Most of us have an ambiguous, love/hate relationship with food. We love how it brings us instant gratification but we hate what it does for our waistline or health. How do we then lose weight if we are in constant struggle with the aspect of weigh that is critical – food?
– How many of you oscillate between binging on favorite foods and then starve yourself to ‘undo’ what you’ve done?
– How many start on a restrictive ‘diet’, are unable to sustain it and then swing to the other end of the spectrum in frustration and binge-eat or eat everything ‘you are not supposed to’?
– How many feel anxiety and guilt over food?
– How many refuse to actually log in a food journal properly because it’s too difficult, anxiety ridden or painful?
– How many have endless arguments or discussions with your nutritionist, fiercely negotiating what you know you should be avoiding?
– How many have uncontrollable ‘cravings’ for a particular food and withdrawal when you can’t have that particular food (sweets or carbs for instance)?
Food is not supposed to create all this anxiety and guilt. How did we get to this point? Big food companies and clever marketing strategy by ‘diet gurus’ attempt to create a sensation of unrest within you making you believe you’re not doing it right and that they have the solutions. Then food companies proceed to sell you ‘products’ which are supposed to solve your problem and make life easier, except that they don’t. Instead packaged, processed products like meal supplements, processed protein supplements, quick meals, packaged, easy to eat food-on-the-run are the cause of many health problems to start with.
In truth, if we truly listen to our own bodies we can identify what is good for us and what is not, how much to eat and when to eat. The problem is, we are unable to or won’t listen to our own body’s signals. These signals have perhaps been anaesthetized from years of being ignored. Childhood programming of eating way beyond what we actually need to, of the wrong kind of food is very common. How many of us were told, ‘clean your plate’ when we were children, irrespective of how much is on the plate! It’s also possible that you have turned to food as a source of comfort to soothe stress or anxiety. This may have become your default setting. You are using food for more than just assuaging hunger. It’s also possible that you don’t recognize real physical hunger for what it is.
To re-establish a healthy relationship with food we need to –
- Pay close attention to the signals the body sends us – Mindful eating, recognising real physical hunger (as opposed to emotional hunger, boredom or stress). This takes training, time and self-awareness. Years of neglect cannot be undone in a matter of days. There will be times when you are still confused about whether you are really hungry or just plain anxious or bored. With patience and attentiveness however, you will start to appreciate your body’s own signals.
- No need for guilt and shame– Even if you have been binging or eating inappropriately, there is no place for guilt and shame if you want to make a change. Guilt and shame are not helpful emotions. According to studies done on self compassion and the implications of treating oneself kindly (Leary & Tate 2007), it was found that self –compassion was important to buffer oneself against unproductive negative self-talk. Acknowledge responsibility without feeling overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt and shame prevent growth and openness and instead create a closed mindset and cause you to literally want to hide. So what do you do? You hide and eat some more! Instead own up to your behavior that is not helping you and understand what to do. Be non-judgmental about your habit, but take responsibility for it!
- Become conscious of your patterns of eating– All of us have certain ingrained patterns and habits., some of which may not be helpful (late night snacking, or indulging in sweets post every meal for instance). Become conscious (not ashamed or guilty, but conscious) of these and observe their connections in relation to your mood and sense of wellbeing.
- Don’t be too rigid – Tying yourself to excessively rigid rules and regulations about food can be counterproductive. Having to constantly deprive yourself can be exhausting and will not last. Allow yourself to eat in moderation (and you need to understand what moderation is) and also to occasionally indulge (and you need to understand and define what ‘occasionally’ means). This will give you a feeling of freedom rather than restriction. Over time you will gradually understand that you really do enjoy these occasional, moderately eaten indulgences and feel totally satisfied with them
- Don’t be dependent on will power all the time – ‘Will power’ is not infinite. Make it easier on yourself to follow healthy eating patterns. For instance, don’t stock up on unhealthy snacks at home and expect your will power to hold you in good stead in avoiding these temptations. There will be times you are more vulnerable to indulgences, especially when you are tired, sleep deprived or stressed. These are not times you want to test your will power over food. The best way to avoid the situation altogether is find great substitutes for your unhealthy snacks and stock them in your pantry instead.
- It’s ok to enjoy food – It’s perfectly ok to enjoy food. It’s perfectly ok to love delicious food. If you want to stay healthy and maintain a good, functioning body and mind then food should be more than just about pleasure. Set about creating better and healthier options you can appreciate and enjoy. Understand that while some foods may taste delicious, they may not be optimum in creating health and wellbeing.
- Change your perspective – I’ve heard the comment “I’m a foodie, so I cannot diet”. It’s all about perspective. If you view a healthier eating plan (which can be equally if not more delicious), as a torturous ‘diet’ then you will likely not sustain it for long. If you instead start to look as food as nourishment, something that can heal your body and mind, something to value and appreciate for what it does for you, instead of looking at food only as a source of instant gratification, your perspective of food undergoes a sea change. Instead you actually start to enjoy the healthier options.
- Eating healthy becomes the default position -Eating healthy does not equal deprivation. There are great healthy options to choose from all the time. It may take some readjustment in your brain to prefer a fruit to cake on a regular basis, but when you make these choices often enough, the amazing thing is, you actually start to prefer the healthy options. You really do. A greasy, overly spiced snack starts to make you feel nauseous. That sinful chocolate cream cake is fine for the first two spoonfuls, then you want to push it away. That huge pile of rice you used to eat is just not appealing any more. Your pattern of eating changes gradually such that, healthier options are your default position.
- Recognize that deep-rooted maladaptive behaviors may stem from early life experiences– Your relationship with food goes way back into childhood. It’s important to understand and accept this. Only then can there be healing from these reflex maladaptive behaviors. Important research has found that adverse childhood experiences like physical or sexual abuse (Gustafson & Sarwer, 2004, Felliti, 1993) increases the risk of obesity and disordered eating several fold. Addressing such trauma will of course require therapy with a counselor experienced in this field.
- Exercise regularly – Regular exercise enhances willpower (Oaten & Cheng 2006). The ability to make better choices with food (or with anything else for that matter) is enhanced with regular exercise. So while cravings may recur from time to time, exercising regularly enhances ones ability to sustain a better diet.
- Find your ‘why’ – Its important to acknowledge ‘why’ you want to lose weight, eat better or get healthier. The stronger the inner motivation to do so, the better your results at achieving your objective of healing your relationship with food. If this motivation is vague and undetermined, then you will likely go back to eating any way you want as deep down you really don’t see any reason to change.
Your relationship with food is significant and a healthy one is necessary if you want to avoid food related stress. We have enough stress in our day-to-day lives; lets not add food to the list.
Here’s want I have found from both personal experience and counseling hundreds of women over the years.
- When you are busy, fulfilled and occupied in your life, you tend not to obsess about food. You tend to eat to feel good, motivated and energetic not dull, stuffed and lethargic. Food is a means to an end not an end in itself.
- When you are honest about your choices in a non-judgmental way, it is much easier to make changes.
- When you are open to learning about how food can create of defy health, then you are more likely to follow through with healthier choices.
Optimise your relationship with food and watch how much easier it is to eat better consistently! How to stay satisfied with the food you eat, how to appreciate the food you eat and as a result how to lose weight effectively and more importantly, how to sustain that weight loss.
Great article Doc. Our relationship with food is indeed complex. My eating habits have changed a lot after joining TFL but I also realise that I need to loosen up and stop being rigid in my food choices. The rigidity is sure to bring on boredom which in turn will affect my fitness routine.
Great article . Can resonate with each and every word. Not Turning to food for comfort and listening to signals your body is something i have been trying to practice after joining TFL. Also accepting that one can enjoy food and lose weight. Being mindful of everything I do has opened my mind to many new dimensions of life . Thank you Dr Sheela