By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Having spent decades bouncing back and forth between my strict diet du jour and the “I blew it, screw it, eat everything in sight and start again on Monday” program, I am honored to share with others the tips and tools that helped me crack the diet/binge code once and for all.
In our book, The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and our “Defeating Overeating” online course, my coauthor and I teach readers all the things that helped us step off the diet/binge roller coaster and find what we call a “Live-It.”
There are several components to a Live-It. The first is learning to challenge rather than believe every thought you think. Learning how to cope with emotions is another important component (coming soon to a blog near you!) And, of course, learning how to live with food and make peace with your body are essential parts of a Live-It.
It took many years of trial and error (heavy on the error!) to learn that dieting was not the solution to my weight problems. It was in fact, one of the contributors. Changing rules with food, exercise and body image requires a huge do-over. We have all learned so many rules from our culture and our families that we may have thought were helpful. Some rules you might not even be aware of. But you will need to identify them and let go of them in order to find a loving, honest relationship with both food and feelings. This is a process, and fortunately you do not have to do it perfectly. You can start (and start again) any moment!
So if you are one of the millions who battle with your body and food, here are some tips to help you learn how to Live-It!
Shame-Free Zone: Try to be really curious about why you are turning to food when you are not hungry. Try speaking to yourself the way a really loving parent would speak to a hurt child. You need compassion, kindness and curiosity as you work on these issues and examine your patterns, not self-criticism. (If self-criticism worked, you would probably have all your goals met by now!)
Hunger and Fullness Scale: Most of us were taught to eat according to the external clock rather than our internal body cues. Here is a scale that can help you check in with your physical hunger rather than check out with excess food or diet rules.
Try using the following hunger and fullness scale anytime to get better at knowing your body’s needs. It is similar to a gas gauge:
Empty Neutral Stuffed
The goal is to eat when you are about a three on the scale. This is where you are not yet “starving” but do feel some physical signs of hunger. Then, try to eat until you are about a seven on the scale. This is what I call “satisfied” or “politely full.”
In many cases, people have been so cut off from their hunger and fullness, they do not know when they are truly physically hungry and when they are satisfied or politely full. If this is the case for you, try asking yourself how you would feed someone else who does not diet and does not overeat.
Diet-Busting Questions: These questions are adapted from our online course “Defeating Overeating,” and can help you to tune into your body’s natural needs rather than the restricting-and-rebelling pattern that so many people vacillate between.
Try asking yourself the following three questions when you are approaching a food choice:
- What does the dieter in me think I should eat?
- What does the overeater in me want to eat?
- What does my “healthy voice” or my “body wisdom” say?
Again, you might not be used to checking in with your healthy voice or your body wisdom, so ask yourself how you would feed someone else who does not diet and does not overeat (until you are one of them!)
Culture-Busting Checklist: Our culture has so many rules about food that steer us away from what our bodies really like, want and need. This checklist can help you get better at tuning into your body. When you are getting ready to eat, consider asking yourself the following:
Is this nutritious, delicious and moderate?
Nutritious: Our bodies need protein, carbohydrates and fats for different and important bodily functions.
Delicious: We need to eat things we really like and love so our bodies will feel satisfied.
Moderate: Cup both hands together to make a bowl out of your palms. This bowl is approximately the size of your stomach. So your meal, once digested, will fill that bowl, making a moderately-sized meal. Prior to ingesting, most meals will overflow your cupped hands. Keep in mind that denser foods like pasta and dessert will fill your stomach faster than water-based foods like salad and fruit, like the difference between filling a jar with rocks vs. sand. So, to get a visual, a moderate meal prior to being eaten would slightly overflow your cupped hands.
Flash Forward: When people are in a compulsive eating mode, they usually don’t think about how they are going to feel later. They want the food and they want itnow…
Consider trying a “Flash Forward.” This is when you take the time to think about how you are going to feel later if you eat this food now. You can still decide to eat afteryou do this exercise, if you choose to, but this pattern interruption can help you to make a more informed decision — and build up the capacity to tolerate anxiety (which is often one of the emotions people eat over).
When we overeat, there’s usually a short-term feeling of good followed by a long-term feeling of bad. When we Flash Forward and decide to refrain from overeating, there are more short-term difficult feelings, but in the long-term, we end up feeling so much better in our body. We also train our system to understand that we do not have to succumb to its every whim, and to see that all cravings pass! Consider creating a list of things you can do to ride out the craving. For example: Journaling, reaching out to a safe person, taking a walk, doing a craft or project, reading, listening to music, searching the web for recovery-oriented websites (check out my website for free articles or podcasts here), checking out YouTube for meditations or mindfulness exercises, doing something in nature or something that fills your spirit, etc.
Food For Thought: See if you would be willing to slow down while you are eating. Pausing between bites, even if it’s just for a second or one deep breath, will help slow the mealtime down, which will help your body calm down and better register fullness and satisfaction.
It’s also important to try to eat most of your meals while sitting down to encourage more mindfulness and to help your body register what it is taking in. (Remember, you do not have to be perfect with these tips; simply trying to integrate them in a bit is a great start!)
Consider making a list of the foods that you find most difficult to eat moderately. See what would feel like the most supportive way for you to handle these trigger foods — e.g., not buying them, only buying them in small quantities, only eating them when out, or temporarily keeping them out of the house. Ask yourself what would be the most supportive in letting go of both dieting and overeating, keeping in mind that it will likely change as you heal your patterns with food.
Take note of your most high-risk times to overeat and consider making a supportive plan for those times. For example, some people have the hardest time after work, so they plan a supportive phone call or a nighttime ritual when they get home. One client created a sweet ritual with a candle, a cup of tea and a few minutes of journaling when she got home, as opposed to her previous ritual of TV and bingeing when she transitioned from the day to the evening.
Food and Feelings: Overeating is often an attempt to give ourselves comfort and sweetness and to numb intolerable emotions. So you can now begin to use the desire to overeat as a “doorbell” to mean that you are probably having big feelings. (Or you might be truly hungry if you have been dieting and restricting, which will get addressed as you practice the previous tips!)
See if you would be willing to wonder about and take guesses about what you might be feeling when you want to overeat. (Or after you overeat. It’s never too late to inquire with compassion, kindness and curiosity!)
Take a moment whenever possible (before, during or after overeating) and try writing, asking yourself or sharing with someone safe how you are truly feeling and what you think you are truly hungry for.
Some Final Thoughts: Don’t give up! It is possible to learn how to eat when you are physically hungry and stop when you are politely satisfied. It is possible to unlearn all the insane food rules our culture has taught us, and to enjoy a variety of foods in moderation. It is possible to find healthy ways to comfort yourself and sweeten your day. It is possible to tolerate difficult emotions and ride them out until they pass. It is possible to have a full life rather than a full stomach. It is possible to learn how to spend your precious time on this planet thinking about more than just the size of your body.