I love cookies of all kinds. At times my wife or kids have made a batch of cookies and – after they each tried one – I quietly finished off all the rest. So I know a thing or two about restraint and lack thereof. Last week I wrote about smoking and a process for making quitting easier. Today let’s look at how we can adapt this process for a healthier relationship with food.
Often we eat in a way that’s out of sync with what’s best for the body (and mind). The most prevalent example is overeating – i.e., eating beyond the point at which we’re no longer hungry. We do this for many reasons: because the food is tasty, because we were taught to empty our plate, because we don’t want to waste food or insult the cook, because of biological mechanisms designed to protect us against famine, or because we’re simply eating on “autopilot.”
Another example is low quality foods. High sugar foods, for example, can suppress the immune system, cause excessive weight gain, promote inflammation, and lead to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes). Deep fried foods have similar impacts – promoting inflammation and contributing to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. I won’t list all the examples here, but if it’s highly processed, contains artificial colors and flavors, white flour, chemical preservatives, or was purchased at a gas station, it probably falls into this category.
Other foods may be essentially benign but not good for a given individual because of a personal sensitivity. Since starting to treat people in the late 90s, I’ve seen a huge increase in patients’ awareness of the foods they’re sensitive to. On the whole this is a great thing, though it’s not always easy for people to avoid these foods – even knowing they’ll feel bad later.
For what it’s worth, I try not to entirely forbid any foods, because of the repercussions of setting up a system of deprivation and rebellion. Besides, we can only maintain discipline for so long. Our willpower wanes when we’re tired, hungry, or stressed. And we all occasionally find ourselves in dining situations where there simply aren’t healthy options.
I believe there’s a time and place for almost any food – including cheesecake and French fries – as long as we practice moderation and mindfulness. When these foods constitute a significant portion of our diet, and/or we’re experiencing negative impacts from consuming them, and/or we can’t control ourselves, this should tell us that something needs to change.
For the bulk of our history as a species, food scarcity was one of our main challenges. Now, in much of the world, this has been replaced by the challenge of restraint.
Healthy restraint with food can be as challenging as dealing with a smoking addiction or alcoholism. At least a smoker or alcoholic has the option of entirely removing cigarettes and alcohol from their life. But we’re obligated to keep eating. The closest equivalent we can exercise is to remove from our cupboards the foods that we have the most difficulty with.
Furthermore, almost everyone has beliefs and baggage wrapped up around food and body image, which complicates our relationship with eating. My purpose today isn’t to completely unpack this whole topic, but to just address one aspect of the pattern – restraint around eating in a way that we know isn’t good for us.
Here are seven steps you can take to feel clearer and stronger about what you feed your body:
1: Setting the stage and loving yourself. Make it easy for yourself to succeed and harder for yourself to overeat, to eat unconsciously, or to eat foods that aren’t good for you. These choices are about avoiding or cleaning up the environments that promote poor eating habits; setting some basic ground rules for yourself – except we’re not going to call them rules, but basic standards; honoring the process of nourishing yourself; and remembering that you are worth treating yourself well.
Eat only in a proper dining setting – not at your desk, not in front of a TV, not while driving, not between meals, not while in a meeting – you’re better than that. Get the junky stuff out of your house. Don’t go to fast food restaurants. Tell your coworkers you’re not eating that stuff anymore, so please don’t even offer you a cupcake – you’re better than that too! Bring your own lunch. Eat a healthy meal before the party. Don’t hang out by the food table.
2: Use empowering language. Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t eat that donut” or “I shouldn’t eat those French fries,” use verbiage that conveys power and choice. Some examples: “I don’t eat garbagey foods. I don’t put that crap in my beautiful body. I choose to be a healthy eater. I choose to love myself so much that I only eat really high quality food. I don’t overeat. I choose to stop eating before I’m full. I feel great when I feed myself well.”
3: Slow down and breathe. Slowing down the eating process makes it easier to perceive when you’ve had enough, and also to feel if your body doesn’t like what or how you’re eating. Before you eat something you know isn’t great for you, take at least one deep breath. You’re creating space so that the behavior isn’t automatic and unconscious.
4: Tune in to the underlying feeling. If you’re wanting to eat something unhealthy, or to continue eating even though you know you’re not hungry anymore, tune in to the feeling that’s urging you to do this. Just take a moment to visit it. If it helps, tell yourself, “You can still have the treat afterwards. We just going to do this first.” Often this feeling is below your radar and you respond to it unconsciously by eating and eating. Let’s make it conscious. Drop into your body and feel what’s happening. What does it feel like? An anxious, unsettled feeling? An empty, yearning feeling? Numbness? Whatever you feel, see if you can simply be with it for a moment, without any resistance. Let yourself feel it fully. Take a breath into it. Allow it to pass through you and depart. What happens? Even if you still eat the food in question, this is nonetheless a useful process.
5: Ask your body. If you’re on the verge of eating in an unhealthy way, just take a second to ask inwardly, “How do you feel about my eating this?” Then feel and listen for the response. Maybe you won’t perceive anything, but maybe you’ll feel a very clear, “No thanks” or “I’m good” or “Sure!” or “Please don’t.” I know you haven’t always loved the way your body has looked and felt and performed for you, but consider being friends with it and honoring its feelings about what’s best for it.
6: Give all your attention to the act of eating. It would be excellent if we could all give our full attention to the act of eating throughout every meal. Eating mindlessly doesn’t just make us prone to doing something that’s not good for us, it also means we’re missing out on fully enjoying the food and missing out on the beautiful, sacred, self-loving act of feeding ourselves and connecting to the fruitful earth that provided it.
It’s especially useful to give your full attention to the act when you’re knowingly eating in a way that’s not ideal for you. Let’s say you decide to have some chocolate mousse. You know it’s not a health food, but it’s going to be incredibly delicious, and sometimes that’s a worthwhile tradeoff, because savoring deliciousness has some value too. This only makes sense, of course, if you’re going to be fully present for the deliciousness experience. Enjoy the hell out of it. Don’t speak. Don’t listen to anything but your own chewing and moaning. Don’t go fast.
7: Let go of the guilt. I know it’s easier said than done, but let’s not add insult to injury. Guilt is the worst thing you can sprinkle over your meal. I believe that feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hate have a tangible impact on what happens to that food after you’ve eaten it. You’re not going to digest it as well, be nourished as thoroughly, or clear out the waste as efficiently if you’re in emotional upset about it. If you’re feeling heavy afterwards, take at least a moment to forgive yourself.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because it’s SO freakin’ scrumptious.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because you’re stressed and eating is soothing.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because your ancestors didn’t have enough to eat and wired you to eat as much as you could when you had the chance.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because you’re upset with yourself or displeased with your body.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because it makes you feel more in control.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way to get back at people who have mistreated you or objectified your body.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because you’re upset with the world for telling you to look like an ideal that’s only possible for a small portion of the population.
It’s understandable that you would eat this way, because you feel deprived or lonely or sad or ungrounded or empty or anxious.
All of this is understandable. AND, you know that there are healthier ways to feel better than by taking it out on your body. Ask your body to forgive you for not always treating it well. Thank your body for being the vehicle that has made this incredible life possible. Take ownership of your body. Forgive your body. Love your body.