Monday, September 26, 2011

Comfort Food . . . Is it a Contradiction in Terms?

What is it about certain foods, or even the idea of certain foods, that makes them comfortable—and why should food be comfortable. Shouldn’t food’s main attribute be nutrition?

Here’s where it gets confusing. We choose what we eat for reasons sometimes that go far beyond nutrition. Sometimes we choose a certain food based upon our emotional state. We want something soothing, and . . . well, comforting, often something that reminds us of childhood or pleasant associations.

Think meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cheetos, french fries. Here’s the thing—what’s comfort food to you, might not be comforting at all to the next person you ask. But however you define your own comfort food, if you’re eating it due to stress, chances are you’re going to eat too much of it.

Studies have shown that comfort food can usually be categorized into one of four different patterns: Indulgence, physical, convenience and nostalgic. Different moods might impact which food pattern you turn to for comfort.

But it’s not only about comfort. There’s actually sound neuroscience behind some of the comfort food choices and decisions you make. 

Let’s start with salt, a staple of most comfort foods. Studies suggest that elevated levels of salt in the body lowers stress hormones and raises levels of oxytocin, a hormone involved in love and other social connections. Research (Eric G. Krause, et. al.), granted it was conducted in rats, found that the rats’ response to a stressful situation — being tied down — depended on how much salt they had in their bodies. When restrained, rats with high salt levels showed less activity in their brain’s stress systems, compared with rats with normal salt levels. 

What’s interesting is that rats with the elevated level of salts in their systems experienced lower stress hormones, and recovered faster from being stressed. 

These rats also exhibited elevated levels of oxytocin — that “love hormone.” Oxytocin is vital to the processes that allow love and social contact to reduce stress. Not surprisingly, rats with lots of oxytocin showed less anxiety in social interactions. 

Remember the last time you were in a bar, or a cocktail party? Remember the pretzels and salted nuts?  Did you know there’s a reason? Bartenders don’t just provide those free salty snacks out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re making the most of what having hypernatremia is most likely to make you feel—thirst.  And, the salt . . . stress relief. Those nuts and pretzels fit the comfort food bill.

Whether you care about the science behind it or not, recognizing why you turn to comfort foods at certain times can actually help you choose another, healthier choice for relief or consolation (such as deciding on a brisk walk to think about or work through what might be upsetting you as a positive substitution for what would ordinarily send you to the pantry or refrigerator for comfort).

We tend to carry a lot of emotional baggage around on why we make the choices we make. Food is a reward. It’s a gift. It’s a safe harbor. It can be our best friend, always there for us, no matter what. 

It can also be a very guilty pleasure. What starts out as comfort, for many of us can all too often end up as shame.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Very Good Place to Start is at the Very Beginning—or is it?

A very good place to start is at the very beginning—or is it? Seems like common sense. Thinking about beginnings leads to thinking about endings. Thinking about the ending leads to thinking about the process. Thinking about the process leads to thinking about what we’re after in the first place, and that takes us, in a round-about way, back to the beginning. Back to the top. (Now, as a distraction, look up the word opportunity.  It’s defined as “a chance for progress or advancement.” Keep that in mind.)

But, as for starting at the very beginning, what if for fun, we turn it around and think about the ending? If you cheat when reading a book and read the ending first, you know how it ends, but the case can be made that you don’t have the knowledge to know how or why it ends that way. You won’t know the how of how you got from the beginning to the end. Yet, when faced with making choices that affect lifestyle, wellness behaviors and well-being, knowing the how is even more important than knowing the beginning or the end result. It’s the how that becomes the process, and it’s the process that will reward your efforts. In essence, we’re looking at processes, not outcomes.

By starting at the ending, such as a goal you want to achieve, and working your way back to the beginning, you already have a competitive edge. You know where you plan to “end up.” And this in itself becomes a beginning—and a powerful motivator. As you work your way back to the beginning, you’re taking what you hope to achieve and creating a plan to do just that. That plan should take you to the place where it started, where you took that first step in the wrong direction. And, it should take you to a place where you make that mid-step adjustment and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the ending—and the beginning, and decide what you are going to do in the middle of the journey.

That’s where opportunity comes in—the chance for progress and advancement no matter where you are on the scale from beginning to end (or end to beginning). It’s really about reaching your wellness goals by moving on, in a positive direction, making positive choices along the way. So, shake it up a little, and think about what happens if you start at the ending. It might actually be a very good place to start.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Creating Change

Change happens, and it often happens whether you want it to or not—and it’s not always for the best—but it can be. Change also happens when we make it happen. Yet, so many of us are too often afraid to create change because we are afraid to fail. So, if you’ve lost confidence in your inner ability to create change—this post is for you!

Do you take your power or inspiration from external sources or from within yourself? Do you read and look at ads and commercials and think to yourself, “This is what I need; this is what I have to do; this is how I should look; this is who I want to be?” This is important, because you know yourself better than anyone else, and you are the one who should be in charge of what you want to change—not an outside source who tells you what and how you should do or be. It takes some thought, and it takes some time, and it takes resolve, but the results stay with you because you are the one who is in charge. And, you are the only one who can make it happen.

We know repeated behaviors eventually turn into habits. And we know improving willpower long-term requires commitment (drawing on our inner ability). We also know as individuals we never stay the same. But, to create change, we have to expand our zones of comfort. We have to develop those behaviors that turn into habits, and then we have to change them—it’s the habit of changing habits that builds inner confidence (that little, or loud voice that says, “Yes you can do this”).

Now, let’s take change and our ability to change, and apply it to our personal health and wellness (because after all, that’s what this Blog is about). 

Mindful choices made each day will result in steady changes leading to sustainable health and wellness. The effect is cumulative—and what we do—or don’t do, determines our success and our overall wellness. Imagine thinking of laying a foundation of wellness as you would think of breathing—in other words, not as a one-time choice but an automatic response and action. So, take a deep breath. Your values—and actions—speak to what is most important to you in life. Where is your focus? We suggest that rather than focusing on all the reasons for why not, or why you will fail, focus instead on all the reasons you will succeed. Keep in mind those things you do well and use those accomplishments to foster a sense of achievement.

Belief is the common element in all forms of achievement. When you believe in your ability to achieve, you are actually setting a goal, and your mind and actions take you where you need to go to reach that goal. When faced with a problem or situation you want to change, by creating change for yourself, you become the solution. The rewards are endless. That inner power can influence not only your health and wellness, but also those pieces in your life you might not even be aware you want or need to change. 

The takeaway—What do you think would happen if you put yourself in charge when it comes down to looking at your ability to create change? Hmm  . . . You might just become your own lifeline to your health and wellness decisions and choices.