If, 20 years ago they had told me that my favorite comfort food was a health risk to me, I would replied, with my feisty ‘Britishness’, that they were 200% wrong. If they had told me as a kid, that the comfort my Nan brought to me with her “Sweetie Tin” would harm me, I would have sobbed. Unfortunately, the stark reality is we all have a nemesis that is sugar! Too much sugar is inflammatory to our bodies, but psychological footprints naturally tie us to this nemesis. It connects us to memories many of them from our childhood.
It was a bottle-green glass bowl that sat on my parents’ sideboard. It contained individually wrapped candies. At 3pm each day we were allowed to chose 2 pieces as a treat.
Every time my grandparents visited, they would arrive with a white paper bag full of candies, one each for my sister and me. When they moved to our street when I was 7, my Nan brought the sweetie tower. It had 3 compartments, yellow, orange and red. The yellow section was filled with my favorites, and the red with my sister’s. The orange contained my grandparents’ selection of Licorice Allsorts and Jelly Babies (sorry for the nostalgia kicking in for our British readers…)
My Nan, the minute we walked through her door, would direct you to the “sweeties” – ignoring any attempt I made to say no thank you with a, “Just one, Dear”. Promptly she would put the kettle on and make a cup of tea and break out the baking tin, full of jam tarts, macaroons, and rice crispy treats. As she gained in years and was less able to cook, these were replaced with Kit Kats and pink waffer treats. All of these would be served with a sweet cup of tea, and a heart to heart.
We could talk for hours, and often did. Nan was non-judgmental, filled with unconditional love and the sense of pride that any grandmother has for her grandchild. She supported me through many years of bullying at school and listened in a way that helped me believe in myself. She was my rock. If I turned up at 6pm. just before dinner, when my grandparents were having a, “quick sherry, Dear”, before dinner, this resulted in a mocktail for me. Typically this would be served with a cocktail cherry in the bottom, however as I got older Nan would have a sherry and I, an adult drink – plus, of course, the cocktail cherry!
I share these personal stories, to demonstrate how we connect with food, emotions and comfort…
As humans we have inherent preferences for sweet and salty flavors. Comfort food choices vary because people are influenced by individual psychological factors that result from life experiences, such as those I’ve just shared.
Studies have shown that women in the United States generally prefer sweet, snack-type foods. These studies demonstrate that, just like with me, this may be the result of pleasant feelings being associated with foods that were served as dessert, as the reward for eating dinner, or for happy occasions, such as parties or holidays. Men, on the other hand tend to prefer salty, meal-type foods – such as mashed potatoes. Research indicates that such these foods have positive connotations for men because they were lovingly prepared by their mothers and grandmothers.
In my time as a health coach, I have not met a single person who doesn’t have a comfort factor tied to food, or memories tied to specific foods.
But, it is important to consider that in 2017, our current food environment is different from that of distant human ancestors, whose survival depended on their tasting ability (e.g., bitterness might indicate presence of poison in foods, etc.). While being careful to not negate food shortages globally, it is common that we relate to food – not as a survival mechanism, but as a something that brings comfort to us. Our typical Standard Western diet has a foundation of processed foods which have been specially formulated to generate high sales, meaning that sweet and salty flavors are often paired with a generous helping of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which help to carry flavor. These foods aren’t healthful, and are geared towards being addictive. As a result, our bodies in the past 20 years or more have been programmed to crave such flavor combinations, especially when we are stressed, overwhelmed, socially disconnected, lonely or in pain.
Paleo brings us back to an ancestral diet template, encouraging a whole foods approach and encourages a wide variety of healthy veggies and limited sugar & healthy fats. The Autoimmune Protocol goes a step further to recognize that the diet is only one piece in this health puzzle, and that without work-life balance, stress management and healthy sleep habits, our bodies will not have the support necessary to heal. I myself have recognized that when my work-life balance is out of alignment, the food choices I make take a step away from the template. This is because I have less time to cook or prepare meals or batch cook. I also recognize that if I’m stressed out, as I have been recently, then I naturally crave sugary foods over salty foods, often caving in to their temptation at the end of a day as a reward for making it through!
You’ve eaten a nutrient dense diet all day, focusing on everything you know you can have. THEN, in walks the the villain – “The Crave Monster”! You are under siege. You open the fridge, scan the pantry hoping to beat your nemesis. You spy an AIP Muffin, a watermelon, some left over Paleo pancakes and you think “YES! I have found the answer. I can eat these. They are within the template, and I can beat, “The Crave Monster”!”…
Alas! You eat half a Watermelon or three AIP Muffins or a full stack of Paleo pancakes with maple syrup, thinking you are within the boundaries because they are AIP-approved or an AIP formulated recipe, but your arch nemesis wins as the increased volume of these AIP treats results in excessive sugar, leading in your own defeat. Crushing isn’t it!
It matters because, despite choosing these AIP-compliant options, the volume of consumption of these items will make a huge difference – even though we are consuming so-called natural sugars. Our bodies still process these natural sugars as a sugar, and too much sugar in any form is inflammatory!
Which means that we aren’t eating the Autoimmune Protocol anti-inflammatory diet!
This is something we ALL struggle with. I guarantee that there is not a single health coach, AIP blogger or AIP savvy nutritional consultant who can say that they haven’t had a similar battle with their arch nemesis – sugar! So, while we encourage you to recognize that occasional treats are OK, eating anything in volume will rob us from being successful on an anti-inflammatory diet.
One slice of watermelon, half a muffin, one pancake – are all examples of how we can still enjoy our treats yet stay within the bounds of the protocol