The Comfortable Side of Uncomfortable Eating

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

As we enter the season of overindulgence and achingly full bellies, I am reminded of days gone by, when I thought that eating healthy meant cutting out “unhealthy foods” altogether.  No foods with added sugar (too unhealthy), no tasty sauces (SO unnecessary), and on and on.  At least that was the plan.  While it makes perfect sense to me now, at the time I did not realize how my (temporarily) squeaky clean eating led me to overeating tasty foods with little nutritional value.  As a result, holiday meals always turned out to be one of two scenarios in my late teens and early twenties:  1) the picture of a perfect eater, with large servings of vegetables and no dessert, sauces, or alcohol, followed by feasting on all the leftovers I had tried so hard to resist, or 2) giving in to temptations (all of them) at the holiday table and then returning to a bland, tasteless, low-calorie diet the next day.

Both situations were just different variations of the same dieting theme.  Both involved inflexible, perfectionistic thinking about an activity (eating) that is so affected by human biology and emotions, neither of which lend themselves well to strict enforcement or inflexible control.

Let me clarify something.  I was not even overweight!  I was just young and female, and that is often enough to get into some pretty unsupportive eating patterns.  Dieting has become a national pastime, especially for women.  After all, isn’t thinner better?  So many of us grow up with messages like this from various sources:  other women, magazines and TV, comments we hear (about us or about others) and the internet.

Now, many years and many meals later, I consider myself lucky to have long ago figured out how the highs and lows are connected.  It seemed so obvious once I realized it; over-restricting amounts and/or types of food leads to overeating out of feelings of deprivation (either of volume and energy content, or of pleasure, or both).  Similarly overeating drives the habit right back to low levels, with hunger and inadequate pleasure, because guilty dieting thinking says, “I really screwed up!  I must pay for that.”  The cycle continues  low, high, low, high . . .  a real life roller coaster, with real life emotions coming along for the ride.  It’s a great way to feel like a failure.

In my consultations with people, they are sometimes surprised that I really get it, because I am not heavy and I don’t have a story of dramatic weight loss.  I remind them that anyone with a human body can understand this if they stop and think about it without judgment and emotion clouding the obvious.  I see people with highs and lows that vary from morning to night, day to day, weekday to weekend day, and even year to year – all different manifestations of yo-yo dieting.  None of these methods will work long-term, and most will not even work for long enough to see any healthy changes at all, because the gains constantly offset the losses.

Often I hear about how seemingly impossible it is to stop.  “I’m addicted to sugar,” you say, “. . . can’t stop with candy,” “. . . can’t be trusted around bread,” and on and on.  While I think it”s great that we have more information about brain functioning, there is a drawback to looking at the effect of certain foods from a purely chemical standpoint.  Yes, there are increasingly more studies about how different foods – particularly sugar, simple carbs, and fat – affect the brain.  We can see how the brain reacts to something like chocolate or a cupcake.  It is similar to what happens with addictive substances, but I caution you to let this be the whole story.  Thinking that you can’t possibly control yourself once you taste a speck of your favorite Thanksgiving pie puts you in a very, very powerless position!  Why?

Your thoughts and beliefs also affect your brain chemistry.   Stop for a moment and read that sentence again.  It is powerful.  It means that paying attention to thoughts – mindfulness – is an effective tool that can be used to change habits.

Beliefs stem from habitual thoughts.  They are deeper than thoughts, and we generally do not question them.  We usually just live by them.  That can be supportive if the beliefs are good, but it can be quite destructive if the beliefs chip away at health and happiness.  While getting to the root of beliefs is hard, it is possible.  Noticing negative thoughts is a good start, as we begin to see patterns; those patterns are generally driven by deeper beliefs.

As an example, I can look back at my younger self and see that I was constantly thinking ‘I shouldn’t eat that.”  As I mentioned, this applied to just about anything delicious.  I now see that there was a deeper belief behind these thoughts.  It was something like “I need to eat perfectly,” or it might have even been “I must BE perfect.”  That is an exhausting belief, and it is why perfectionism is such an unhealthy attitude to carry through life.

Thanksgiving is 4 days away.  For those of you who tend to swing from one eating extreme to another, this is a day that probably carries some anxiety with it.  The holiday season is a great time to start a new outlook on eating.  Instead of following your usual roller-coaster habits, consider the word “balance.”  Instead of vowing to start a strict new diet in the New Year (just another low point on the roller coaster ride), try moving the habits more toward a moderate mid-point that is much more realistic and sustainable day to day.  Trust me on this . . . the entire natural world strives for balance.  Your body is no exception.  Never force severe restrictions again, and the overeating will gradually lessen with time and self-compassion (very different from perfectionism).

A more moderate, balanced attitude toward eating sounds so much more comfortable, doesn’t it?  Once it is your habit, this will be true . . . but until then, if eating patterns are more up and down, there will be some comfort in the discomfort.  In other words, it may be what you are used to.  Budging unhealthy habits is a change, and change is hard!  Just as an unhappy marriage often contains an element of comfort in the discomfort, changing established patterns of eating, no matter how dysfunctional, can be very, very uncomfortable.  Staying in it is definitely more predictable than what will happen out of it, but diving off into new territory can be exciting and hopeful.  Ready, set, . . . GO!

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