By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I started my first diet as a teenager in the 70’s. Little did I know where this innocent action would lead me. I had unknowingly stepped on the diet/riot roller coaster and it would be many years and tears before I would learn how to step off.
By the time the 80’s hit, I was off to college. In addition to my school books and belongings, I brought along a full-time, secretive cycle of obsessing, restricting and bingeing. In front of others, I ate what were considered to be “good” foods. But behind the scenes, I gorged on everything I never let myself have in public. I was as sick with food as a drug addict is with drugs (which I abused as well).
Looking back now, I know that all of these behaviors were fueled by my intense self-hatred and lack of acceptance. And all of that was fueled by the cultural messages of perfection, my personal painful experiences, and my individual level of sensitivity.
Like millions, I suffered in silence. On the outside, I looked like a student, friend and daughter. On the inside, I lived with a secret life of calorie counting, comparing and compulsivity. Ironically it was some of my sickest behaviors (quick weight loss) that were often complimented and praised by others. Little did I know at the time, our culture has an eating disorder!
I had no clue that underneath my daily food and weight obsession was a well of emotional pain, unmet needs and important issues that needed to be addressed. Thankfully after finally finding help that actually helped, I began discovering what I was truly hungry for and what I really needed. And now I have the honor of teaching others all of the things that I have so generously been taught.
Even though the word is out on the street that diets really don’t work, many people are still seduced by them. Whether they get their diet from some trendy book or magazine, or the advice of a doctor or friend, the bottom line is that restricting leads to rebelling—not to mention obsessing and isolating. Despite what the glossy photos and fad diets promise, if you consistently deprive yourself of delicious, nutritious foods, you are going to end up either malnourished or overeating (or both!)
So if you have been riding the diet/riot roller coaster and are ready to step off, here’s some food for thought and thoughts on food:
Challenge Your Food Rules
Whether you are on an official diet or you just judge certain foods as “good” or “bad,” you are setting yourself up for obsession and/or rebellion. Instead of restricting (in reality or mentality), try making your food choices from a place of self-love and self-care.
Rather than asking yourself if a food is low-fat, low-carb or low-calorie, try asking yourself these questions: Am I truly physically hungry? What is my body really hungry for? Is eating this a loving way to treat my body? What seems like a sane, moderate amount? Is this what I would serve someone else who does not diet or overeat? Is this how I would feed someone I love?
Back in the day, when I made my food choices with weight loss in mind, it would lead to one of two things: a restrictive meal that would lead me to binge later on, or a rebellious binge. But, when I began to approach my meals with love, kindness, self-care and honesty, I found that there was nothing to rebel from. And I began to feel truly satisfied from a reasonable portion, rather than unsatisfied after a restrictive meal or stuffed after a rebellious binge.
Aim for Comfortable Satisfaction
Once you start eating what your body truly wants, the next step is learning when to stop eating. It takes a lot of awareness, willingness and courage to stop when you are comfortably satisfied rather than stuffed or still hungry. Eating moderately and intuitively means we have to feel emotions that we may have previously attempted to numb with excess food or restricting. It means we will have to find other ways to fill our time, our minds and our unmet needs.
Additionally, moderate non-diet eating means we will sometimes have to deal with social pressure, whether it’s subtle or spoken. It takes clarity, courage and conviction to eat differently than others are, especially if they are strongly encouraging us to go along with what or how much they are eating. Of course there are times when we will choose to eat when and what others are eating because that feels like the most loving choice to make at that time, but there will be times that listening to our own internal signals means we don’t go along with the flock or the clock.
I remember a recent family visit when I wanted leftovers and a cookie for breakfast rather than the eggs and toast everyone else was having. Oftentimes I eat what others are having but sometimes, my cravings are strong and it feels more loving to listen to my body than to my fear of what others might think or say.
It takes courage to stop eating when we are politely full even though everyone else is still eating (and encouraging us to also). But we don’t always go to the bathroom when others do, or sleep or shower when they do. Honest, loving, intuitive eating means that sometimes we do things differently than others but our choices are not fueled by body hate or attempts to control our weight.
Improve the Way You Move
Many people have a relationship with exercise that is similar to their relationship to food: they either avoid it or overdo it. Learning to move your body in ways that feel good, and rest without feeling guilty, is a challenge in our “go for the burn” culture, but meeting that challenge will help your body find its natural way.
Instead of telling yourself you should exercise or rebelling and avoiding exercise altogether, try these questions on for size: If you could never lose or gain another pound no matter how much you exercised, how would you choose to move your body? How did you enjoy moving your body prior to becoming obsessed with diets, weight loss or eating? What types of movement do you think your body might enjoy at this stage of your life?
When you take self-berating, calorie burning and body sculpting out of the equation, you will be able to honor your body’s natural desires to move and rest.
Find New Ways to Fill Up
In order to alleviate the need to overeat sweets and comfort foods, we need to make sure that we are getting enough sweetness and comfort in our lives. I encourage my clients to come up with a list of Spirit Fillers. These are ways that you can truly fill up without having any negative or unhealthy consequences.
When we turn to overeating or restricting, we might feel temporarily high but it is most often followed by a profound low. When we feed our spirits, we feel good while we are doing so and we also feel good afterwards. Of course a bath, a walk in nature, journaling or a cup of tea doesn’t pack the same punch as a box of cookies or a carton of ice-cream, but they also don’t leave the same bruises.
Back in my bingeing days, I definitely felt numb after a binge but I always, without exception, ended up feeling intense shame, remorse and hopelessness. Once I learned how to truly fill myself up, there were no shameful hangovers and nothing to “start over.”
Try writing a list of ways you might get more sweetness and comfort in your life and start integrating a few of these into your weekly routine. In addition to external ideas, consider adding some internal ones too. The more sweet and comforting your self-talk is, the less you will need old behaviors to attempt to meet your needs.
Heal What You Feel
As you let go of restricting and rebelling, the feelings that you may have been avoiding with these behaviors will begin to surface. If we are not distracted by the fantasy of weight loss, white knuckling at mealtimes, or rebellious binges, we are left with an array of emotions that are natural and necessary to feel in order to heal. Learning to tolerate and compassionately welcome difficult emotions until they pass is a skill, just like learning to ride a bike up a steep hill.
The good news is that you can get better at dealing with feeling and you can learn from experience that once your painful emotions pass naturally, you do not have to stuff them down unnaturally. You will begin to experience what it’s like to get to the other side of the “hill” and coast for a while until the next uphill challenge that life brings.
Becoming willing to tolerate and cope with painful emotions until they pass naturally will help you release the need for dieting and/or overeating. And just like learning any new skill, you will get stronger and better at it over time. As challenging as emotional pain is, the lovely parting gift of welcoming feelings is that you will experience firsthand that all feelings and cravings will eventually pass. You will also get to reap the many benefits of an eating disorder-free life!
Upgrade Your Unkind Mind
Most people who restrict and/or overeat have what I refer to as a very loud Unkind Mind. After all, it is usually body hatred that leads us to diet in the first place. We are essentially promised by the media that if we lose weight, we will like ourselves. But if that were true, most dieters would lose weight and live happily ever after—and the diet industry would shrink as satisfied customers went along their merry way. What usually happens to dieters who lose weight is they either live in terror of gaining it back and remain obsessed with food, or they overeat and gain the weight back. And the unkind thoughts remain.
So what do you say we do a little upgrade and start inserting some Kind Mind thoughts into your internal computer? Instead of the chronic pop-up thought that says, I will like myself when my body changes, how about something like this: I will try to like myself right now and as a result of self-kindness and self-care, see how my relationship with food changes.
If you can work on liking yourself or at least being kinder to yourself, you are already one step closer to what you think you would get if you had the body you wanted. Of course it’s fine to want a healthy body but the main reason people want to lose weight or change their shape is because of how they think they will feel if they did so. So the key here is beginning to go for that feeling now. And not only does self-care and self-kindness feel better but it will lead you to treat yourself better which will mean less restricting, less overeating and a Kind Mind!
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
In a recent session with a client, we both had the beautiful opportunity to witness that it is our thoughts that bring us misery, not our bodies! This precious woman was simply convinced that her body was her problem. She sat in my office in tears about how much she hated her body, how convinced she was that weight loss would bring her happiness and how “fat” she felt (despite my frequent reminders that “fat” is not a feeling!) I even whipped out my handy dandy emotions list along with a gentle reminder that “fat” was not on it and encouraged her to go deeper. She remained truly convinced that her body was the problem.
A week later, this very same woman, with the very same body, returned to my office and reported how much better she was doing. She told me about a few sweet events that took place during the week and how good she was feeling about some new opportunities in her life.
These two consecutive sessions revealed to her that, as convincing as it can seem that changing her body will surely be her key to happiness, it is not so. Of course treating our bodies with love and kindness will certainly help us feel better overall, but changing our size will not magically change our life; changing our thinking will.
Speak Your Part from Your Heart
Another essential piece of the of recovery puzzle is learning how to speak, rather than stuff, our truth. For many people, overeating, restricting and body obsessing are ways of avoiding our truth; so learning the language of respectful, clear communication is a big part of healing.
For me this was no easy deal given that I had a black belt in people-pleasing. I came to realize though, that I had a choice: I could stuff my truth down (or attempt to anyway) with cookies, ice cream and restricting, or I could learn how to say what I’m feeling and ask for what I’m needing. (Gulp!) I also had to learn how to receive feedback without crumbling or retaliating, and how to accept the humanness and imperfection in us all, myself included. No easy task, I know, but neither is over-and undereating!
I also learned that it’s okay to be scared to speak up and to do it anyway. And that I could get help learning the language of safe, respectful communication. A friend of mine often says, “If speaking your truth with someone is a deal breaker, it wasn’t a very good deal in the first place!”
So see if you can learn and practice the language of healthy communication. There are a ton of books and blogs on this important topic and just like any language, the more you practice, the better you become and the more rewarding it is when you meet others who speak fluently too!
Warning: Self-Care Can Be Habit Forming
Many people who struggle with dieting and overeating also struggle with creating a new routine of non-diet, moderate eating. They vow to eat moderately and then forget that vow. They continue to restrict even though it leads them to overeat. Creating a new habit takes conscious effort at first, until it becomes automatic.
A client of mine who has been a vegetarian for decades told me, “I would never in a million years forget that I don’t eat meat and yet I often forget that restricting leads to overeating, which only leads to shame and more restricting.”
Most of our minds are filled with food rules. And those rules are hard to strike from the record. But our animal bodies will rebel from those rules, whether this means they binge or they break down.
Your body knows what to eat. Your body knows when and how much to eat. You were born with that wisdom until it was taken over by the cultural virus that made you forget and forge a well-worn path.
Deep inside you, beneath all the rules and rebellion is your body’s natural wisdom. It takes support, practice, courage and willingness to forge that path until the new path becomes habitual. Then your new normal will be to eat intuitively and moderately.
See if you can put moderate, non-diet eating in the same category as brushing your teeth or gassing up your car, activities you (hopefully) never forget to do. Feeding your body what it truly wants and needs can become as important as all your other top priorities in life.
So here’s to practicing excellent self-care until your new habits are fully formed. Here’s to stepping off the diet/riot roller coaster and coasting along the path of kindness, compassion and clarity.