Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Are We All Emotional Eaters?

Are We All 'Emotional Eaters'?
Copyright © 2004 Nora Lenz

The short answer to that question is "yes" for almost everyone living in modern civilized society. Our unnatural emotional attachments to food actually originate very early in life. Beginning when we are babies, we are inadvertently taught behaviors that set the stage for a lifetime of addictive and abusive eating habits.

In modern maternity wards, the natural mandates of healthful birthing that have served to dependably perpetuate our species over the millennia are forsaken in favor of "safety", sterilization and sundry other misguided ideas. The medical establishment itself has given birth to a belief system which views gestation and birth as risky, dangerous and problematic. In reality, however, just being admitted to a hospital is statistically far more risky and dangerous than childbirth, whether you're giving birth or being born.

Our species' biological heritage equips each of us with all the emotional, intellectual and physical accoutrements that the act of giving birth requires. Our ancient forbearers had the birthing process figured out quite nicely, hundreds of thousands of years ago. In its never ending quest to perpetuate itself, our culture teaches us that our ancestors were unsuccessful, ignorant wretches just treading water until their divinely-predetermined destiny could be fulfilled with the advent of modern civilization. However, if we look at the evidence rationally, we find no reason to believe our ancestors weren't happy, peace-loving, resourceful, healthy, unstressed and comfortable with their existence in pristine nature, like all the other species on earth are. Certainly when it comes to giving birth, the natural methods they employed make ours look clumsy and awkward by comparison.

Information about the natural birthing process is not lost to us. Enough is known to provide us with a basis for comparing what should be taking place when a baby is born to what actually occurs in modern birthing wards. For example, we know that our first breath should be initiated by the suckling of nourishment from our mother's breast, not from a violent blow to our posteriors. We also know that the cord which has nourished us for 9 months needn't be cut, because nature provides that it will wither and fall away naturally from lack of necessity. Although these two backward practices do not directly cause problems relative to emotional eating, they do have physiological and psychological consequences and are representative of the many bumbling infractions that are committed against new mothers and their babies by the medical profession. In his book, "The Hygienic Care of Children", Herbert Shelton writes: "When one considers the abuse that parents and physicians heap upon children, it causes him to marvel, not that so many children die, but that so few die. For, he soon sees that the child enters a conflict against sinister foes the day it is born, even granting that it has not been forced to fight with them before birth."

The element of modern birthing in which our problems with food have their humble beginnings is yet another abominable and unnatural custom -- the practice of separating mother and child shortly after birth. Nature dictates that within seconds of our birth, the encircling warmth of our mother's womb should be replaced by her loving embrace. Nature further mandates that we should stay in our mother's arms until we are old enough to crawl. Nature makes no provision for a newborn infant to be separated from his mother even for a few minutes, let alone for hours at a time.

Newborn infants are not physically or emotionally prepared to be alone. For the newborn separated from his mother, the overwhelming and terrifying reality is that there is something inexplicably wrong. His inborn expectations tell him that he should be in immediate and constant physical contact with his mother. Crying is the natural response of a newborn baby when his primordial directives are not met. The reasons for crying are no different for babies than they are for adults. Crying is a behavior that eases the stress we feel when we are in intensely disturbing or frightening circumstances. In babies, crying has the additional function of alerting adults that a baby is in danger. There's a reason why none of us likes to hear babies crying in public, or anywhere else for that matter. Our biological instincts command us to rescue the suffering infant, but we can't.

Constant crying is so common among modern newborns that it is not recognized as a signal that something is wrong. Rather, it is thought to be a normal feature of infancy and has come to be understood as the natural all-purpose way that a baby communicates his needs. Some 'experts' even believe that crying is meaningless or just 'bad behavior' and should be ignored.

For a baby separated from his mother, crying is an expression of the terrible emotions being felt, and it also becomes a way to get what he wants most: the closeness of his mother. The first thing that is typically assumed when a baby cries is that he is hungry, so crying brings the reward of food as well. Thus, the disconnect between mothers and babies begins the confusion surrounding emotions and eating, and lays the foundation for other unnatural behavior patterns on the part of both mother and baby. These patterns lead to still other behaviors which shape harmful life-long habits, including a tendency to use food as a surrogate to fulfill unrelated unmet needs.

In human beings who are birthed naturally, breast-fed and held constantly by their mothers in the first few months of life, food takes its natural place among all the other requirements of life that are fulfilled by mothers. It is not confused with love, consolation or entertainment. Eating is a pleasurable experience, but it is primarily and simply an act that sustains life, like drinking water or breathing. For a baby who is separated from his mother except during feeding times, however, food becomes more than sustenance. It makes bad feelings go away; it brings comfort and eases emotional burdens.

Mothers keeping their babies in uninterrupted physical contact for the first few months quickly learn to effectively read baby's signals. For the infant fortunate enough to be birthed and raised naturally, crying is not necessary to signal hunger because the close proximity of the mother means discreet signals can be used. And even though they are subtle, the mechanisms babies employ to communicate their needs to their mothers are as clear and reliable as any contrivance of modern technology. The mother who follows her biological mandate to keep her baby close to her body will not have to guess about her baby's needs. This means an infant can choose when to eat based on his body's genuine need for food, an ability that we are all born with but that is lost when we are separated from our mothers by even the shortest time or distance. This separation only initiates the problem of confusing food with the salving of emotional distress, however. There is an even bigger piece of the puzzle to be considered.

Fortunately, these days it is pretty common for babies to be breast fed initially. Typically, however, weaning occurs much too early. Babies should be fed nothing but breast milk for at least a couple of years, according to people who understand the true physiological needs of infants. Babies are known to fuss and fight at mealtimes when parents begin feeding them cooked and inappropriate foods. We wouldn't think of taking this as a sign that a baby is using his still-intact abilities to select foods that are appropriate and reject foods that aren't, but that's exactly what is happening. They know more about what is good for them than we do, with all our faux scientific 'knowledge' about nutrition. Since humans are biologically a frugivorous species and therefore our primary food is fruit, babies know innately that their food should taste and smell sweet. That's why anything that fits these criteria is usually a big hit with babies (and with children of all ages, in fact) but foods like unsweetened cereals, pasta, cooked vegetables and meats are not.

Cooked and processed foods are never healthy for a human body, but they are downright dangerous for babies, who don't have fully developed digestive capabilities and whose bodies have not yet put in place the mechanisms that protect against too much absorption of the harmful substances in cooked food (a process which happens slowly over years of eating cooked food). As a result, babies suffer all manner of maladies and sometimes even die.

Natural foods like breast milk and fruit (later on) are easily and effortlessly digested by babies. The cooked, processed and otherwise inappropriate foods that are fed to babies, by contrast, cost them dearly of bodily energy. Digesting cooked foods requires a flurry of chemical, hormonal and mechanical responses in the baby's body that we will call "stimulation", even though the infant may feel either energized/stimulated or sedated, depending on other relevant factors. Later, the baby's body requires rest to make up the deficit that was created by the harmful and over-stimulating effects of the food. The baby may feel tired or irritated and may cry, fuss, or act odd. The mother, whose separation from her child impedes her ability to read his signals, thinks the baby is hungry and feeds him more. This starts the stimulation/depression cycle all over again. Unconsciously, the baby has just learned the bad habit of using harmful stimulation when he feels down or irritated to create energized feelings of comfort. The baby has very little developed capacity to think at this point, yet he is developing a bad habit that he will eventually expand upon and which will enter into many other areas of his life. A baby that is separated from his mother but is breast-fed until proper weaning with appropriate foods may still confuse the suppression of emotional distress with eating but not to the extent that a baby who is fed cooked and inappropriate foods will, because of the stimulation/depression cycle. Unfortunately, since almost everyone in our culture is not only separated from our mothers during the crucial period when her closeness is necessary to our healthy development, but also weaned on inappropriate and energy-depleting "baby foods", we all emerge from infancy with the seeds of food addiction already taking hold.

In order to understand what's really going on, we need to know a few facts about metabolism. Firstly, we must recognize that we only feel energy rushes as we expend energy, not as we conserve or rebuild energy stores. Most people mistake the actual eating of foods as giving them energy. But this is not the generation of energy, it is its expenditure. It is estimated that 50% of all the body's energy must be devoted to the digestion of food. In order to digest food, the body must expend what energy stores it already has. The food being eaten will only begin to return energy to the body after it has been totally digested, absorbed and assimilated, which takes 1 to 24 hours, and longer with certain meals.

When energy is being stored in the body, we feel nothing happening. That's because it is only through rest and sleep that the body regenerates energy. During sleep the body is like a hydro-electric dam - on the outside still and stoic but on the inside abuzz with activity as new energy is being produced. To expand on the metaphor, body energy is a bit like the electricity coming into our homes. We don't experience it until we plug something in. We aren't generating electrical power when we plug something in, we are utilizing it.

Unhealthful habits like the eating of wrong or processed food cause excessive energy expenditure. Whenever we overspend our energy, our fluids and tissues become chemically unbalanced and we feel discomforted, or dis-eased. Rest is required to get out of this diseased state - rest from activity, rest from food. This allows our bodies to rebalance their internal chemistry. Our energy stores can then be rebuilt so that they may be used later on for activities such as exercising and digesting food. When we overspend our energy reserves and rest is demanded by the body, we experience this with physical sensations of tiredness or weakness, and also with emotional feelings of depression, desolation, sadness, etc. Impossible as it may seem, a person who has followed healthy habits all his life, including consuming a raw, biologically-appropriate diet, might never experience these feelings at all. If he did, he would recognize them as being distinctly different from hunger, and it would not occur to him to eat in response to them. But for a person who has grown up in a culture where food is used habitually to overcome low feelings, the response is to repeat the behaviors that caused the stimulation in the first place, be it eating food, drinking coffee, imbibing alcohol, smoking a cigarette, etc. This response becomes automatic, habitual and compulsive. This is addiction, and it is always the same phenomenon regardless of the stimulant that is being used.

So, we see that the harmful cycle of food addiction begins in infancy and is fostered throughout childhood in a thousand different ways as parents mindlessly reward, comfort and entertain both themselves and their children with food. It's no wonder food becomes the emotional and social centerpiece of our lives as adults, rather than something that merely sustains life, like air or water. Nobody looks forward to his next breath of air or drink of water like we all look forward to mealtime. It's true that eating is innately more pleasurable than breathing or drinking water, but the middle ground we're seeking lies only marginally above these other activities and miles below the all-consuming fixation that most of us have with food.

When we discover the reasons behind, and consequences of, our unhealthy compulsions surrounding food, we also discover that in order to be optimally healthy we have to put food back in its appropriate place. We have to re-acquire the ability to experience genuine hunger that we had when we were newborn babies. Recovery from the clutches of emotional eating, however, is a very slow, long-term, painstaking process. Before we can begin it, we must recognize that our habits and addictions are only the inevitable and natural consequences of how we were treated and raised. This allows us to stand back and view our behaviors impartially, as a dispassionate observer would. Then, when we see something that needs changing we needn't feel badly about it, we can just go to work changing it.

Further, although we can sometimes connect and commune with fellow raw fooders and this can be very helpful to the process, we must ultimately be prepared to go this journey alone. Most of us do not enjoy the support of our friends and family in our efforts to recover from food addiction. Very few people even understand the phenomenon of food addiction and the extent to which it afflicts our culture, and fewer still try to heal themselves of it. People suffering from truly psychopathic food disorders like anorexia and bulimia, in fact, are far more common than those who have conquered food addiction. Even specialists on substance abuse, who come closer than anyone to understanding the problem of addiction, don't acknowledge the common denominators between ordinary, everyday food addiction and the problem they refer to as 'substance abuse', so they don't fully appreciate the pervasiveness of addiction in our culture. They do employ some effective strategies to deal with the symptoms of recognized addictions but because of their failure to see the whole picture, they tend to make artificial distinctions between food addiction (which they themselves suffer from) and substance abuse. Fundamentally there is no difference between the two other than that substance abuse is usually (but not always) a quicker way to kill yourself. The only significant difference lies in the fact that substance abuse is seen in our culture as a social problem while food addiction is practically a social requirement.

In addition, recovery from food addiction requires that we take our food choices very seriously. Changing longstanding mental habits that lead to harmful eating practices doesn't happen without a great deal of effort. The more energy we devote to this process, the more likely we are to succeed. And, the more energy we devote to it, the more likely we will be seen as 'abnormal' or eccentric by people around us. We must necessarily preoccupy ourselves with all matters pertaining to food, including learning about food, thinking about food, planning our meals, and even perhaps eating separately and certainly differently from other family members. Outsiders observing these behaviors may see parallels between them and those exhibited by sufferers of true eating disorders, especially when you factor in possible weight loss, healing crises and other temporary symptoms. The resulting disapproval that our friends and loved ones might express can present a formidable obstacle. What can we do? Well, we can accept that part of becoming truly healthy is having the independence of mind to remove our cultural blinders and stray from 'conventional wisdom'. We have to be willing to see that certain practices are not acceptable for us just because everyone else does them. We have to be sufficiently educated about and resolute in our choices to be able to withstand criticism, doubt, labeling and derision from others. In a culture where sickness is normal, we have to be strong enough to endure being perceived as 'abnormal' if we want to be healthy. It is an unfortunate fact that our culture, in its 180-degree backwardness, sees recovery from food addiction itself as a kind of sickness. Those who seek to break free of food addiction are called "obsessed", "perfectionist", "orthorexic", etc. Ironically, it is true that we must temporarily allow matters concerning food to consume a disproportionate percentage of our energy in order to accomplish our long-term goal of having to devote little or no energy to it.

To further complicate matters, it turns out that all of us misinterpret unrelated physical symptoms as the signal that our bodies need food. It surprises most people to learn that a rumbling stomach, 'hunger pangs', lightheadedness, dizziness, weakness, headaches and the like are not hunger. They are signs that the body is attempting to physically recover from past abuses. They are actually signs that the body does not need food. These symptoms stop when we eat, and we mistakenly take this as evidence that what we felt really was hunger. The real reason these feelings stop when we eat, however, is because the body cannot heal and digest food at the same time. Further evidence that these feelings are not hunger comes from people who have gone without food for extended periods. Invariably it is reported that all of these symptoms go away on the second or third day of a fast. Thirst doesn't go away if we just wait a day or two. We don't feel more energized the longer we do without sleep and the symptoms of asphyxiation don't stop if we don't get oxygen, they get worse. The same goes for any other real bodily need.

The average person in our culture has 30-50 pounds of reserve fuel on his/her body. Considering that starvation is months away for most people, it defies logic to think that what we feel when we miss a meal is real hunger. Could it be possible that a body with 30-50 pounds of stored food really needs more food? Or does it make more sense that such a body is really in need of rest from digesting food? Additionally, it is only when our organs are distressed that they make us aware of their existence. The stomach is no exception. A growling, achy stomach is one that needs rest from food. Every time we respond to these feelings by eating, we're reinforcing the idea in our minds that what we felt was hunger. Do this 10,000 times and what you end up with are very firmly entrenched habits that can take years to change.

It's important that these habits be changed because the body can only truly use food when it needs food. To constantly eat when the body is actually telling us it doesn't need food is to invite disease. That's because in addition to eating the wrong foods, ingesting medicines, vaccines, herbs, supplements and other harmful substances, eating when our bodies can't use food overburdens our eliminative organs with more waste than they can handle. In addition, a previously abused digestive system that never gets the rest it needs from digestion will not be able to heal and will not function optimally, so food will never be fully utilized. Rather than being properly digested, food becomes waste that accumulates in the body. The eliminative organs become backlogged and waste constantly circulates in the bloodstream, irritating and inflaming tissues and wreaking havoc with the functionality of our organs. This is how disease is born.

There is nothing mysterious or magical about what we need to do to recover from food addiction. There are no self-help books to teach us special exercises, and none are needed. We need only recognize the truth in the information that is provided here, and begin replacing our bad habits with health-building ones. For one thing, we must start feeling our bad feelings rather than using food to make them go away. Each specific feeling or bodily sensation that we experience has a correct response that is equally specific. The appropriate response to boredom is not to eat but to find an activity that you find pleasurable. The appropriate response to stress is to find a quiet place to rest where you can lie down and think peaceful thoughts, or at least think about ways to make your life less stressful. The appropriate response to sadness is to write in a journal, meditate, or reflect on the thoughts which occasioned the feeling. The appropriate response to a growling, stomach is to do anything besides eat. The appropriate response to weakness is rest. Eating to re-stimulate yourself when you feel weakness guarantees the return of the weakness. The same goes for all the other signals that we confuse with hunger - lightheadedness, headache, spaciness, irritability, etc. Suppressing symptoms with food guarantees the return of the symptoms, in the same way that treating them with drugs does. It should be said that the extreme symptoms that are associated with "hypoglycemia" fall into the same category, although if a person suffers serious symptoms like fainting or near-fainting, s/he should eat as much and as frequently as necessary to stay functional during transition. As the body heals, these symptoms will be less pronounced. At the end of the healing process, which may take up to a few years, they will not be experienced at all.

Because of the excessive energy that digesting cooked foods requires, it is necessary that anyone wanting to recover from food addiction transition to a raw, biologically appropriate diet. Typically when raw fooders talk about food addiction, however, they are referring to cooked foods. It is important to recognize that it is quite possible to be 100% raw and addicted to food. In fact, most raw fooders are food addicts; they've simply replaced cooked food with a raw alternative. Even though these foods are healthier and will result in improvements in health overall, they are still regularly eaten for the wrong reasons. Food addiction is what causes raw fooders to perpetually retain bad habits like making complicated raw recipes, using condiments like vinegar and salt, overeating (defined simply as the act of eating in the absence of true hunger), eating too early in the morning or too late at night, etc. While these practices are fine during transition or even for a couple years, they invariably lead to symptoms because the body will continue to slowly heal on a raw food diet (even though these habits are being indulged), and it will become less tolerant of dietary mistakes. Raw fooders who suffer never-ending symptoms are confounded because they mistakenly think they are doing everything right. Food addiction is the one aspect of unhealthy living that seekers of optimal health commonly fail to address. This has led to the downfall of many an aspiring raw fooder. In fact, when raw fooders revert to eating cooked food, it is almost always food addiction that is to blame even though other reasons are commonly cited. Let's look at some of those reasons, since new raw fooders often hear them and worry that they may encounter the same problems:

1. "I was bored with the food"; "I got tired of only eating fruits and vegetables"

Anyone making this kind of statement has never learned to not seek entertainment from food. When one arrives at a place where eating is only done in response to true hunger and food is a source of pleasurable sustenance and nothing more, the issue of boredom or monotony is irrelevant.

2. "I was always hungry no matter how much I ate"

This person has obviously never realized that the feelings s/he was mistaking for hunger were instead the symptoms of cleansing. A person who doesn't see the healing process through to its natural conclusion will never experience real hunger, and will continue to experience symptoms that are commonly mistaken for hunger.

3. "My health began to fail"; "Raw food almost ruined my health", etc.

These reasons are cited by people who failed to understand that it is absolutely necessary that dietary improvements keep pace with healing. If a raw fooder continues to eat the same 'borderline' transition foods for years after transitioning, symptoms may be experienced as the body becomes more sensitive and less tolerant of abusive practices. Most often when symptoms are experienced after a person has been raw for awhile, the first possibility that is considered is nutrient deficiency, thanks to a good deal of brainwashing by the supplement and medical industries. Nutrient deficiency is a red herring. As raw fooders, one of the most important things we can do to ensure our success is put ideas of nutrient deficiency out of our minds. When raw fooders have symptoms, the most likely cause needs to be considered first, which is almost always the excesses that are indulged because of food addiction. People who never kick their need to be entertained by their food continue to make mistakes like eating complicated, poorly combined recipes, eating condiments and food flavorings like vinegar and salt, eating out of boredom or while under stress, etc. These practices all have deleterious effects on our health, and this will be experienced in the form of symptoms.

4. "My digestive system became very weak"

When people experience difficulty digesting less-than-optimal foods that they've had no problems with in the past, they assume that this is a sign of deterioration or disease, when actually it's the opposite. A healthy body is sensitive to and does not tolerate harmful substances. Imagine your digestive system as you would a callous on your hand. When the skin heals from the callous, it once again becomes tender and sensitive, but also vulnerable to irritation and blistering if the conditions that cause these reactions again present themselves. With the callous, your body gave up sensitivity for protection, and it's the same with your digestive system. The solution is not to go back to eating foods that irritate tissues and require our bodies to institute protective barriers, but to strictly avoid those foods and eat as optimally as possible. If a raw fooder believes that his/her digestive problems are due to deterioration rather than the sensitivity that comes with healing and increased vitality, it's easy to justify going back to cooked food, especially if his/her issues with food addiction remain unaddressed.

There are a few individuals who have conquered food addiction, and it is from these people that we can learn what lies ahead if we reach our goal of only eating in response to true hunger. Among other things, they can tell us what real hunger feels like, since very few of us have ever experienced it. Real hunger is described as a not-unpleasant sensation felt in the mouth and throat area, similar to mild thirst. It makes a great deal of sense that hunger would not be an unpleasant sensation, because we know that the body does not send urgent signals unless the problem is urgent. The symptoms that we always mistake for hunger may seem like a desperate cry for food, but this is really just our mind's habit of making it seem urgent so that we'll eat and thereby stop the uncomfortable feelings. The signals themselves are a desperate call from the body, but what is being called for is rest, not food.

I have been fortunate enough to meet two of the handful of people who have triumphed over food addiction, and I can tell you it is amazing and inspiring to see how it works. They can go all day without even thinking about food, then eat a big meal in the late afternoon or evening. They can eat one type of food only, and be totally satisfied. If food is not available, they can wait till the next day or even longer with absolutely no ill effects. They focus on activities, work, play, interaction with others, etc. -- not on entertaining or comforting themselves with food. This to me seems like such a worthy and liberating goal that it justifies every bit of effort it takes to reach it.

Of course, along with changing our bad mental habits, we must continue on our path of eating only foods that our bodies are biologically adapted for: primarily whole, ripe, fresh fruit, with the addition of tender green leafy vegetables in quantities driven by our desire for them, and nuts and seeds in small to moderate amounts. We must also gradually move away from stimulating foods and substances like garlic, spices, herbs, vinegar, salt and complicated combinations of foods, so we can get back in touch with the varying effects that individual foods have on our bodies. We must always strive to simplify and refine our diets so that what we eat doesn't give us bad feelings, and we won't be tempted to eat to make them go away. We should also try to avoid emotionally stressful situations because these may trigger binges and lack of control. Additionally, it is important to get enough rest and sleep so that we don't attempt to re-energize ourselves with food. Other things we can do to bring us closer to our goal are delaying eating in the morning (since our bodies do more cleansing and healing in the morning that at any other time of day), practicing going longer between meals, keeping our minds occupied with interesting work and staying active physically. Of course it goes without saying that clean water, sunshine, fresh air and all the other requisites of health should be attended to as well.

Resolving deeply entrenched mental habits is as important to our goal of reaching optimal health as the more obvious physiological work that our bodies must do to cleanse, heal and restore balance. This journey requires great patience and self-forgiveness. At the end of it, however, we can expect to have fully recovered our inborn ability to know precisely when and how much food our bodies need, and be able to respond accordingly.

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