Friday, June 29, 2012

Confessions of a comfort eater

Here instead of any exercise news (or other rambling) is a short reflection on eating habits and change.

It takes some time to see things for what they are, in many cases a very very long time. Something in that slowness to appreciate particular facets of our lives is very commonly human, both good aspects as well as the bad. Thus it took a long while for me to see that comfort eating has been for me a way of dealing with certain pressures, anxieties, or periods of stress. Through reflection upon my time pursuing my PhD I noted that I would frequent the coffee shop or vending machines almost as often as you should get up and walk around during long periods at a desk. I had my favourite food stuffs that I would collect, eat in a manner close to inhalation and then return to work 'feeling' better. Now if you read or follow much in the way of food / diet literature you will know that the things going on as a result physically are not good, but of course mentally / psychologically things are perhaps worse.

"I remember one particular day I went to down to the departmental cafe almost every hour through out the working day. There was a heady combination of home and PhD work stress that left me feeling claustrophobic and unsettled. The relief was comfort food and I put away a hot cheese sandwich, a bar of chocolate and a carbonated sugary caffeinated drink at each visit.
Even as I was doing it I could see myself (almost as a stranger viewing my activity) walking the same route up and down to the source of the 'comfort'. Alarm bells were ringing in my head but it was too distracted to listen."
That I ate for comfort can be simply laid off as "oh, I have a bad diet", that mentally I ate for comfort led into a cycle of chemical rewards that my brain lapped up. It was not that my stomach was full that made me feel better, it was the neurochemical reward of having taken action that was fueling me feeling better. All too often I would be back at the vending machine less than an hour later with a full stomach seeking that neurochemical 'brain buzz' of another snack. I could make a very real effort at the science here, as I have worked with colleagues who study reward behaviour and so forth as neuroscientists, but I will step away from all of that and keep this in as plain a language as I can. So in a nutshell, as my PhD progressed I became more and more addicted to the neurochemical high related to having eaten (having rewarded myself).

This spiral, over the period of almost four years, could be explained away as natural by some "oh, you were so busy you didn't look out for yourself", "well a PhD is tough and took so much of your time no wonder", and so on. It was nothing more than a simple pattern that I feel into that I did not see as a problem facet of my life until quite some time after I had finished my studies. The period I am referring to coincided with the heaviest I have ever weighed, and that statement would probably not surprise anyone. That I experienced a simple self-discovery in one week that began to break the cycles might surprise one or two. In the course of one ski holiday I saw myself through my own eyes as something I didn't want to be, and in that short period knew why it had happened (I have made massive changes to my eating and body since then, much of which is somewhat articulated in this blog). I feel that I have to point that the turning point came whilst I was still comfort eating, it took several more months to gather and put together repair strategies.

So there we are I confess I was a comfort eater, ah but no no no wait... I am still a comfort eater, those feelings of reward, that sensitivity to the neurochemical buzz are still there. I 'wired' them into my brain over 4 years in my twenties, it is taking time to undo some of that handy work. That I stopped the bad habits after my epiphany phase was fantastic and perhaps created replacement 'buzzes', but I have to look at myself fairly regularly to ensure this facet of my former self is not restoring itself. Of course I have occasion to go to a vending machine or coffee shop and think "yeah, I'll grab one of those" when actually I don't need the calories, but these are fairly rare. During times of anxiety I find myself in those moments more often thinking about that 'fix' when I have already had a full meal, and I know what it is - I can see it as that mechanism to 'feeling' better. Some times I cave here or there though happily with not enough regularity to do any harm.

Time post-realisation, of course  coupled with better mechanisms of coping with stresses that appear in my life, is diminishing the desire for that buzz. I have moved in the direction that leads away from abusing comfort food (although having written that I can not deny that a food that makes you feel comforted now and then is an important part of any diet). Friends, family, and colleagues would have seen my bad period of over eating, some undoubtedly tried to push me in better directions, but it was not until I saw what I was doing that I could make changes. Reflection on our own motivations and the facets of our lives I believe are most often the biggest single piece in the "being healthy" puzzle. Without the outcomes of my own reflection I would perhaps be blogging about my life as a morbidly obese man (with all health issues that can entail) rather than a relatively healthy man engaging with sport and life where he can.

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