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Some Thoughts on Junk Food & Covid-19

Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash

In Addiction: One Cause, One Solution, the book I co-wrote with Barbara Sarah Smith, we focused primarily on alcohol and drug addiction. We discussed the psycho-spiritual solution of recognising where our feelings come from and of learning to look within to our innate resources – wisdom, creativity, resilience – rather than seeking oblivion in drugs or alcohol. 

Since the Covid-19 epidemic began to unfold, I’ve been fascinated by another area of compulsive behaviour – addiction to junk food, and carbohydrates in particular. There seems to be overwhelming evidence that excessive consumption of these over time can lead to a massively increased health issues, including the risk of serious outcomes from Covid 19. [1]

Those with metabolic disorders including obesity can be 10 times more likely to experience serious symptoms. Equally worrying is that only a minority in the West are metabolically healthy. Perhaps less than 25% in the UK and even fewer in the US. [1]

This week I listened to professor of paediatrics, Dr Robert Lustig on a webinar explain the impact of diet on the immune system. He shared this chilling information about Covid-19: ‘You don’t die from the virus: you die from the inflammatory response in your lungs…ARDS….a cytokine storm.’ [2]

This was balanced by the good news that eating real food can reduce the cytokine response in as little as 2 weeks. 

The medicine and the bio-chemistry is above my pay grade and I’m following as an interested amateur, reading up on information that seems to be based on data.

What I’m far more familiar with is the internal struggle many people experience when they try to improve their diet. The failed resolutions, the overwhelming cravings, the self judgement and even self hatred. I’ve been there. I had many years of real struggle with food, periods of bulimia and I have never been able to stick to a diet for even a day. 

Today I would never be front-page-of-a-slimming-magazine material so it’s with some trepidation that I write this. Through discarding some of the common myths about food and a series of personal insights, I now have a much better relationship with food. The internal war is no longer present, and I seem to be reasonably fit and healthy. My resting heart rate is 63, I walk four or five miles each day, take no medication and my BP is normal. So, despite the lack of a ‘perfect’ body I’m daring to share some of the insights and changes that have been helpful to me. Perhaps some of them might help someone else. Each of us is different both physically and psychologically so take anything that helps and ignore the rest. 

The changes that helped me the most:

Not until my 40s did I realise that refined carbs, especially sugar, wheat, grains, potatoes and rice are addictive for me. They are more-ish in the short term. We tend to stop when we’ve had enough with chicken or fish. Yet it’s very easy to binge on a packet of sweets or a bag of crisps. It can feel almost impossible to stop. Through the endocrine system, a diet based largely on refined carbohydrates provokes speedy recurrence of extreme, almost irresistible, hunger in the medium term. I spent 2 decades of my life hungry all the time and battling internally, until I reduced my carbohydrate consumption. That constant hunger left almost overnight.

For many people, including me, breakfast is not only the least important meal of the day, but it can actually trigger the faulty off button. Short spells of fasting, especially if they are effortless, can be really good for the body. For years I forced myself to eat breakfast, believing the nonsense that it was essential. I would be ravenous by 11 after a bowl of ‘healthy’ porridge at 8. Initially I substituted nuts, cheese and full fat yoghurt. And now I find I’m not actually hungry until about noon. 

Never, ever, ever buy anything low fat or low calorie. At best the fat has been replaced by sugars. Or, even worse, by a cocktail of chemicals which over time can disregulate your immune system. 

Simple fats are good for you. Butter, olive oil, coconut oil fill you up and enable essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients to be absorbed. Manufactured fats such as margarine and trans fats are toxic in the long term. So I avoid them like the plague. 

Eat real food. Avoid anything with more than 5 ingredients on a box or packet. Avoid anything with ingredients you don’t recognise as food on the label. Get the good stuff in first, then it’s easier to avoid starting on the junk. Make delicious food packed with flavour, herbs and spices. If you were only to change one thing, do this. Eat real food. This one step can start you back on the path to health almost immediately, perhaps within a few days.

Eating real food makes it easier to align your bodily prompts with your psychological intentions. There is also a suggestion that highly processed foods, whether labelled ‘diet’ or not can, over time play havoc with bodily functions.

Shopping is key. Going after a meal, using a list, and shopping around the edge of the supermarket where the real food lives, leads to less giant packs of sweets in the house, and less temptation to binge! 

Recognise that cravings are made of thought. It doesn’t mean you can necessarily change them or switch them off at will, but because they are made of thought, they have the capacity to change. Fresh thought does come along. Habits and desires can change. Perhaps you have already stopped taking sugar in tea or smoking and now the old habit would disgust you. Changing your diet does not mean that you will live in a world of perpetual deprivation going forward. What is actually on offer is freedom.

Walking really is a panacea for all ills. A six pack may be created in the kitchen not the gym, but regular daily walking out of doors, keeps every system in the body moving, exposes you to Vitamin D and creates an opportunity to relax and listen to your inner voice. This opportunity for reflection and timeout is a powerful tool in reducing stress.

The power of insight. An insight is a realisation that can bring about an instant change. It’s more than simply absorbing information. One of mine was about the fact that a bar of chocolate did not have the power to change my feelings [except to the extent I falsely believed it could.]

Whatever is going on with your diet and your health at the moment, you are an extraordinary being, with the power to heal and change and create and respond. Appreciating those aspects of yourself and choosing not to engage with thoughts of self hatred and judgement, can make it easier to begin to eat for nourishment. 

If you would like some support with any of this, or a coaching call about anything at all, I am offering free 1 hour coaching sessions throughout May. You can book here:

https://calendly.com/christian-mcneill/free-sessions

References

[1]https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/article-of-the-week/covid-19-and-the-elephant-in-the-room/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

[2]  https://go.quitsugarsummit.com/quit_sugar_summit-registration-2020

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