The Unmatched Pleasure of Eating Your Feelings When You've Done the Cooking Yourself

This is what happened when I started baking all my desserts.

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Sep 12 2018, 3:32pm

During my first important post-college internship, I got into the routine of picking up a vegan chocolate chip cookie at Whole Foods each day on my walk home. I was living in a different city, feeling isolated, and overwhelmed with imposter syndrome. That sweet treat, with its melty chocolate chips and crunchy edges, was the little burst of happiness I needed.

But soon, it became a habit. I craved the sugar, but didn’t get much from the experience. And when I finally looked up the nutritional value: Yikes. It could have been worse, but I discovered it had 50 grams of fat per cookie because of a whole bunch of coconut oil it was made with. It also had 15 grams of added sugar. Again, not the worst treat in the world. Completely fine for an occasional indulgence, but I was eating this cookie every. Day.

I’ve often turned to sugar for emotional comfort, even though I actually don’t have that big of a sweet tooth. I use it for the way the sugar affects my brain: I feel instantly happier, more alert, more awake. This is because sugar activates your brain’s reward center, or the mesolimbic pathway.

“When we do something pleasurable, a bundle of neurons called the ventral tegmental area uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to signal to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens,” Penn State University neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis wrote in 2013. “The connection between the nucleus accumbens and our prefrontal cortex dictates our motor movement, such as deciding whether or not to taking another bite of that delicious chocolate cake. The prefrontal cortex also activates hormones that tell our body: ‘Hey, this cake is really good. And I’m going to remember that for the future.’”

That dopamine surge feels pretty good when you’re anxious or depressed. But the sugar high doesn't last. And there’s a difference between eating a dessert because you want to, and using it to feel that pop of good emotions. I was yearning for some way to keep desserts in my life, eliminating any mindless or compulsive eating, but not turning to restriction (which often leads to more binging).

Recently, I talked to gynecologist Jen Gunter about something completely unrelated to desserts. We chatted about Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's health empire, which Gunter is well known for calling out on its shady science on her blog and on Twitter. We slipped into talking about nutrition, and she mentioned that she and her family only eat bread that they make themselves. Shortly after I stole her idea (sorry, Jen).

I tried the same when it comes to sweets: I eat dessert as much as I want, but only if I bake it myself. (By the way, this is not a super strict rule. Attempts to alleviate anxiety-driven behavior must be flexible, lest they cause more anxiety.)

The results have been delightful, both culinary and mental. Instead of feeling the need for sugar and buying the first thing I see, I instead, go home and get out my measuring cups. Though I love improvisational cooking, the exactness of baking is its own catharsis. You have to measure precisely, separate dry and wet, set your oven at specific temperatures and times, and kneading— oh the kneading—is such a great release.

There’s the waiting. The smell that slowly fills up the room until you can’t remember what your kitchen was like without that smell. And then, the reward. You pull out your hard-earned cake or scones or cookies, and take that illicit bite before it’s had time to cool. It burns your tongue, but then melts into a sugary bliss. It's so much better than picking up a cold cookie from the Whole Foods bin.

Michael Pollan wrote in his book Cooked that, “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” I try to do the same when baking. I focus on the ingredients and the process, and enjoy the few minutes of an unbothered brain, free from a barrage of worries. That in itself calms me down, and by the time the dessert is done cooking, I may not need it for emotional comfort any longer. “I found that, much like gardening, most cooking manages to be agreeably absorbing without being too demanding intellectually," Pollan writes. "It leaves plenty of mental space for daydreaming and reflection.”

And health wise (to be clear, desserts don’t need to be healthy, but they can be!) you always eat better when you cook for yourself. When you buy a box of cookies at the store from a major brand, they don’t care about what you put into your body. They’ll pack unnecessary amounts of sugars and fats to get you coming back for more.

What I learned making my own treats is that when you visualize how much four cups of sugar really is, you’ll have a hard time putting it into the mixing bowl. (And I’ve never needed to add things like high fructose corn syrup, or palm oil, or RED40.)

I’ve experimented with making treats that are sweetened only with dates and dark chocolate chips, or made creamy with chickpeas (yes, chickpeas) and avocado. I make “regular” dessert too, but there was an chocolate avocado mousse tart with aquafaba (chickpea brine) whip cream that once stole the show, and taught me how amazing healthy-ish desserts can be. There’s something awesome about indulging and knowing that you’re not putting crap into your body at the same time.

I caught up with Gunter over email about her bread habits, and found we had really similar attitudes about the DIY process. “I don't believe that carbs are evil or that any food, with the exception of trans fats, is evil,” she says. “I do believe, in our Western industrialized society, we have issues with portion control and too much added sugar.”

The average American is eating nearly 66 pounds of added sugar every year, making the average intake about 76.7 grams per day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men.

But Gunter also says that she thinks telling her family that they “can’t” have a food is pointless. (Just like telling myself I’m not allowed to have dessert won’t work either.) It doesn’t teach you how to make healthy food choices in the real world, and restriction can be fodder for disordered eating. That’s when she decided to enact the “only homemade bread rule,” she says.

“I don't put any sugar in the everyday bread,” she says. “It tastes far better than anything else, and there is no denial. If we want bread, we can have it. We just have to make it.”

Her go-to bread is the Mark Bittman no-knead recipe, which proves you can be super busy and still make bread; no full day projects here. She also makes biscuits, soft pretzels, and challah bread. Gunter’s commentary in the wellness world is so important, but I tell her if she ever gets tired of medicine, I’ll be first in line at her bakery. Check out this pretzel:

Deliciousness courtesy of Jen Gunter

But I think the important bit is what she says happened as a result of her new rule. “Now my kids and I dislike the taste of store bought bread," she tells me. "Overall we eat less bread, but when we do, we thoroughly enjoy it and when it's gone, it's gone."

I found the same thing happened to me with super sugary, fatty desserts. Sure, I’ll have one now and then. But I prefer the taste of homemade, the process, the reward, and knowing that the treat I’m using to indulge with is also nurturing me in some way (or at least not hurting me over time). I also don't compulsively eat them as much. When I make them I have them, when I don't make them, I don't.

Gunter says no one in her family has lost weight from them switching to homemade bread, and I don’t think that’s the goal here. She says that seven years ago she lost 60 pounds, and it’s been a good way to keep the weight off, but still enjoy food and not pass on any food behavior issues to her kids. I didn’t lose weight switching from Whole Foods cookies to homemade spelt cookies or chickpea blondies. What I have gained instead is an appreciation for the process and for the well-rounded experience of cooking and eating.

"When you make homemade bread all the time it loses that ' I must eat it all because it's so good' aspect," Gunter says. "The first few loaves we scarfed but now it is just, well, food.”

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