Welcome to the first in a series of posts designed to remind us all of the things that bring a smile, warm the cockles of our hearts and reduce anxiety to a quivering, tiny mass – even if it’s only temporary.
Coming soon there’ll be posts about family (forced and enlisted!), reading, kindness, memories, film, and TV, talking, alcohol, wanderlust, dirty lust (shhhh🤫😉), love, and those wonderful, spontaneous and unexpected happy events that crop up when life is being a bit crap.
I’m writing this series to shine a light on the importance of finding distractions that make us happy, whilst getting the balance between urgency, health, helpfulness, and results right too.
Feeling happy. Wow. Remember that?
Anyway, we’re starting this week with one of my favourite subjects, a subject of joy and disgust, speed and haste, adventure and familiarity, travel and home. We’re talking about…
Oh, delicious calories. I owe you so much. Not least my bulging waistline and yo-yo diet regimen, but also my bingeing between quiet ‘we broke up’ sobs and the gestures of kindness in every box of chocolates received for my birthday.
But you’re doing so much more than making me rotund.
I’ll stop talking to food like it’s my friend now, but if I’m revealing my true relationship with scran, for many years it’s been my deceitful bestie. Deceitful, but important. A crutch, in fact.
Looking back, almost all of my treasured memories are littered with food of some description lurking in the background.
- Her boyfriend cheated? Go round with Doritos and wine.
- Saturday night in? Order a pizza.
- Someone has died? Eat a buffet at the wake.
- Going on a date? Impress with a candlelit dinner.
- Invited for Christmas? Take a ham.
- Business conference over 3 days? “Can I put meals on expenses?” (we’ve all been there 😂).
It’s there at every junction, and more often than not its appearance is unrelated to its real purpose – sustenance. But when we crave food, when we covet a Chinese, want a Wagamama, desperately desire the last dumpling, when a roast dinner makes you ravenous as the smell of homemade gravy dances around your nose hairs, the resulting euphoria of scoffing it all is nothing short of divine.
I’d struggle to think of anything more inviting than a freshly baked, still warm, baguette with some REAL butter on it. The very idea is making my mouth water. There’s a warmth attached even to the memory of the foods we love, just like my baguette. When I imagine that delicious loaf I’ve built a scene in the background, already convincing myself that eating it will transport me there.
What do I see when I think about a warm baguette? Let me take you on that joyous journey…
Breaking it open (with my hands) and watching some steam waft out. The heady smell of the bakery released into the atmosphere around me and making me more desperate to bite with every sniff. The crustiness of the crust and the fluffiness of the fluff. The butter curled onto the knife with the perfect level of spreadability. A strong coffee with hazelnut syrup at a comfortable temperature. Sitting down in the living room with a shitty Sunday paper to glance over as I eat. Saying these words to my partner as I chomp and cham through the first bite…
“Oh wow. This is fucking incredible.”.
And a tiny drop of butter dribbles in the crease of my mouth and my tongue jumps into action, rescuing the droplet from the pile of the carpet below.
I’ve never been more hungry. What a wonderful memory.
Do you have good memories of food? Bad? Maybe you remember the thing that gave you food poisoning (I’ve heard many of those horror stories in the past), or the raw chicken served at the expensive restaurant. Maybe you remember the carefully chosen dinner at your best friend’s wedding…that came out cold. Then that same memory of the food assists you by recalling the events around it. The laughter at the wedding, the pain in your stomach, the dish that was even better than the raw chicken and made your birthday even more special.
Food is so much more than the thing that keeps us going. It’s feeding us good memories and excited anticipation. It’s an itch that’s scratched so orgasmically when you finally taste the Watermelon / Mars Bar / Hummous / Crisps / Salmon or whatever you desire, and it feels soooooo good.
Why is some food addictive?
On a bad day it often feels like food will solve the problem, I hunt it out from its hiding place, no matter how obscure or camouflaged. It’s one of the more benign distractions out there, but being readily available in the kitchen cupboard, it’s also the easiest to use. I’ll then devour the item (often chocolate) and not take a moment to acknowledge the deliciousness. I just wolf it down and within 2 minutes, like a greedy bastard, I’m on the prowl for more.
So in this example, I was probably looking for food because something was making me anxious. But now I’m not just anxious about my life…I’m anxious because that may have been the last Twirl, and no amount of convincing will lead me to believe one of my daughter’s Wagon Wheels is a suitable alternative (I hate them, and yes, I know I’m in the minority on that opinion!).
But food isn’t just there for us when we’re low. It forms the centre of a gathering between friends, it bonds family at the dinner table enjoying mums roast chicken, it’s part of the fun of watching a movie at the cinema, it’s ‘Steak night’ on a Thursday with your usual group of friends, it might even have been part of your first date with the person you ended up being attached to forever.
Food is joyous, disgusting, bland, sugary, unknown, familiar, solitary, shared, confined, the last meal, the first meal, stodgy, runny, gooey, delicious, and most of all, comforting.
Besides the scientific reasons for our food addictions, I believe this emotional attachment we form with food is part of the craving too. You don’t just want the food, you want the life around it. The morning at the coffee shop chatting with the mums, burgers, and chips on the train journey to a wedding, the incredible cake you made for your child’s birthday, laughing at your girlfriend when her Yorkshire puddings are more like Yorkshire pancakes (yes, that was me). We’ve built so many good and not-so-good times around food.
Why do we love food so much?
There’s no doubt in my mind – our thoughts and our cravings are intrinsically connected, with emotions spawning a deep-rooted hunger to find something, ANYTHING, that will help fix or maintain them.
Happy or sad, food can be a crutch that you rely on, and there are very real, legitimate, scientific reasons why this is the case.
In the name of research, I visited the WebMD ‘food addictions’ page which gives very basic facts about our constant cravings and hunger.
Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again.WebMD website, accessed April 2022, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction
Food can act like a drug, giving your brain a dopamine high and creating a craving for more. It’s a natural process, but the desperation it creates can be pretty ugly.
The ugly side of food
I can’t talk about the incredible, heart-harming side of food without acknowledging the more unpleasant side and the problems it causes. Like all things in life, it seems incredibly difficult to get the balance right, and that’s probably one of the reasons we are experiencing an obesity epidemic.
I certainly wasn’t taught control or moderation as a child. There were no strict rules about weight that were discussed at home or at school. I had the usual 3 square meals a day, usually pretty nutritious ones, and snacks from fruit to those disgusting Wagon Wheels (I know it’s controversial, but I really do hate them).
I hope this is a juvenile food diary many of you can relate to.
So I often find myself asking why did I get so fat? And after years of consideration I came up with many excuses – bad decisions, lack of other addictions (never been a drinker or drug taker), being alone, being in pain, and my myriad of mental illnesses all contributed to my morbid obesity at the age of just 21.
I wasn’t doing anything severe or drastic. I wasn’t over-eating, bingeing, throwing-up…to be honest I don’t think I knew about these processes. I was just eating, eating, eating…to hide my feelings about myself. Hopefully this is also relatable.
On paper I should have been pretty happy. I had a nice job with a live-in wage, along with a busy social life and cigarettes to satisfy my other addiction. But when my shift was over and I was sat watching a tiny television in an empty room on my own, all I had was food.
So I ate.
And I kept going.
Two years ago I was a size 30. Yes, that’s right, I was fat in the extreme. I guess if I hadn’t acted I’d be in some serious trouble…maybe soon.
I’ve managed to shift some timber, but I’m certainly not the skinny fitness freak I was a decade ago. I liken myself to a potato being held up with 2 cocktail sticks. My body is a patchwork quilt.
As I say, I’m writing this because I hope it’s relatable. Many of us grew up in houses with no scales, no calorie control, and no fitness routine. For me, if my young life had been more ‘health-focused’, I probably wouldn’t have been so unhealthy later in life. At my biggest it was difficult just to function, so making a change wasn’t always something I wanted or felt able to achieve. My 12 stone loss is through diet because I can’t physically exercise anymore, which makes me sad and makes my continuing weight loss all the harder.
N.B. – I’ll just mention now that if you can relate and you want some help and advice there are some incredible support services below that can start you on a new path.
Remember – it’s about a healthy YOU. Mind, body, and spirit give you your best life when they are aligned and balanced. That doesn’t have to mean losing lots of weight and forgetting McDonald’s on a Saturday.
Healthier choices can be made at other times, and they’ll quickly add up. My best advice is to find the ‘healthy’ dinners and snacks that you enjoy. Don’t force down a salad if it’s not your bag. I found hummus to be a godsend. Same with low-calorie ready meals. If pasta is your thing you can include the lower-calorie sauce and/or change to the whole meal pasta instead.
It all adds up.
Food is making us happy…isn’t it?
Yes, on the whole, food is a positive thing in our lives, reducing our hunger and tantalising our tastebuds when needed. But, as with all wonderful things, it can become a problem through addiction or mentally embossed obsessions.
Someone who is over-eating, under-eating, binging, purging, using laxatives, hiding food, or just changing their behavior around food (anxious at the dinner table, pretending to eat food then hiding it from others, etc) likely needs some help.
There is an organisation called BEAT – specialists in eating disorders for all ages. They have a page on their website with information on the many eating disorders out there, as well as a support page with contact information for a webchat, email support, and peer support groups. It’s an excellent resource for anyone whether you know someone unwell, or feel like eating is becoming a problem for you personally. Take a look.
As always, Mind has several pages dedicated to Eating Problems, as well as a whole page of eating problem contacts – organisations that have been specifically created to help with more specific food-based challenges. It’s a huge list with lots of choices so you should be able to find the help that’s best suited to your situation.
And please don’t underestimate the mental health decline that may be lurking behind the eating problem, and likely turning its wheels. BEAT and Mind can advise on the therapy you can consider and the NHS has its own dedicated Eating Disorder page, sitting within the mental health section of their website. Another excellent starting point is your GP, who will also be able to signpost you appropriately and hopefully follow up with you.
Food can be a million things for us, especially emotionally, it brings us together at times of need, and divides us in the extreme when we debate Marmite, black pudding, dark chocolate, or olives.
It’s perfectly normal to need help with eating habits and food content, and talking anonymously to BEAT or Mind (above) will cost you nothing but time. I’ve used both services in the past and although my serious food issues were mostly some time ago, the support and advice they offered was way ahead of its time. I imagine that can only have improved.
Most importantly, food doesn’t suddenly become your enemy the second you’re dieting. You can still have the brownie on a Sunday because it’s a treat you love (I know I do!). It just needs to be offset with a healthier dinner or a brisk walk.
As Tesco will rightly tell you – Every. Little. Helps.
I’ve been wanting to draw some bees for a while, so I shoehorned them into this post by convincing myself their combined job as the vital honey-makers, the steel-girders holding up the earth’s ecosystem, makes them the most important food producers on the planet. No, it’s not Cadburys after all.
Save the bees!