This article is the second piece to my series on Conscious Eating: how to eat mindfully to reduce stress, lose weight and conquer the desire of emotional eating. My first article, The Art of Happy Eating, outlines the stress response and why we shouldn’t eat under stress. Today’s article focuses on the unconscious cycle that many of us go through when challenged with an on-going pattern of food craving.
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In her book, The Zen of Eating, Dr. Ronna Kabatznick describes the various dynamic stages of food craving. The cycle starts with subtle and elusive sensations that trigger a more and more concrete desire for emotionally-satisfying food. As we make our round through the cycle, we are suddenly struck with unconscious binging, and then finish it off with cruel and abusive thoughts about ourselves and our lack of self-control.
Stage 1 – The Set Up: In this initial stage, craving (and the triggers that set it off) is usually hard to read. Most of the time, we are unaware of any specific prompts when all of a sudden we find ourselves over-eating. Because of this, it’s quite important to develop attentiveness while in this initial phase. If we are tuned in to our bodies and emotions, we have the ability to stop the pattern pre-cycle before causing any damage.
Specific “set up” cues for over-eating are different for each person, but may include: 1. A subtle feeling of emotional emptiness, neediness or desire (at this point, the desire may not have anything to do with food); 2. Looking for “something”, or something else to do; 3. Opening the refrigerator; 4. Feeling “hungry” without actual hunger in the stomach; 5. A “pulling” sensation in the gut.
Stage 2 – The Great Debate: By this stage, any subtle feeling of desire has turned into a full blown craving. This phase may only last seconds or minutes. This is the point in which a debate will happen between what Kabatznick calls the “Inner Defender” and the “Inner Prosecutor”. The defender will make known all the reasons why it’s okay to go for the desired food: “You really need it this time”, “You always eat this way when you’re with so-and-so”, “You’ve been doing so good”… The defender’s argument will awaken the prosecutor, who’s job it is to sway the jury in the other direction: “You can’t eat that food”, “It will make you fat”, “It’s not good for you”… This stage sets up conflicting, confusing emotions, making it that much easier to jump right into the next stage.
Stage 3 – The Grab: This is the “Oh wow” moment when we’ve given in to what we’ve been waiting for. It is the moment of satisfaction, gratification and pleasure. The two most important things to note about this stage are that it is the epitome of the addiction process, and that it is the physically dangerous part of the cycle. When we go for the food we are craving, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine (Gurgevich, 2007). Dopamine generates a temporary sensation of reward, spilling “feel good” hormones into the blood. We get addicted to the good feelings (the reward) and will crave the foods that produce this learned response again and again. A vital component to understanding the addiction process is in knowing that it is the chemicals that we are craving, not just the food.
This phase can also be physically damaging. We are not only becoming more and more addicted to our own brain chemicals and the foods associated with them, but are now consuming more food more frequently. Unfortunately, addictive foods are usually refined, high fat, high sugar foods like chips, cookies, cakes, and French fries. Over consumption of these foods have been related to obesity, diabetes heart disease and other chronic diseases (PubMed, 2008).
Stage 4 – Judgment Day: After all is said and done, the “Inner Critic” steps in to blame, judge and feed us with abusive and destructive thoughts. Oftentimes, guilt is the main threat. What is noteworthy about this phase is that it is abusive, yes, but that it actually feeds the addictive process. From the high that was experienced with the release of dopamine in Stage 3 comes a natural crash in energy; this process is sometimes referred to as the “yo-yo effect”. Emotional self-battery brings us down even lower, which in turn creates the physical and emotional need for another high.
From here, we can see the obvious and natural progression in the cycle: starting all over from the beginning, winding our way through each step, and ending up back to the finish line… again and again and again. This is what is known as the “vicious cycle”, an addictive succession that never ends.
Simply having awareness of these stages, and knowing where we are right now in the craving cycle is the first step to ending the emotional eating pattern. Awareness practices include a lifetime of educated self-study and peaceful, non-judgmental observation.
The third part of this series on Conscious Eating (coming soon) will include helpful tools and antidotes for each of the stages in the cycle of craving, and general guidelines for creating a lifelong practice of mindful eating.