Thursday, November 14, 2013

Giving...and Getting. And, Food Signals?

With Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s fast-approaching, it’s probably natural that we occasionally think of giving and getting. It is, after all, that time of year. But, have you ever considered the “Giving and Getting” side of food signals? Now is a great time to give it some thought because those signals are all around us.

Let’s start with an obvious seasonal signal—that plate of cookies many of us leave out for Santa (who obviously doesn’t need cookies but we want Santa to be comfortable). We bake cookies for friends, and receive cookies and candies from friends. Face it, food is on our minds. (Make a mental note when you’re out shopping to notice the number of restaurants touting “All You Can Eat.”)

But, in real life, the holidays, and the rest of the year, are not about all you can eat. Where food is concerned, we think the focus should be on the why, what and how much you eat.

In a logical world, we should be eating for nutrition and to satisfy true hunger. Babies know this. When they’re hungry they cry. We feed them. When they’ve had enough, they stop eating. As we grow up, we get distracted by food signals, and those distractions lead us away from what we did naturally as babies.

Food is everywhere. It’s hard to escape it. And, because it’s all around us, many of us find we’re almost always eating—sometimes just a bite of something that looks good, sometimes a big meal, and often more than we need or really want. We tend to eat mindlessly, sitting at our desks, in front of the TV, in the car, and as a result, we don’t pay attention to how much we’re eating or whether we’re even hungry. Do you think the Cinnabon smell that permeates the food court at the mall is an accident?

We tend to eat too fast—even when we’re not in a hurry. This doesn’t allow time for our bodies to receive the “full” or satiety signal. Have you ever finished a meal, and realized you barely tasted what you just ate? Have you ever looked at your desk and wondered where those four little bite-size fun bars went?

And we tend to eat when we feel stressed—and at this time of the year we all feel a little, or a lot of stress. In your heart of hearts, you already know there are other, more productive ways to deal with stress. Ask yourself, why are you eating . . . does the food comfort you? Do you eat to celebrate? Are you eating because everyone else is eating? Are you really about to starve to death?  Probably not.

We also tend to eat too much. While this is not news, it’s also not all our fault. We’re served larger servings at restaurants—in fact we’d probably complain if we were served an actual recommended portion. And, did you know there’s science behind why we sometimes eat too much? A study by the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas finds that foods high in fat (such as a hamburger) actually tell your brain to “keep eating.” The study points out that your brain chemistry can change in a short period of time, meaning that when your brain gets “hit” with the fatty acids, you can become resistant to the hormones insulin and leptin. In other words, your brain isn’t being told to stop eating. In addition, those foods highest in fat are the foods that cause us to eat more—beef, butter, cheese and milk. Take a look at the ingredients in your favorite junk food—see anything there you might want to avoid?

Now, what happens if we decide to get back in touch with what we eat, and why we’re eating it? What if we’re on the lookout for what all those food signals really mean? Which of them are in our own best interests rather than adding to some fast food chain’s burger count? And while we’re at it, think what we could do for our collective health and well-being if along with becoming aware of the food signals we get, we all began to pay a little closer attention to the food signals we give others.

The food signals aren’t going to go away—the catch is learning to listen to them—and then paying attention to where they direct us. It’s not always where we want to, or should go. But, isn't that up to us?