Sometimes we long for what is past, or long to connect to past experiences of love. This can arise in the form of sugar nostalgia.
Where does sugar nostalgia show up for you – when you pine for a certain sugary treat and all the emotions, feelings, tastes and memories that this food brings up for you?
Food can evoke memories, sensations, and emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant. The foods we feel aversive towards usually aren’t a problem – their very repulsion means that we don’t seek them. But if you obsess over certain foods or compulsively crave them – the most common is some form of sugar – you have a strong bond with them. You may find it hard to say no; you may find that no amount of sugar satisfies; you may find yourself constantly craving a favorite sugary food.
There’s a reason for this. We’re not merely rational creatures. We’re human beings, with a tender heart, feelings, and emotions.
Because of our emotions, human vulnerability, and our need for connection, we can form emotional attachments to certain foods, specific meals, a way of eating, and to special foods at certain times of the year (holidays, for example.)
I’ll give you three examples from my own life: Raspberries take me to childhood summers where I ate fresh berries from my back yard, when I felt light and carefree, held in warmth and joy.
Carob covered almonds remind me of the health food store I visited when my children were young, and brings back memories of tiny hands and feet and the connectedness I felt in the small town where I lived.
Apple pie is a tie to childhood holidays, those times when my Italian-Polish family would gather and I felt nestled in this large, loud beehive of community.
Eating these foods connects me to that time, to the people I love, and to these positive feelings of belonging, love and attachment. When my heart is craving these foods, what my heart is really craving is the emotions, feelings, and connection that these foods represent. What my heart is craving is presence, which is an experience of love.
Our emotional attachments to food aren’t wrong or bad – it’s part of our human nature to form emotional bonds with our world. Our attachments to certain foods, and the rituals we form around them, can be a primary way we sink into our humanity. They’re grounding and comforting, a way of helping ourselves feel rooted in the physical world.
But it is helpful to be conscious of these dynamics, to recognize how and when they move you. This is especially true if your emotional attachment to sugar is causing distress – if you feel compulsively driven by this attachment rather than consciously choosing to act upon it.
The key to softening food obsession is to recognize that the cravings arise from this emotional bond. It’s not just physiology (a physiological craving) that’s creating this desire for chocolate, or ice cream, or raspberries – it’s your heart.
When we compulsively crave or long for sugar, we tend to use logic or reason to change our behavior. We try to triumph over the heart and our emotions. We may reason with ourselves: “You know that ice cream makes you feel terrible when you eat it.”
“You know that eating candy makes you feel light headed and sick.”
“You know you always get a stomachache after you eat movie theater popcorn.”
We may yell at ourselves. We may threaten ourselves. We may try to bribe ourselves.
Oh, Ouch, these approaches are so painful to the heart. That’s because they deny, judge and invalidate our very humanity. They steamroll over the emotions and emotional bonds that drive us to seek out sugar.
Rather than going to your head – trying to argue your way out of your feelings – it’s much easier to make conscious choices with sugar when you work with these feelings. It’s also a much kinder way of relating to your own self.
You do this by opening the heart: by making room for your emotions and your tender humanity, and by mindfully recognizing what the sugar represents to you – the emotional needs that it fills in your heart.
Sugar nostalgia tends to point to three main needs or desires:
- Love and connection – as developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld teaches, our preeminent need as human beings is for attachment – contact and closeness in all its forms. None of us thrives without love or connection. The foods we crave often evoke feelings of connection, in all their forms – belonging, comfort, warmth, love, care, soothing, connectedness.
- Joy, freedom and unadultered pleasure – Children aren’t the only ones who need to play. Adults also need regular play – areas in our lives that are free from adult responsibilities; free from consequences; free from stress; free from judgment. We can find play in making art, in nature, in physical movement, and in our sexuality. And yes, we also find play in food – by trying new flavors and cuisines, by broadening our plate, and by enjoying treats – also known as dessert.
- Presence; being fully alive – One of the keys to healing a sugar compulsion is to feel more, not less. Our hearts want to feel fully alive. We long for it. We don’t want to live as emotional voyeurs. I often find that people substitute food for feeling; the food is the conduit for the emotion rather than the human being. The more we feel – the more we open ourselves to feel the full range of human emotion – the less we use food to express all that is within us.
What does your nostalgia for sugar evoke in you?
The next time you find yourself craving sugar or longing for a certain food, pause. Recognize that this is a message from your heart. See the longing for sugar as a symbol, a desire for something much deeper. Take a moment and breathe. Scan your body to see what your body is feeling. Scan your heart and see what emotions are arising in you. Feel them fully. Open to them. This is a sacred invitation to feel fully alive.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t or can’t eat the food you’re longing for. For years I cut out any food that triggered emotional cravings. (This became a very large list.) For years I looked at any sugary food – or any food I craved emotionally – as a sign that I should be strong and say no.
Oh, oh, ouch, what a painful way to eat – and live. My fight against these foods represented my fight against my own tender, heart; my fight against my own vulnerability. It was how I closed my heart against myself.
This doesn’t mean I eat whatever my mind craves. Far from it; in my experience, the more you feel your emotions, and the more you acknowledge these emotional bonds with food, the more empowered you are to make conscious choices about when you do or don’t eat sugar.
I greatly enjoy raspberries, and carob covered almonds and baked apples are a favorite treat. But I attempt to eat these foods with my full heart, not as a way to cover it up or shut it down. I hope that the food can be a doorway to presence, an acceptance of my vulnerability, not an attempt to flee from it.
At the same time, as I eat and enjoy these foods, I recognize that the food is just an object, a physical way of connecting to the emotion or feeling. It’s what gets my and your attention – but it isn’t the focus. No amount of food will truly satisfy the heart, for what the heart wants is something deeper: to open fully to the emotions underneath. Only emotional presence – being fully awake, being fully alive – can satisfy our longings, fill our hearts, and soften the compulsive obsession for sugar.
Wanting more hands on help?
If you have a painful, compulsive relationship with sugar, there’s a way to heal your sugar obsession so you’re no longer compulsively eating or bingeing on it – but the answer isn’t found in a perfect diet, will power, self control, behavior modification or even a sugar abstinence.
You heal a sugar compulsion by softening the heart, building emotional tolerance, by feeling cravings more, not less; through emotional honesty, and by healing the inner dynamics that drive the impulse to binge on sugar in the first place.
If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to join me for my course, Emerge: Create a New Habit. In this gentle, compassion based program, you’ll get 30 days of audio coaching to transform your relationship with sugar.