How would you describe the connection between food and mood? I attended a webinar last week on using nutrition to facilitate trauma healing. I haven’t had time to review studies on this subject so I won’t give you a specific regimen to check out or links to websites yet. What I will tell you is the message was powerful and visibly resonated with the audience. It’s the only time I’ve ever been in a Zoom call in which numerous participants wiped away tears as they listened.
The crux of the work involves noting sensations or emotions we experience (or are trying to avoid) at a moment when our bodies feel driven to seek stimulating or depressing foods. Are we attempting to pump up adrenaline or calm it down? What is underneath our desire to do this? Can we recognize eating habits we’ve developed to regulate fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses? What happens emotionally when we change our eating habits?
Why does any of this matter?
We know that a high percentage of people fail in attempts to follow a new diet regimen over a long period of time. This is true whether the diet is designed for weight loss or to avoid gluten. And it’s true in people who may be highly disciplined in every other area. Perhaps exploring what happens emotionally when we change our eating habits can give some insight that will lead to better approaches for lasting change.
What exactly would we explore?
The short answer is how food relates to us and how we relate to food.
We typically do this with a particular diet strategy in mind. We may be more successful over the long haul if we focus on rituals and culture and how food relates to feelings of safety or danger.
How can we discover that?
We can begin with habits – the foods we reach for regularly; times of day we reach for something; whether we tend to withhold food from ourselves, etc. Keeping a journal may be helpful.
What comes next?
Next, we can explore what we are feeling when we reach for the caffeine or chocolate or potato chips or fried chicken that we see regularly appearing in our journals. We can also record how we feel after we consume that food and how long the feeling lasts.
Looking at these patterns allows us to determine our relationship with food. Once we have a grasp of it, we can slowly build tolerance for feelings of uncertainty and danger that may result from changes in diet.
Why on earth would this work?
Food is a mood regulator. You can find plenty of scientific studies about the particular nutritional properties of food and how those relate to mood. In practicality, the specific properties don’t matter until the body is able to feel safe when we change our habits and rituals. This requires deliberately building a framework for safety.
For example, sugar is a stimulant. You can calm the body by limiting or removing it. When you do so, you’ll eliminate empty calories and lose weight. Easy, right?
The body adapts to threats using the tools it has available for regulation. One of those tools is food. Another is swallowing. It is normal for the body to resort to an adapted response that may no longer be needed.
If a dieter lived with constant stress as a child, a high level of adrenaline may feel normal or “safe.” That person may consume large amounts of stimulants – chocolate, candy, sweetened coffee drinks, sodas, dried fruit – or skip meals in order to feel normal. When a high level of stimulation feels normal or safe, removing it will cause a feeling of danger.
That means removing sugar from the diet can send the body into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. Because this is an adapted physiological response, it will not magically go away on its own.
But it is possible to develop a framework for healing that shifts our relationship with food over time. It is the change in the relationship that will allow us to use food to improve mood in a healthy, lasting way.
So here’s what I’m taking away from the webinar: If you have struggled with any kind of dietary change, you are not alone. If you’ve ever punished yourself for resorting to old habits, you can stop. Once you recognize your body is trying to protect you from something unbearable, you can stop fighting yourself. Once you stop fighting yourself, there’s more time and energy for realigning the relationship between food and mood.
All of this feels right to me with or without studies to support the specifics. I can’t wait to learn more about my own food and mood!
Here’s to exploration!