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cravingCravings happen so often, maybe even daily for many people.

Question is, do you recognise your body’s tell-tale warning sign for abnormally high stress levels?

Here’s an extreme example (also a personal experience of mine) that aptly highlights how stress heightens cravings:

 Having to complete a crazy load of assignments, readings and papers daily during uni days meant late nights which never failed to be accompanied by bingeing on high-fat, refined foods like cakes, bread, cookies, salty and deep-fried snacks like potato chips. While I didn’t like what I was doing to myself and wanted desperately to change this habit then, I was mysteriously compelled to stuff myself as though I absolutely had to in order to continue surviving through to the next moment. It was like my body was forcefully directing me towards these unhealthy foods even though I knew wasn’t the answer to my stress-related problems. 

And even then I knew my closet bingeing was not an issue of will power to resist unhealthy foods but a behavioral symptom manifesting out of the absurdly high stress level I was experiencing during that period.

Being such an extreme case of heightened stress, my experience might make it seem at first that food cravings are only related to extreme stress.

Actually, not exactly. Take a look at your eating habits:

stimulating food

Are refined foods already a regular part of your daily eating routine?

If they are, it is all the more easier for these cravings to slide under your radar since you’re ”not having them excessively”.

Let’s take a look at the usual suspects: sugary drinks and snacks (KOI bubble tea, gummi bears, chocolate-coated petzels sticks [Pocky – ever the darling of workplaces and lecture halls], M&Ms, Snickers, Mars bars, potato chips, Nougats, bread buns with all manner of fancy sugary and salty toppings, and the list goes on.

Often people seem utterly convinced such unhealthy choices are never a cause for action just because the habit appears to be a one-off rather than excessive behaviour. Heck, even eating refined foods as a snack during the ‘right time of the day’ such as 3 to 4 o’clock is lauded as entirely appropriate, normal and harmless just because ‘it is only a snack’.

Does that sound like a familiar tune you or those around you whistle to? At this point, you may still be wondering what’s wrong with simply snacking once or twice a day on refined food snacks.

But you’ll soon see why the tendency (no matter how small!) to eat refined foods is a more insidious sign of the stress you are afflicted by on a regular basis. Yes, your seemingly harmless tendencies are actually a sign of abnormal stress and it is known that high levels of accumulated stress precipitate a whole host of negative consequences.

Okay, well how can my eating habits be stress-related if I’m not exactly feeling stressed out at all? Where’s the link??

Many seem to understand stress predominantly in terms of psychological or mental stress and it’s easy to think that way because we tend to be more aware when we are stressed psychologically:

If you’re a student, you know what its like when your health seeps away after many a long night slogging away at that end-of-term paper. Maybe you begin feeling sluggish and lethargic even after sleeping an absurd number of hours. Or maybe you start to come down with the cold, becoming easily irritated at things that normally don’t bug you. Or if you’re working at a job you feel is too demanding, with long working hours and insufficient payoffs, with co-workers whom you don’t get along with, chances are you already know you’re stressed out.

The problem is the majority don’t always draw the connection between stress and TWO other key areas in their daily lives and allow symptoms of such stress to manifest unknowingly – diet and emotional well-being.

Nutritional and Emotional Stress

nutritional stress

Nutritional stress occurs when you’re not eating the foods that nourish, sustain and maintain bodily functions like a healthy body should. It means eating nutrient-poor, highly processed, refined foods as part and parcel of your life. Cells within your body work tirelessly to make sure you live on to the next moment, accomplishing vital tasks such as removing toxins and waste products of cell reactions, assembling nutrients to form new cells, making sure you don’t fall ill and have enough energy to carry out your daily activities.

In case ‘processed and refined foods’ is too vague a term to impress upon you, they are anything that don’t resemble the form of their natural ingredients.

Does bubble tea grow in the wild on trees? Perhaps we can pick Pocky sticks from Pocky bushes. You get the point.

On the other hand with whole, unrefined, plant foods, like a brown rice bowl with veggie stir-fry, I can tell by sight alone what the natural ingredients are. And eating unadulterated wholefoods is what provides you with all the vital macro and mico nutrients intact, exactly what your body needs to carry out optimal functions and greatly minimize nutritional stress.

On the other hand, emotional stress sounds straightforward but it really isn’t, especially when many don’t usually realise their seemingly trivial petty remarks/attitude/behaviour, emotional outbursts, nit-picking, complaining and overall discontentment with anything or everything regularly are really the cause of their overall stress levels. While it’s easy to see that crying buckets over the death of a beloved pet leaves you obviously exhausted and fatigued, again, the sources of emotional stress for most are always less extreme which allows stress to accumulate and negatively affect them for much longer and in the long term.

Why is it so important for you to learn about how the stress in your life influences your poor eating habits is because knowing enables YOU to be aware of the sources of stress that unknowingly tightly control your enjoyment and experience of life.

Knowing allows YOU to start making conscious decisions to change your eating outcomes. 

Responding to Cravings/Stress the Wrong Way

The sad truth is that most of the time how most people deal with cravings inevitably and ironically leads them towards more stress, which leads to stronger cravings and accumulates other long-term side effects from prolonged stress on the body.

The average person responds to cravings usually by succumbing to them, in a misguided attempt to quell the craving thinking ”Since I satisfied my craving, it won’t come back.”

When in fact the whole reason why your body develops a craving is to prompt YOU to quell the inherent and accumulated dissatisfaction/stress you’ve been experiencing daily, in whichever form it is. Ironically, every unwise food choice you make because of your cravings sets you up for even more stress and cravings down the road.

I’m sure you’re familiar with real-life case scenarios of adrenalin junkies and the continuous need for stimulation:

Like how many people need that coffee in the morning just to start the day, without which it becomes entirely impossible for them to be feel contented/alright/okay at that moment. Maybe your vice is something else, say chocolate, which you can’t seem to do without because of the feel-good serotonin it induces or the caffeine that makes you ultra-alert thereafter.

exhaustion

Problem is though, overrelying on stimulants like caffeine only taxes your body, heaping more stress upon it while numbing your ability to be aware of it. Regularly overconsuming caffeine, as you can imagine, overactivates the adrenal glands, flooding your bloodstream with adrenalin that continuously keeps you in active mode despite how tired, exhausted or unmotivated you actually are. This is a cause for worry especially when you find that you can’t function without these stimulants. First, when the adrenal glands become taxed through overstimulation, chronic adrenal fatigue is imminent — literally exhaustion, and symptoms like depression, poor skin, mental fog, increased cravings and increased susceptibility to diseases become an everyday reality.

Sources of Stimulation which Heighten Your Cravings

Is stimulation already an integral part of YOUR reality? Ask yourself:

“Am I already abusing something in order to stimulate my reality?

Obviously, caffeine and chocolate aren’t everybody’s choice of stimulant. But this is where things become less obvious yet all the more important because a lot of people don’t recognise the subtle forms of stimulants in their daily lives. Here are two common examples:

1. Perception of ‘tasty’ and ‘good food’

wow your tastebuds

Think about your perception of tasty food. Is your idea of ‘good’ food equivalent to the idea of stimulating tastes that must constantly wow you, be more-ish such that you can ‘never stop at one’? As much as we like to think good food tastes so good we can’t stop having it, foods like such (likely processed or contain high proportions of refined ingredients) are addictive because they contain exitoxins (I didn’t just make that up! They include MSG, artificial sweeteners, whey, food additives, bread dough conditioners) which lead to brain cell damage. Think about some common foods you feel you can’t do without. Maybe meat dishes taste so exciting you can’t fathom the thought of eating only balanced wholefoods plant-based meals, even though this same idea exposes you to developing symptoms of inflammation (sore throat , asthma, athritis, ulcers…) and chronic heart diseases.

This constant need for stimulation goes way beyond just what you eat. Trying to keep yourself stimulated/going/motivated goes down to even the most basic things. Again, knowing the sources of stimulation in your life helps you identify which source of stress you are having problems with.

2. Constantly searching for stimulation through entertainment

Do you find yourself constantly hooked to flashy TV shows, programmes with dramatic sound effects, heart-stopping suspense and fast-pace change of scenes? Is your preferred cuppa stimulation ramping up noisy music to drown out the sound of what’s bothering you? Do you restlessly seek out with the latest excitement such as new fads and/or frequently surround yourself with people of stimulating character/behaviour to convince yourself that your life is worth more?

It may sound crazy that your behaviour could be what’s actually causing most of your stress regularly, not the external things (like work and school assignments) you’d like to believe are the sources of your stress, but it is very likely. Choosing how to respond is your call and continuously following your cravings for unwholesome food, activities and attitudes could not be more destructive on yourself, no matter how small and trivial they seem at the moment.

Responding to Stress/Cravings in Ways that Help Minimise Them

nutritional stress

Imagine what you thought was a mere craving for certain kinds of food go on to impede your health, productivity and enjoyment of life just because you failed to pick up on your elevated stress levels. Remember, your daily choices reflect your potential cravings for stimulants, which is a sign of inherent stress (psychological, nutritional, emotional) that you ultimately can choose to deal with.

Especially when it involves simply making healthy eating choices to replace all the stimulating food that makes you crave even more of the stimulating, unhealthy stuff with heart-healthy, whole, unrefined, minimally processed plant foods. Not only will your cravings diminish when you work on minimising nutritional stress, the mental clarity and greater productivity you gain as a result will by far boost your talents, creativity and capabilities. Understand that some of the poor eating choices you make now, no matter how small, may escalate and end up impairing your ability to reach your personal goals. Not to mention make you feel worse and less and less like yourself.

In short, nipping the source of stress in the bud makes a ton of sense rather than riding the rollercoaster of symptoms aka continually give in to your cravings.

How to Minimise Nutritional Stress:

1. TRANSITION to a clean Plant-Based, Wholefoods diet

whole plant foods

Research proves time and again plant foods, notably wholefoods, are the most nutrient dense sources of food that not only provide clean fuel to get us through our daily lives and efficiently clean out our cells and digestive system, but also provide the most nutritional bang for our buck, costing much less than animal-derived products health-wise, economically and environmentally.

The keyword here though is transition. Change is a form of stress to the body, no matter how much satisfaction you may derive from cleaning up your diet. Making too many and drastic changes at once, like a complete overhaul, increases the likelihood you’d end up yoyo-ing back and forth from your original diet and worse, feel terrible about not being able to keep on track.

A very helpful tip I’ve seen many from the healthy, plant-based world talk about that will keep you from stress-overdrive while you try to make healthful changes is:

  • Don’t subtract from your diet in the beginning, just add more whole plant foods into your existing diet.

green smoothie

Some simple examples are adding a Green Smoothie to your breakfast routine, making sure you finish a large glass of it before you attack your toast or cereal. Or start your dinner with a large salad, or plant-based appetizer like hummus. Adding plant-based dishes to any meal is easy, involving only you make different choices, while still enjoying the taste of such tried-and-true dishes.

One more helpful tip of mine to ease the transition to a clean plant-based diet and make things even more effortless:

  • Keep yourself in a positive mindset of how easy this will be for you and actively search for delicious plant-based recipes online that are simple, practical, work for your tastebuds and daily schedule.

Google recipes II

You want to instil changes to your eating habits that are still meaningful to you. With Google, finding recipes that resonate with you is a breeze. Use keywords like ‘Easy Vegan Lunches”, ‘Vegan Sandwich Ideas’, ‘Vegan Soups No Stock Required’ depending on what your needs are, save recipes by pinning them to your Pinterest board and pull them up anytime you’re low on ideas. Many vegan blogs out there not only feature a wide array of tempting recipe photos making you spoilt for choice but also include meal plans which you can follow to help you better organise your new lifestyle before you get the hang of it.

Eventually, as you reap the gratifying benefits of improve mood, emotional outlook and physical well-being, your tastebuds also will change making it more intuitive, second nature, and best of all easier for you to constantly make the right choices. Cravings will greatly minimise as you overcome your unhealthy relationship with food.

4 Extra Tips for Minimising Overall Stress:

Rather than work on hard-to-change habits that appear the most challenging, streamline other parts of your life first which will help you boost confidence to tackle the larger stresses in your life. Some universal areas of stress can be easily avoided through simply committing to the following points.

1. Get enough SLEEP

sleep

Doesn’t take anyone too long to figure out not having enough sleep makes you drowsy, grumpy, less alert and moody (or even unusually high!) the next day. Ditch the tv shows and youtube vids for a change and get to bed early to avoid swinging up and down the emotional scale.

2. Keep yourself HYDRATED constantly with WATER

Google recipes

Cells in your body are always working round the clock, and the many chemical reactions that take place inside all need water, not to mention keeping your blood pressure at the right level and remove wastes from your digestive tract for optimal health. Not getting enough hinders the body’s functions and with it goes your health, digestion, skin, and mood. Always drink more water 30 minutes before meals and make special efforts especially during cold weather when you’re more likely to under-hydrate. Because cooked food in general contains much less water than raw and whole plant foods, you need to hydrate your digestive system beforehand for a smoother, problem-free digestion.

3. Be MINDFUL of what’s going on in the bigger picture

mindful

The tendency is to get caught up in our initial emotional reactions to issues and ride on them without first pausing and questioning why we develop such reactions to trivial things. Being unaware only keeps you in the cycle of stress and stimulation as you constantly fuel your emotional high. Rather than blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, observe a pause first, going through the reasons why someone did or say something and then the reasons why you feel this way. Take deep breaths at the same time and if your emotion is a negative onegive yourself the permission to release it without harming yourself or others present. Just pausing to observe your thoughts and emotions, though seemingly small and trivial, radically helps you becomes less emotionally charged easily, increasing your tolerance to stress, and helps you beat emotional stress that can drain you of motivation.

4. Drop the GUILT and the BLAME GAMEguilt

With so many experts telling people how to do something the right way and ever-increasing societal demands to be a good ‘parent’, ‘son/daughter’, ‘friend’, or even how to lead the ideal life, its not surprisingly you’d be more than likely to have your share of guilty moments and never feeling good enough in some way. Being aware of the cultural perceptions you subscribe to and then comparing them to how they give credit to or undercredit your individual strengths, quirks and traits will really help you realise your self-worth and become more accepting of yourself.

Similarly, with the fast-pace of living today when we’ve come to expect instant results most of the time, understand that lasting and meaningful changes take time to instil and need to be worked upon as a constant practice rather than a one off thing. If you fail the first few times, no big deal, Rome wasn’t built in a day 😉 Relax, keep calm, remain guilt-free, acknowledge your effort to do good and work at your next plan-of-action in your own time.

5. Keep working at KNOWING and ACCEPTING YOURSELF

accept

Many times people get worked up and suffer from their heightened emotions simply because of their character. You have your own priorities, values and beliefs meaning what you hold as important to yourself is going to be different from others. This creates a gap which can become a ground for disagreement, even arguments.

Commonly, a lot of emphasis is placed on self-sacrificing and accepting the differences of others.

But before that can even take place, you must know and accept yourself for who you are. Knowing what is important to you instead of brushing these reasons aside at the expense of remaining cordial to others will help you maintain awareness of the situation and avoid emotionally stressful responses outwardly and inwardly at the same time.

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