What’s your relationship with food like? From the time I was around ten years old, and my aunt invited me to try my first “diet” with her (eating only grapes – we lasted around six hours), until just a few years ago, I was obsessed with food and the way that I looked. Even though most of that time I actually looked fine (in retrospect), I didn’t think I would ever be “good enough”.
I was recently interviewed about this issue as a panel expert on a talk show, and was floored when a beautiful panel member commented on-air that she’s felt awful about her body her entire life, even in her twenties, when she performed as a professional dancer! That illustrated to me, yet again, that the way we feel about our bodies, and ourselves, is an internal phenomenon that often has nothing to do with reality, or the wonderful version of “you” that so many other people see and appreciate.
The same goes for dieting. On the outside, we may try out some new weight loss fad, or promise ourselves that we’re going to stick to a new “diet”, but our enthusiasm disappears after a few days and we find ourselves right back in old habits. We fail because we don’t understand what’s really going on inside of us. We don’t understand our relationship to food, our ideas about weight loss, and why we can’t succeed with this goal. Most diet programs don’t properly address our behaviors and beliefs around food, and they also aren’t designed to be sustained for life.
From the age of ten through twenty, I dieted. At its worst, I counted calories all day and panicked if I couldn’t find a restaurant option that was “low fat”. I hit bottom the day I bought a sandwich at the deli at work. They didn’t have my usual whole wheat, and had to use multi-grain bread with sunflower seeds. I was so worried about the extra fat in the seeds, that I hid myself in a bathroom stall, and picked them out, one by one.
Shortly after, a friend who’d observed my worrisome behavior gave me the card of the dietitian that his sister, who suffered from anorexia, had been seeing. I’m convinced that he was sent into my life, just to give me that card.
The dietitian informed me that at the rate that I was exercising (long daily workouts), and given the minimal calories I was eating, I was sure to be hugely suppressing my metabolism , and actually making it more likely that I would gain weight, not lose it. She made me a bet that I will never forget:
“I want you to leave my office today, and eat whatever you want, whenever you want, but follow one rule. If you follow this, I bet you that you will not gain a pound and you will equalize out to your perfect weight. This is the rule: only eat when you’re truly hungry, and stop when you’re full”.
I only saw her one more time – to tell her that she’d been right. Today, I actually weigh slightly less than I did back then, seventeen years ago – and I rarely weigh myself. I don’t even own a scale.
Every now and then I “forget”, or more accurately, ignore, her rule (for example, on vacation), and my clothes start to get tight. Whenever I notice that, I start following the rule again, and go for a bit longer walks. That’s it, works like a charm.
I had to use the rule as a defense this Christmas season, in the face of over-indulgent holiday celebrations. These days, I don’t worry much about weight anymore, but I do know from multiple similar experiences that eating too much rich food, particularly white-flour-based foods, cheese, and chocolate, makes my face horribly puffy, ages me more quickly, makes me sluggish and irritable, and causes my skin to break out. Yet it still can be so hard to resist, or stop!
So many times in the past few weeks I would be sitting at a post-dinner table, feeling full and happy, but staring down a banquet of desserts and goodies. I would be so tempted, almost to the point of pain, to fill my plate with several of them and then go back for seconds. On multiple occasions, it helped so much to just stop, and consult my tummy. Was there really room for more? Was I truly still hungry? Each time, the honest answer was no. I wasn’t hungry, I was just feeling tempted, and wanted to greedily push my body over into the “totally stuffed” mode.
This recognizing of the true already-full state of my stomach helped me put on the brakes, and enabled me to wake up guilt-free the following morning, looking fresh and feeling great. Don’t get me wrong, I failed a few times, and the way I looked and felt after reminded me why the rule is such a great one!
The “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” rule is about consulting your tummy to see if you’re truly hungry, or if there’s truly room for more. Another essential tool to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is to be in touch with your reasons for wanting to eat. Like so many people, and maybe like you, I used to use food compulsively to make myself feel good. Why not? It did feel absolutely fantastic whenever I was sitting down with a fork, in front of a giant piece of chocolate cake. The problem was what came after, when the cake was gone. Guilt, shame, regret, sluggishness, allergies and other health problems – the list goes on.
There’s a funny thing about addictive, yummy foods, which is very similar to what alcoholics and drug addicts experience. When I crave something, my brain and body trick me by saying “come on, just this once”. Like this: “Why don’t you get into your car and drive to the grocery store and buy yourself a big tub of rocky road ice cream? It will feel so great. Come on, let’s go – we’ll do it JUST THIS ONCE, you really need it, today. You’ll feel so much better, and then we get back to our plans for healthy eating.”
That’s the lie: “just this once”. Because it doesn’t work that way. When you indulge yourself with foods that you crave, it’s almost guaranteed that your body and mind will crave them again, sooner and more forcefully than ever, often right the next day. Or, later that same day! The more junk food, or comfort food, you give your body, the more your body emotionally and physically wants it and will ask you for it again. This is very different from hunger.
I’m not saying that you don’t ever give yourself comfort food, but overall I’ve found it far more helpful to find non-addictive, healthier foods that I love and make me feel great, than to “treat” myself to the junk foods that I know will get me into trouble, the things that I “can’t just have one” of. There’s a sweet granola bar that I really enjoy, for example, but I’m done after just one. A package of chocolate chip cookies? I’d eat all of them in under an hour, and probably lick the bag. I know myself. Know yourself, and admit your weak spots: you’ll find it helps, so much.
Pay attention to the difference between the feeling of cravings (from boredom, stress, sadness, habit, comfort, etc.) and hunger. There’s a huge difference. Notice how no matter how much you promise yourself “just this once”, the craving soon comes right back.
The only way to make cravings go away is to interrupt them and shut them down by recognizing them as self-sabotaging feelings and impulses that don’t serve you at all. Do something else instead (call a friend, go for a walk, do something on your to-do list, pray and ask God for help – the last one’s a tried and true favorite that works really well for me), and the craving will pass. Wait until you’re truly hungry to eat something.
You’ll notice that the cravings get less and less, and when you do fail and indulge them (we all do), you will see how truly “empty” that promise of feeling good after turns out to be. You’ll also notice that the cravings come back harder, and with a vengeance.
I’ve found that this understanding of what’s going on for me physically and mentally has made all the difference in the world. I can’t let my body trick me anymore, as I know what it’s up to. I no longer feel that I can’t control my impulses and behavior around food. It’s a wonderful freedom, though it’s not always easy. The results, however, are fantastic, particularly when I see how so many other people suffer with their weight and food.
Make this the year you stop “battling” with food and your weight, and discover a joyful relationship instead, one in which you discover that eating healthy, and eating when you’re truly hungry, makes for a life full of energy, joy and health.