“I can’t control what I eat,” said my new coaching client, a busy working mom with two active young boys. “I’ve been like this my whole adult life. When it comes to food, I turn into a raving fat, salt and sugar fiend. I just can’t stop. I’m ashamed to even tell you where I buy dinner most nights.”
I’ve heard this story so many times. I’m very fortunate to be a life coach who also happens to be a medical doctor (with an additional degree in Dietetics), not to mention I’ve been through my own share of food struggles.
I have yet to work with a client whose food behaviors were truly out of control, despite what they might believe about themselves (and obviously I’m discussing the average person’s experience here, versus someone with a severe food disorder such as bulimia or anorexia). Yes, to these women their behaviors looked and felt like they were out of control, but there wasn’t anything “special” or uniquely pathological about the person’s relationship to food. We didn’t need to spend hours delving into their history or childhood traumas around food, or resorting to elaborate rituals to try to heal their relationship to it etc. My clients usually do eventually make peace with food, and no longer feel helpless about their choices, but it’s for much simpler reasons.
I’ve found that in the vast majority of cases I have been able to help women recover a sense of joy and manageability over their eating by addressing the following key areas:
1) What are you eating for breakfast?
Most women I work with experience “problem” eating behavior (e.g. wolfing down a giant fast food meal, polishing off a tub of ice cream, eating all the chocolate bars their child was supposed to sell for charity) in the evening. Instead of spending a lot of time first trying to determine emotional reasons for their food choices, I first try to see if they are eating properly throughout the day. Most of them aren’t. And most aren’t having breakfast.
Eating a solid breakfast, ideally with some fat and protein and carbohydrates (instead of just mostly carbohydrates) will naturally curb your eating throughout the day and is associated with successful, sustained weight loss.
It also gives you the emotional and mental boost and endurance you need to cope with work and stress. As a result, it’s way less likely you’ll start grabbing unhealthy snacks because you’re either starving or stressed (or both!). One of my clients couldn’t believe the difference a proper breakfast made to her previously “crazy” eating habits.
2) What are you eating for lunch?
One of my clients who struggled with mid-afternoon and evening binging told me she usually had a salad with grilled chicken for lunch. I’m a fan of both salad and grilled chicken but there aren’t any carbohydrates or much fat (she would dip her fork in a small amount of light dressing on the side). Again, we need to eat to fuel ourselves properly. A proper mid-day meal has protein, fat and carbohydrate in it. It will keep your blood sugar up, keep you going and make you far less likely to desperately grab a chocolate bar when 3 pm hits.
Bottom line: if you do nothing but eat salads and carrot sticks and other low-fat low-carb healthy foods all day, it’s perfectly understandable that you’ll turn into a wild woman at the sight of a fast food menu. Doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with you at all.
3) Fat is your friend: do not be afraid of it
It’s very ironic: women who have dieted most of their lives (like many of my clients) have an almost phobic fear of fat, yet when they “lose control” they’ll eat all sorts of things like French fries, candy bars, ice cream, and chips without the slightest glance at the fat content stated on the label. As I’ve mentioned above, what ends up happening is that during the day while they’re trying to be “good”, they eat things like a bagel with jam (no fat, almost no protein) to get them through their day. No wonder they crave fatty, rich foods later in the evening.
Leverage healthy fats in your life, particularly in your daytime choices. Enjoy omega-3 poached eggs for breakfast (contain protein and good fats), and drizzle olive oil on your salads (and make sure you also have protein with the salad like fish or chicken, as well as a healthy carbohydrate like some whole grain bread). Snack on nuts (high protein and good fats) – do you know that research actually shows that people who eat nuts will often lose weight? It’s almost like the fat “doesn’t count” (in moderation, of course)
Some people after years of fad dieting are also afraid of carbohydrates. Don’t be – your body needs them. Yes, you want to maximize fiber and minimize high-glycemic “white” foods, but you still need carbohydrates. Period.
4) Trust your body and learn to listen to healthy cues
Most of the women I work with disconnected from their bodies a long time ago. The ones who skip breakfast claim they don’t feel hungry, even though underneath their body must be ravenous (and at some point just gave up on trying to get them to eat). I encourage them to eat when they are hungry (not craving something because they’re bored or stressed) and to stop when they feel full. A dietitian taught me this decades ago, and it has made all the difference to my relationship with food.
5) Give yourself other options
One of my clients routinely went to a famous fast food restaurant on the way home from work, because she was starving. Initially I didn’t try to get her to stop eating out (extreme changes almost never stick), but instead asked her if there were any other places she liked which were a healthier option. She told me about a sandwich-focused chain which she also enjoyed, and discovered it wasn’t that hard at all to just go there instead. She saved literally thousands of calories in the two weeks before her next coaching session. She was one of the “no breakfast” types and eventually we got her eating real food during the day; now, she no longer needs or wants her evening fast food fix, but this worked wonders in the meantime.
6) Always eat foods that you like
As I mentioned in the last tip, I encourage clients to come up with healthier food substitutions that they personally enjoy. Food is so important to the quality of our lives. If you feel like “eating healthy” is a big sacrifice and you can’t wait until the “diet” is over, you’ll never be able to maintain lasting change and will find yourself binging on comfort foods the first chance you get. When that happens, you’ll probably beat yourself up and tell yourself you can’t do this, that you have no control over food, or whatever else you tell yourself that makes you feel hopeless.
If you resolve to start eating breakfast, make sure it’s something you love. One of my clients now loves her yogurt, fruit and nut parfait. I love my French toast made with omega-3 eggs and piled high with fresh berries. The same thing goes for snacks, other meals, and any treats you have in the evening – you need to enjoy and look forward to them if you ever want those better choices to stick.
Explore different healthier foods and discover what feels like a delicious treat to you. Then enjoy!
What has your experience with food been like? I’d love to hear from you – and feel free to comment anonymously, of course.