones.

If you choose to have a cupcake or sweet treat for a snack, that’s great and it would be delicious, but maybe it would feel better balanced by protein and fat. This balance may save yourself from feeling lethargic and hypoglycemic. Afterall, snacks and treats should always be enjoyable.  

Great snacks that are well balanced:

  • Almonds, cashews or peanuts with dried fruit

  • Toast and avocado spread

  • Fruit and nut-butter

  • Hard-boiled eggs and

  • Yogurt and granola

  • Crackers and cheese and/or meat

  • Pita and/or vegetables with hummus

  • Trail mix: nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate

Refocusing on the NOW!

By Ellen Holton for HartsSpace

The last several months of my life have been full of exciting, yet stressful events: planning a wedding, applying to and choosing a school, planning a big move and working full time.

 

I have easily been getting lost in the “what if’s” and worries. I am very good at going down that rabbit hole and feeling suffocated by the unknowns and the uncontrollable.

 

In these times I lose track of my present tasks because I start thinking about everything else. I sleep more in hopes of tuning out the stress. I tend to eat only as fuel and no longer for enjoyment. I don’t make time for telephone calls or dates with those I love. (i.e. everything opposite of mindful).

 

My focus is no longer in the present pleasantries of life, but in the worries of the future and unknown.

 

Sound familiar?

 

TIMES Magazine’s special edition Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness was a reminder to shift my energy to enjoy life and move away from getting caught up in the yet-to-be’s.

 

Reading through this, I realized that my life absent of mindfulness meant looking for external satisfaction and happiness. This magazine (and all mindfulness practices) is full of ideas to help you turn inward for peace. Simply unplugging from social media or only checking twice a day has been very important to me! The more time I spend on social media, the more distracted I am by the lives of others and think “I wish that was me!” Except spending so much time looking elsewhere for satisfaction, I have missed out on my own life!

 

Another practice that TIME Magazine’s Mindfulness issue discusses is gratitude. This practice ebbs and flows in my own life. Several practices I just forget about! The only way I remember to be mindful and add practices to my daily routine is having reminders. I keep a little notebook next to my bed and each morning and night I am reminded to write down what I am grateful for. Most entries hold gratitude for the world, others and myself. I have found this to be a grounding way to start and end my day.

Weaving mindfulness into my days makes life more livable! It helps me to look internally for peace and focus less on external satisfaction and approval. It also helps me to worry less about the anxieties of life.

 

Life will happen anyway and I don’t want to miss it!

 

Some great ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day:

  • Gratitude practice

  • Yoga/meditation is a great way to connect with your body and focus on your breathing

  • Intuitively and mindfully eating: By this I mean enjoying a meal undistracted so that you can enjoy and experience every bite!

  • Mindfully wash your hands: We do this numerous times a day and is a nice way to come back to the present. Focus on this task using all of your senses (the sound of the water hitting the sink, the smell of the soap, the temperature of the water, the softness of your hands, the beauty in the lather of soap and bubbles, etc.).

 

Other great mindfulness resources that I recommend

Transforming Habits 2017

Transforming Habits for Happiness As we enter the new year we are bombarded with messages telling us to break old habits and create new ones.

 

How many times have we (or someone we knew) thrown everything at a New Year’s Resolution, just to find ourselves back where we started, often times feeling defeated or like a failure? I have been there before! Marc David gets to the core of this very issue in his book Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being. He explains that when we fight to eliminate our existing habits to replace them with new ones, our habits push back. This is similar to our relationship with food. When we label a food as forbidden we may end up preoccupied by that food or craving it, whereas we weren’t before. Our habits want to be expressed most when we fight them. Marc David’s key to this dilemma is approaching habits with the intent of transforming them rather than trying to reform them. Here are some guidelines I created to help us approach our habits with the goal of transformation:

What habit do I want to alter?

Why do I want to alter this habit?

How will this change bring me long-lasting happiness in life?

What are ways in which I can help myself transform that habit?

In what ways will I show self-respect and patience through this process?

The most important part of habit transformation is acknowledging a habit and accepting it. The next step is to gently guide ourselves through our habit transformation with self-love, patience and devotion. The New Year brings with it messages about weight loss, eliminating “bad” foods and body shaming. I encourage you to focus on transforming habits that will help you feel great in your body and to eat intuitively. Be sure to acknowledge the habits you have in place and are proud of.

 

Happy New Year HartsSpace Readers! Areas in Life to Evaluate Habits: 1. Morning routines 2. Social media or e-mail checking 3. Caffeine, alcohol, smoking, etc. (indulgences) 4. Limiting beliefs 5. Screen-time 6. Trying to control things in life that are beyond our own control

Maintaining Self Care During the Holidays

The holidays are a magical and beautiful time of year, although food, family and parties can add stress and imbalance. Here are a few tips on staying happy and healthy this holiday.

Continue to eat intuitively. Don’t restrict yourself from any foods if you don’t have to (prescribed). Eat what you enjoy and the amount that will satisfy your whole being. Check in with yourself about your satiety levels to be sure you are meeting your body’s’ needs.

Handle diet talk. Try to avoid “deprivation and guilt” talk (see previous post). Keep triggers such as “today is my cheat day” or “I am going to need to go on a diet after this meal” outside of yourself. Neutralize these messages with a pep talk to yourself: “I am proud of myself for tuning into my body’s needs and eating intuitively.”

No more “now or never.” Sometimes when we sit before a spread of delicious food, we want to have plenty (or too much) of it because we are unsure the next time is that we will get to eat that certain food. Stuffing, turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, they all can be enjoyed throughout the year, not just on Thanksgiving.

Alone time. Take time for yourself during the holiday. Set aside time in the morning, evening or both just for you. Tune into a holiday movie, go for a walk, read a book, something that will give you a break from the craziness of the day. This will also help you tune in to how you are doing and check in with yourself. What do you need to feel good? What will help you cope with the business?

Shifting focus. Instead of fixating on food, how much, how little, feeling guilty or depriving yourself, shift your focus to gratitude! After all, gratitude is the purpose of Thanksgiving! Keep an ongoing list of gratitudes that you come up with during the day, or simply make mental note of them: I am grateful for my family, this delicious food, the ability to trust my body, the day off of work.

Eating Disorders and Holidays

For those who are in eating disorder recovery, holidays can be a tough time. The best advice I can give you is to be prepared. I don’t recommend overthinking the holiday. Have a conversation with someone in your support team, or journal about how you can set yourself up for success.

Have a safety net in place in case you are triggered. This person could be a parent, sibling friend, therapist or nutritionist, someone you can lean on in recovery. My safety net was and always will be my mom. I know that I can pull her aside at any point to have an honest conversation and she will help me work through my triggers.

Stick to your meal plan. When you are facing a day full of people, conversation and food, which can already be overwhelming. Incorporating fear foods that you have not yet worked with in recovery (wine, dessert, etc.) would be difficult to handle amidst the holiday. Enjoy Thanksgiving day with foods that you are comfortable with.

Know the schedule of the day. Knowing how the day is going to unfold can help you plan your meals and snacks. This will also minimize anxiety that can crop up around mealtime.

Identify your triggers. On the left side of a piece of paper, create a list of triggers and brainstorm things that your relatives might say to you that may be triggering. On the right hand side of the paper, come up with specific soothing techniques to match each trigger and list responses that you can have ready in case something uncomfortable is said. Knowing your own triggers is one of the best way to take care of yourself.

Be honest with your loved ones about your boundaries. Let them know that you don’t want comments being made about your plate of food or your body.

Gratitude. Before the day ends, thank those who you love that have been your greatest supporters in your recovery. Thank your body for surviving and thriving in recovery.

Emotions, Psychology and Eating

My first post entitled “Are you confused about how to eat??” reviewed the biological effects of dieting. We talked about how when we diet our bodies enter starvation mode (metabolism slowing down) and through dieting, we try to alter our predetermined set range, the weight at which our body is its happiest. Lastly, that yo-yo dieting can lead to overall weight gain, despite the intermittent spurts of weight loss.

One thing that I think we all can attest to is that dieting is extremely hard on our minds!

Authors of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, describe what I think to be the greatest mental struggle during dieting perfectly. They called this the Seesaw Syndrome: Guilt versus Deprivation.

Picture a seesaw.

The side up in the air is deprivation, the side near the ground is guilt. Dieting is essentially restriction or deprivation in one way or the other. During this time, deprivation is high (eliminating or limiting carbs, white foods, high-fat foods, etc.). Our guilt is low because we haven’t engaged in those “forbidden foods.”

Eventually, that craving for the forbidden food peaks and we cave. This is when the guilt starts creeping in. The result? Our deprivation crumbling. Guilt and deprivation have eventually switched heights on the seesaw scale due to our indulgence.

The next day determination or the next diet keeps us seesawing.

I have definitely been on this particular seesaw and this imagery resonates so well with me. I don’t think it’s worth it because too much of our brain space is occupied by this when we are dieting to lose weight. Not only is our physical well-being suffering because of dieting, our mental state is too.

Another great example of psychological deprivation due to dieting is Dr. Ancel Keys’ Great Starvation Experiment.

Some of you might have heard of this experiment already. It is an extreme scenario of deprivation, but nonetheless, the effects are similar to the diets we engage in today.

Dr. Ancel Keys conducted his experiment out of the University of Minnesota in 1945. He studied the effects of starvation on 36 physically and mentally healthy men.

It may seem obvious, but after a significant decrease in caloric intake and maintaining daily exercise, these men lost a significant amount of muscle mass and energy. Their metabolism and heart rate also slowed. All what would be expected.

These men also grew irritable and preoccupied with food. Some participants even cheated, eating food that wasn’t given in the experiment.

What?! This is exactly what happens in our dieting minds today! Restriction only heightens our awareness of that which we are restricting, evident by Dr. Keys’ study.

I think together we could come up with a long list of psychological effects due to dieting. The Seesaw Syndrome and The Starvation Experiment are only two examples. There are many other ways to engage our minds and bodies in the world (beautiful ways!) that don’t involve dieting. Let’s brainstorm those ideas instead.

Dining Alone, and loving it!!!

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I have vivid memories of eating alone in my college dining hall during my struggle with food. I was on high alert from start to finish. Not only would it take me 15 minutes to pick out what I was going to eat, I also scoped out the most hidden area to sit down. I constantly looked around at other diners to see what they were eating and in fear that they would catch glimpse of my own tray with judgement.

Which, by the way, no one does. Frankly no one cares.

Just the other day I typed “eating by yourself” into Google’s image search. The result? Various sad looking people dining solo and individuals in front of a table covered with food, as well as a suggestion to narrow my search with the word “alone.”

This can’t be true.

When I go out to eat and see others eating alone I admire their courage and am curious about who they are. I think it is a common feeling to fear dining out alone, at least it makes me nervous. For the same reason we ignore our feelings, dining alone is a breeding ground for insecurity and vulnerability. We have to keep ourselves company. For these reasons I have never eaten out by myself since college. Although I was fearful of my college experience repeating itself, my Google search was not the resolution I was looking for.

I pinpointed where it was that I wanted to go out for dinner and I grabbed my legal pad and favorite pen. I was nervous about being unplugged from interaction, whether it be through my phone, headphones or conversation. It was just me.

“Are you meeting someone here?” Nope!

After taking a seat, I realized I was already on high alert. I could feel my cheeks turn a little red and my heart beat a little faster. I perused the menu and picked out what looked good: a quesadilla (with apparently a lot of kick)! Once my food came, I tried approaching it like I would any other meal, why wouldn’t I? I caught myself thinking about the balance of the quesadilla: tortilla, cheese, vegetables, beans. I analyzed the taste and texture of each bite and reflected on the mystery of spice. My nervous state slowly relaxed. I was actually enjoying myself! My own thoughts and journal were perfect company for me to enjoy my experience. I was eating mindfully and taking in the experience all by myself.

Challenging myself to face a raw fear turned out to be rewarding for my body, mind and spirit. We can only get comfortable with the uncomfortable through exposure therapy.

Time to go out: ● Do some research to find a restaurant you have always wanted to try. The yummy menu options will hopefully give you the boost you need! ● Enjoy time by yourself: think by yourself, people watch by yourself, eat by yourself, be gentle with yourself, love yourself.  ● Bring a journal, book or magazine with you. This will allow you to engage yourself without being plugged into electronics.

P.S. Check out Christy Harrison’s recent ​Podcast​ “Intuitive Eating and Rejecting the Diet Mentality,” where she interviews Evelyn Tribole, co-author of ​Intuitive Eating

Insights and Awareness from Geneen Roth’s Books and Work

   

If there is one thing I took away from reading Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything
by Geneen Roth, it is that our bodies are our generator of feelings. I sometimes convince myself that my bodily feelings (tightness in chest, racing heart, etc.) will just pass if I ignore them. I will occasionally fall asleep to the television to avoid my feelings that crop up in the silence, or I will procrastinate certain things that I am too fearful to face, such as a large bill or tough conversations with those I love. This book is a good reminder of the importance of listening to our feelings without judgement, and more importantly, to take care of ourselves in these difficult moments. Rest assured though that the habit of numbing our feelings is TOTALLY NORMAL, but the goal is to start tuning into our feelings.

Our bodies are where our feelings stem from and our minds generally react to these feelings. We are most often our harshest critics, including talking down to ourselves internally or judging our own feelings. This is the trick! If the feelings stay in the body and we acknowledge them, no harm done. If we let our minds judge those feelings, however, harm may be done. Just like Geneen Roth says in her book, “our minds are masters of blame but our bodies don’t lie.” Our thoughts turn to habits, some of which surround our relationship with food. Depending on our certain thoughts and personality traits, these habits can become binge eating or restriction, sometimes both, as a way to escape the raw and uncomfortable feelings in our body. Our response to uncomfortable feelings is sometimes avoidance and instant satisfaction, our relationship with food, or distracting ourselves with television for example. Begin to challenge the avoidance and instant satisfaction by not letting your mind take over those feelings in your body. Let your body handle the energy of your feelings.

Tuning into our feelings without numbing them is not easy, and requires patience with ourselves and practice. I have been working on this for years and am still far from mastery. Again, patience and practice. Next time you have an overwhelming feeling of sadness or anger, instead of drowning it out, name your feeling (as psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel says “name it to tame it”), in order for your strong feelings to remain in check and not take hold of you. Once you sense an uncomfortable feeling in your body, acknowledge it: I feel anxiety and tightness in my chest. Maybe ask: Where else do I feel anxiety or tension in my body? Be sure to use the words “I feel” instead of “I have” to keep these feelings at bay. Next, sit with the uncomfortable feeling and self-soothe: It is okay that I feel anxious, that is my response to the events that have just occurred. If you drift towards the cravings of binging or abusing your relationship with food, ask yourself: Why do I feel the need to binge right now? What will that binge bring me other than instant satisfaction? What will I feel in 15 minutes? Externalizing these cravings and thinking aloud gives those urges less power over your decision-making process. It is okay if you are unable to resist those thoughts that lead you to over-indulging, but do not let that discourage you. Continue practicing your acknowledgement of your feelings. Take extra good care of yourself.

 

Ideas to feel feelings, not feed them:

  • As Geneen Roth suggests, welcome all of your feelings with tenderness and acceptance, free of judgement.
  • Create a list of questions that you can use as prompts to help you sit with an uncomfortable feeling, like above. I personally like to create a mind map to understand my feelings.
  • Consider meditation or pockets of your day to dedicate to calmness and introspection. Our true feelings often get lost in the busyness of the day.
  • Lastly, pick up Geneen Roth’s Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. This is an engaging and quick read for all who need the next push into food freedom.

My Mind and My Food!

When     I    was    growing    up    my    mom    often     said,     “If     you
eat     throughout     the    day,     you    wouldn’t    be     famished    when  you    get    home     from     school,”    as     I     reached     for    every     chip  bag    and     sweet     I     could     find.    At     the     time,     I    didn’t     listen.     Not  only    because     I    was    a     stubborn     teenager,    but     it    also    didn’t  make     sense     to    me.    Today,    however,    my    mom’s    advice  rings     true     to    me.   Eating    a     snack    during     the    day     (or    multiple     if     your  body    needs     it!)     is     important     to     fuel    our    brains,     the  greatest     consumer    of    glucose     in    our    bodies.    Please    note  that    when     I     talk    about     snacking    and     its     importance,     I  mean    mindfully    and     intuitively,    not     stress snacking    or  mindless munching,     that’s    a    whole    other    post.    The  snacking     I    am     talking    about     is     the    energy rich     kind     that
feeds    our     stomachs     and    our    brains     throughout     the    day.    Snacks    are     important     to    prevent  hypoglycemia     (low    blood     sugar).    Many    of    us    have    experienced    a    headache,     fatigue    or    anxiety  during     the    day,     which    we     do     not     necessarily     link     to     low    blood     sugar.    Hypoglycemia     can  decrease     our     focus    and    potentially    put    our    bodies     into     temporary     starvation    mode     (see    previous  blog     post).    These     symptoms     are    ways    our    body     tells    us     that     they    need     fuel.    Honor     that    hunger  and     desire     instead     of     ignoring     it!   In    additional     to     the     biological     importance    of     snacking,    eating    enough     throughout     the    day  will    prevent     overeating     later,     just     like    my    mom     tried     teaching    me.    Most    of    us     lead    busy     lives,  sometimes     too    busy     to    eat.     When    we    deprive    our    bodies     from     food     throughout     the    day,    we    are  famished     once    we     take     the     time     to     sit    down    and     relax.    Exactly     like    my    habits    as    a     teenager,    our  instincts    are     to    eat    everything     in     sight     because     that’s    all    our    bodies    need     in     the    moment.  Evenings     that     follow     snack­less    or     meal­less    days     can     lead     to    overeating,    or    even    binges.    This  is    hard    on    our     bodies     of     course,     and     it    also    engrains     the     restrict­binge     cycle,    which    eventually  leads     to     weight     gain.     Also,     the     food     that    we    are     reaching     for     in     the    evenings    are     rarely     steamed  broccoli     and    grilled     chicken,     it’s     fast     food,     salty    and     sweet     food,    hence     the     common    unwanted  weight    gain.   I     do    not     recommend     food     tracking    unless    prescribed    by     your    nutritionist,    although     I    do  recommend     journaling     and     tracking     if     it     leads     to    a    greater    understanding    of     self.     If     you    decide     to  incorporate    a     snack     into     your    day,     keep     track    of     your    eating    habits,    especially     in     the    evening.  Are     you     reaching     for     quick    bites,    or    are     you    able     to    have    a    nice    meal    at     the    end    of     your    day?  See     if     you    notice     any    patterns    when     journaling.     I     can     tell     you    what     I    have     learned,    but     you    will  learn     the     importance     of     snacking     by    noticing     your    own    patterns    and    habits.
Snacking     done    well  :  ● Although     tempting,     try     to     ignore    headliners     such    as     “100    Snack     Ideas    Under    100  Calories.”     Instead,     think    of     foods     that    will     taste    good     to     you,    are     convenient     for     your  lifestyle,    and    will     keep     you     satisfied     for    a     couple    of    hours:  ○ Full     fat     yogurt     or     cottage     cheese  ○ Fruit    and    nut     butter  ○ Nuts  ○ Crackers    and     cheese  ○ Vegetables     and    hummus  ● You    may    be    able     to     time     your     snacks    based    on     your    hunger,    although     it    may    be    nice     to  set     a     reminder     throughout     the     day     to    have    a     snack,    especially     if     you    have    a    busy  schedule.    Be     sure     to     talk     with     your    nutritionist     to    determine    what     is    best     for     you!  ● Keep     snacks     handy:     store    a    granola    bar     (my    personal     favorites    are    Kind    bars    and  Larabars)    or    nuts    and    dried     fruit     in     your     car,     your    purse,    or     your    desk    at    work.   ● If     it    would    be    helpful     for     you,     keep     track    of     your     snacking    habits.    Answer     just    a     few  questions:     What     time    was     I    hungry?    Did     I    honor    my    hunger    by    having    a     snack?    What  was     my     snack?     When     I    got    home     from    work,    what    did     I    do?    Did     I    mindlessly     snack    or  overeat?

Joy in Cooking

Recently, I have a new found joy for cooking. I used to spend hours of my day preoccupied by food, anxious around mealtime and at the grocery store, and collecting recipes that I never made. I often ate the same meals every single day for weeks to avoid discomfort! This may sound familiar to you, although our discomfort around food and cooking can vary significantly. Not only was I spending too much time thinking (negatively) about food, it also took away the enjoyment of food and cooking that I have recently discovered.        

              Cooking can be daunting, especially if you have never really cooked anything before. The reward of having a delicious tasting meal that you made is worth it. I recommend tackling the challenge by cooking one new meal per week. This is a gentle approach to cooking, and can limit unrealistic expectations. It can be an easy meal that you have never made before, or one with several ingredients and spices! Also, consider cooking for someone or with someone to make the process that much more enjoyable. Do whatever you think will be helpful for you to start your journey to dining well.

Through cooking, you can discover what dishes you enjoy making, what flavors you like, and what foods you dislike. For me, cooking is also a creative outlet! Trying new recipes, altering them to my taste, and putting dishes together are great ways for me to be creative. In my own experience, altering my thoughts and approach to cooking have opened several new doors that were closed before, like trying new cuisines or unusual dishes, or trying a challenging recipe. I have channeled my food, meal and grocery shopping anxiety into creativity and enjoyment. I promise this step is worth it.

 

 

Get Cooking:

        Check out journalist Michael Pollan and chef Jamie Oliver. They offer a wealth of knowledge in their field, as well as several yummy recipes for you to try.

        Create a less daunting week in terms of meal prep: create a shopping list to just go once per week, and have your dinners planned out ahead of time. If the recipe and time permits, think about preparing things ahead of time.

        Peruse our very own HartsSpace Pinterest page for inspiration on your cooking adventures and start your own board of recipes that you would like to try.

        Don’t overdo it. Start with one new meal per week and even repeat that recipe a couple of times. Create cooking habits that you are excited about keeping.