I invite you to picture in your mind a classic late 20th century office complex; a big room with fluorescent lights, rows of square cubicles and stale air; the smell of weak coffee in styrofoam cups and the soft buzzing whirl of hard drives and printers; offgasing gray-blue carpets and upholstered chairs on plastic wheels. Mixed in with all this sensory input—the ubiquitous jar of M&Ms.
This M&M jar would just sit there, hour upon hour, calling on people to have one; daring them not to overindulge. A few workers would proudly resist, but for most, the pull was too strong and the jar would be empty by the end of the day.
Why were those M&M’s so hard to resist? Sitting for hours at a desk does not require much caloric intake. The bright colors and taste of sugar are compelling but I think the underlying desire to indulge stems from something deeper than the visual and olfactory stimulation.
Based on anecdotal observations, I’ve concluded that many of us crave sweet or salty high caloric foods much more when we are physically inactive or bored than when we are physically or mentally active.
A short story to illustrate: My high school soccer games were played on a field adjacent to a doughnut shop. When we had night games, the crisp air was saturated with the aroma the of doughnuts being prepared for the next morning. After all that running, sweating and deep breathing, the thought of a doughnut was nauseating. However, when I rode past that shop on the bus after sitting all day at school, my mouth salivated for a sweet doughnut.
While my body was in a calorie deficit after the game I had no desire to eat high calorie sweet dough. However, when sitting on a long and boring bus ride, my body craved the sugar even if my stomach was full.
What is the cause of this seemingly paradoxical reaction? Why might our bodies crave something that we don’t ostensibly need?
Two complementary practices, Yoga and Z-Health, have provided me frameworks for understanding this conundrum.
From a yogic perspective, the concept of prana can help to explain the reason for these cravings. Prana is best described as energy, the life force or the vital principle of life. Many people equate it with chi. In yogic tradition, all organic entities, including food, contain prana. We bring prana into the body when we breathe and when we eat. In order for us to stay alive and be vital, we need to experience the flow of prana. When prana is flowing correctly, the body experiences a sense of harmony. Pranayama, a companion of asana (postural yoga) focuses on moving prana through breathing practices.
When we sit for long hours in a stale office—especially when doing mundane tasks—the prana stagnates. This often leads to a state of inertia where it’s very hard to get up and move. In these moments, the body often experiences a strong and immediate instinct to bring prana into the body in any form. We choose the M&Ms because it’s much easier to bring prana into our body through a quick sugar fix than to get up and move.
Z Health’s neurologically-based approach to health uses the needs of the brain to explain the pull of the M&M’s. This neuro-centric model recognizes that our brains need input to survive. This input comes from two main sources: fuel and activation. The most easily accessible forms of fuel are oxygen, which the body receives by breathing, and glucose, which the body receives through eating. Both give the body the molecules it needs for sustenance. Physical movement and intellectual stimulation are the most basic forms of activation. This activation gives messages to the brain, which causes neurons to either excite or inhibit. Neurons die when they don’t receive such messages.
The primary task of the brain is to survive in the present moment. The most primal parts of our brain (sometimes known as the lizard brain) try to keep the entire organism alive with a minimal amount of resources. When we are sitting in a cubicle in stale air, our brains are craving additional input. Even though we may not need the calories and it would be more beneficial for our long-term health to breathe more deeply and get up and go for a walk, we are driven by the brain’s pressing desire for input. In the immediate moment it’s much easier to stimulate the brain by grabbing a few M&Ms than it is to push past the inertia of chair sitting.
I’m not advocating total abstinence of M&M’s. Sometimes eating candy is a delightful and joyful experience. The problem is when it becomes unconscious and/or habitual.
The impetus to eat the M&Ms after sitting in a bland environment for a long time can be strong. It may even feel like an uncontrollable need. The pranic and the Z-health models are useful tools that provide insight into these primal feelings and enhance our ability to observe our feelings and sensations before acting on them. This, in turn, empowers us to make more conscious and choices.
Here’s a suggestion: Next time you are craving a handful of M&Ms, take a moment to exhale. Then, find a small bouncy ball, grab some of the candy and play a quick game of jacks. You’ll get the prana flowing and your brain well-stimulated.