By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
On a recent road trip with my husband, we listened to a radio program about the last meal of a death row prisoner. While I can’t remember the exact food items that the prisoner requested, his menu was something along the lines of: three Big Macs, two large fries, a large pizza, two pieces of cake, macaroni and cheese and more. The inmate’s last meal of essentially carbs and fats brought me back to my eating disorder days when I likely would have ordered the same things if I were about to die.
I used to fantasize that if I was about to have my last meal, I would eat everything I never let myself have. Back in my dieting decades, that would have been a lot! I spent years bouncing back and forth between the prison of restriction and the diet riot of all out binges. So the idea of being able to have anything I wanted as a last meal conjured up a feast of treats. (Although by the time I was done bingeing, I never felt like I had treated myself to much of anything!)
As my husband and I drove along, we proceeded to tell each other what we might each order if we knew that we were approaching our last meal. “Grilled chicken and gorgonzola salad with some yummy dressing,” I said. “With a warm bran muffin topped with some of my favorite ice cream. Oh, and some perfectly ripe strawberries with a few bites of my favorite chocolate cake.” We looked at each other and laughed as we simultaneously agreed that these are the kinds of foods that I usually eat every day!
I spent most of my life eating salads with low-fat dressing, lean protein, fruit and a small list of what I considered to be acceptable carbs. I would then proceed (sometimes weeks, days, hours or minutes later) to binge on all the stuff I never let myself have. It took me many years and many pounds to gain the courage to break that crazy cycle. I eventually learned that if I ate what I truly wanted — in moderate amounts — there would be nothing to rebel from; I would be genuinely satisfied and I could go on with my day until the next time my body needed food. I thought when I first began this radical experiment that I would only want carbs and fats but that was only the case when I never let myself have them (or told myself they were “bad” when I did.) But when all foods became equal options on the menu, the deprived beast inside of me eventually began to tame. I began to eat what were previously forbidden foods, and a moderate amount began to satisfy me. When I truly listened to my body rather than the starving rebellious beast within, I began to crave what turned out to be pretty balanced meals.
What I also realized during our little “last meal” game was that not only is there no longer anything to rebel from but I also would want to feel good, even if, or perhaps especially if it were my last moments on earth. I wouldn’t want to stuff myself till I was sick. I would want a moderate amount of the foods that I love. Just like I now do every day.
Of course everyone has to find out what they truly love, what foods make them feel well, and what “moderate” is for them. Everyone also needs to find the courage to distinguish between their various hungers in order to nourish themselves with what they really need. When we eat, in moderate amounts, what we truly love and what our bodies love, we are eating to satisfy our physical hunger — rather than our emotional and spiritual hungers. But those other hungers are still there, and no amount of carbs or fats will ever satisfy them. When we no longer stuff down our feelings with food, we’re left with… our feelings.
A client of mine who has been striving to eat what she truly wants in moderate amounts has been facing this dilemma. As we spoke about food and feelings one day, she told me, “For years, when I am filled with really big feelings, I head to the nearest drive-thru or donut shop. That’s just what I have always done.” So, I asked her, “What if food was not an option? What if you were filled with feelings and could not get food?” She said, “I’d probably have to cry or scream or maybe hit something!”
Bingo! So we talked about the pros and cons of doing just that. She expressed her fears about crying or screaming or hitting something (not someone and preferably something soft!) We talked about what she would need in order to do those things and what it might be like to let her feelings out naturally so she wouldn’t have to stuff them down unnaturally. Easier said than done, I know. But it really does become easier once we learn to compassionately feel and safely express our emotional pain and see that it passes. And when we are moderately eating the foods that we love, when the tidal waves of emotion pass, we are no longer left with the additional pain caused by overeating. We no longer want or crave more than our body needs. Once we begin to feed ourselves lovingly and moderately, we can know that if we still want food then some other part of us is hungry; a part that food will never touch. Food might sedate those cravings for a little while but it will never fully satisfy them.
So what would your last meal on earth consist of? Would it be large quantities of the foods you often tell yourself you “shouldn’t” have? Or a delicious meal that truly satisfies you? As for me, I’m off to have my heavenly, moderate last meal… of the day. I hope you will join me.