I remember Lubbock, Texas. It was a moment for me when I knew I hit rock bottom. They say you have to hit the bottom before you start to make changes in your life. It started like any other evening after traveling to a new state- I was traveling every other week as a franchise business consultant. I turned the lights off and the AC was turned down to the perfect sleeping temperature of 68. I turned on some guided meditation music. I tried to follow the “breathe in and out” directions, but for some reason, this time, no sleep. The meditation ended and I decided to lie there in the dark, continuing my deep breathing exercises, the sleep didn’t come. Then the panic struck me- it is too late. I won’t get enough sleep to function tomorrow. What will happen if I’m too tired? I tossed and turned in bed so many times that I started crying. All of a sudden my chest got tight, very tight. It hurt so badly I remember a deep breath felt like a hot razor blade through my chest. That was it; I thought my job was killing me. I couldn’t move. I remember my body feeling numb and heavy at the same time. I was frozen there, a vegan of 6 years, “dying of a stroke.”
My driver education teacher, back when I was 17, told my class each week to bring in a newspaper clipping about any fatal car accident to discuss as a group. Looking back on this, I find it funny (and also sad), that there was a new fatal accident to talk about each week. After each discussion, he would say, “smart people learn from their mistakes. Really intelligent people learn from others’ mistakes. It is my hope that you can learn how to prevent this situation from happening to you.
So what happened? As a vegan for many years, I thought I was healthy. I was living off of packaged airport foods, greasy fried tortilla chips and protein bars with cane sugar. No harm to animals, right? Wrong. I want to talk about my overbearing anxiety, emotional cravings and how to overcome both with a proper, nutrient-dense diet.
After very long days at work, up until this very day, I struggle with self-control when it comes to eating. If I can’t figure out a particular challenge, or even if I have reached a new accomplishment, I want to either numb myself or celebrate with food. Usually I try to limit it to one celebratory meal, but I also find that I can snack on kale chips, “raw” chips, “raw” chocolates, or even just almond butter with banana until I’m borderline sick and want to sleep. It’s my way of forgetting everything that happened.
According to Dr. Douglas Graham in his book, 80/10/10 Diet, we biologically tend to eat heavier foods. When we eat foods that are complicated for our digestion (fat and carbohydrate-rich), our bodies need to use the energy to metabolize the meal. It simply does not have the nerve energy to devote to emotions.
There is a difference between being physiologically addicted to food and being emotionally attached to food. Dr. Graham says that the body is designed to thrive. You can become, however, addicted to the shift in your own perception after consuming these “numbing” foods. Often times, we look to “comfort foods” to recreate positive past experiences with food, such as during celebrations or family dinners. Dr. Graham says that by eating fresh, whole foods, we open ourselves up to higher vibrations; we feel more, we are more sensitive. His recommendation is to find ways to allow for these emotions and to find other ways of handling them without “food numbing.”
There are three ways you can control what you crave. What you put into your body creates what you crave. How can you protect your body from emotional cravings? We will start with gluten.
According to Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, in her article, Gluten Intolerance, gluten is known as the protein found in the seeds (also known as grains) of wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats. Only 1-3% of the population actually has Celiac Disease. However, many more people are gluten intolerant. Another doctor, Scot Lewey, calls this condition non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or gluten related disease.
So how does this general gluten intolerance affect us? Most people believe that gluten intolerance symptoms are strictly gastrointestinal- gas, bloating, problems with bowels, etc. According to Dr. Lewey, depression, ADHD, OCD, inability to concentrate, schizophrenia, and epilepsy are all linked to general gluten intolerance, which, he believes, affects 10-30% of our population, 3 in 10.
There are certain receptors in the brain that control our pain and pleasure responses. You are maybe familiar with endorphins, which are usually released through exercise and other activities. Endorphins minimize pain and increase feelings of pleasure. The digestion of gluten produces a release of endorphins, which activate the opiate receptors in the brain. This is why it’s so hard to stop after one cookie. These opiate compounds are similar to cocaine in the body; cookies are like cocaine.
Gluten is a very complicated protein. Picture this science; proteins are made up of peptides, which are strands of amino acids linked together. Digestion is required to break the peptides down into absorbable amino acids. Dr. Loscalzo claims that due to years of poor food choices, prescription medications or other genetic factors, the body’s own digestive processes are generally not strong enough to successively break apart the peptides. Even in a test tube with strong digestive enzymes added, the breakdown doesn’t occur. This means that the gluten never fully gets broken down. The entire peptide enters the bloodstream, which creates an even more significant “high.”
How difficult is it to give up something that makes you feel so good? This is what causes emotional cravings. Many people have strong feelings of withdrawal after removing gluten from their diets. This is because the opiate receptors are looking for another “fix” after the high wears off. This also causes strong emotional cravings for simple carbohydrates such as breads and cakes. Through the elimination of these foods in your diet, you do not create this vicious cycle of high and withdrawal.
Another piece of this puzzle includes the consumption of fat. Dr. Douglas Graham states in his book that the ingestion of fat places a strain on our bodies both emotionally and physically. We are exposed to multiple advertisements for “healthy fats” all the time. The USDA recognized back in the early 1900s that a low fat diet was the healthiest protection against chronic disease. With the release of the Atkins diet, Americans started the notion that animal fats such as eggs, butter and steak caused weight loss and lowered cholesterol. According to the NY Times, “Dr. Atkins did have cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease that was probably caused by a virus. Dr. Atkins also had an episode of cardiac arrest the year before his death, unaware that he had had any history of heart attack” (https://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/11/nyregion/just-what-killed-the-diet-doctor-and-what-keeps-the-issue-alive.html). Recently we have seen coconut oil and fish oils in the news, touted for properties of healing.
Aside from serious problems with cholesterol and risk of heart attack and stroke, the reality of this matter includes the activation of the pancreas to release insulin. When fats are ingested, blood sugar levels immediately rise. The pancreas needs to produce insulin to gradually remove the fat from the bloodstream. If the fat content in the diet is high enough, the pancreas starts to literally burn out. Think about if you continue to work out the same muscle group in the gym without giving it rest. The result is usually the opposite of muscle growth, or atrophy.
When the pancreas is too exhausted to handle to fat-load, the body needs to activate the adrenal glands. You may have heard of “adrenal failure.” Adrenals produce a powerful hormone, called epinephrine, which kick the pancreas into gear to produce more insulin. The adrenals are also activated every time you become emotionally stressed. So the more fat you ingest, the more “stressed out” your body becomes. This continuous cycle- emotional stress and a high fat diet can eventually cause a chronic problem with fatigue.
Most importantly, when the pancreas and adrenals have finished their work and have successfully removed the high levels of fat from the bloodstream, the result is irritability, feelings of stress, anger, and restlessness. The blood sugar levels have dropped even LOWER than they were before a high-fat meal. The result of this is a craving for another “fat fix” so that the feelings of irritability fade.
The last piece of this emotional craving puzzle includes a substance categorized as an “excitotoxin.” Susan Schneck wrote in her book, The Live Food Factor, that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is purposely added to foods to enhance their flavor. MSG tricks the brain into thinking that the ingested food is quite delicious, however, detrimental to mental health.
MSG is both highly addictive and toxic. It causes emotional cravings because it triples the amount of insulin the pancreas secretes for elimination from the bloodstream. This causes the same chain reaction, as previously discussed.
The most disturbing of all, however, is the fact that the FDA is not required to label MSG as an additive. It is hidden in seasonings, spices, packaged soups, whey and soy protein powders, and even in almond milk if it contains carrageenan. Even gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian products contain this harmful, additive substance!
Through the removal of MSG, the addiction to chips and salty snacks lessens. The body isn’t craving a “cocaine-like” drug when gluten is also eliminated. Lowering dietary fat intake ensures calmness with stable blood sugar levels and less adrenal response.
Dr. Dean Ornish is a pioneer of the low-fat movement because he was able to stop the progression of heart disease and reverse it with a low-fat, vegetarian diet. In his book, Eat More, Weigh Less, Dr. Ornish stresses that through eating mindfully; you can intuitively stay on the path of healthy eating forever. To make permanent changes in your life, I leave you with the following practices:
1) Pay attention to how you feel after your meals. High fat meals usually feel sluggish, while low fat meals boost your mood and energy.
2) Find other foods you can eat other than fat; fresh vegetables and fruits. Complex carbohydrates will naturally boost your serotonin levels and keep you feeling happy.
3) Eat without distraction, especially if you feel stressed. Try not to eat while driving or working. Not only will you feel more satiated, lowering your chances of overeating, but also your body will be able to produce the proper digestive enzymes to extract the nutrients from your meal.