We all have done it. We decide to start eating better, exercising regularly or taking better care of ourselves, yet despite our good intentions we don’t have much success in sticking with these changes.
Our Food & Fitness Behaviors Are Driven Subconsciously
It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to do what we say we want to do or to make healthier changes we know would make our lives better. As one woman said to me recently, “I am smart, I know this is important, and I’m in control in other areas of my life, so it doesn’t make sense that I can’t be more successful with eating well and exercising.” The truth is that our behaviors around food and fitness aren’t driven by rationale; they are driven by subconscious beliefs and emotions that are intertwined and multi-faceted.
Cocktail Party Sabotage
Imagine being at a business cocktail party that has plates of appetizers being offered around the room and a banquet of pastries, salads, meats, side dishes and desserts. You don’t know many people there and you aren’t very comfortable in these types of situations. You are also out of town and traveling on a tight budget. When you get to the event you buy a glass of wine and look for people you might know.
You don’t see anyone familiar, and while you stand there you are offered some appetizers. You take one, and then as you are approached by others with trays of more appetizers, you take another and another. You try talking to a few people, but don’t really connect to them. Next thing you do is head over to the buffet tables. You fill a plate, and when that’s done you go back for more. You still don’t see people you know, but you do see lots of people talking and having a good time. You go for another glass of wine and talk briefly with a gal who clearly is looking for someone else. You also find yourself eying the dessert table. Soon you are filling up your plate once more with lots of wonderful little cakes and chocolates. You could stand there all night enjoying those rich desserts, but you decide you’ve had enough and go back to your room. You feel sick from all the food and wish you hadn’t had so much. It’s a familiar feeling, and you don’t want to think about it, so you just go to bed.
Uncovering the Real Issues
For a client of mine, who had this experience and is willing to let me share this with you, she finally came to understand what was driving her to over indulge at events like this. As we talked through what happened, she realized that she was feeling a lot of anxiety because she doesn’t know how to approach people who are already talking and then isn’t sure what to say. She was also feeling vulnerable because she’s overweight and believes people automatically assume the worst about her. And she was feeling unwelcome, because she was never welcomed at school parties or events as a kid. And that led to her feeling ashamed of who she was because she was never thin enough to please her parents.
She was surprised by the depth of emotion she was experiencing and could see how using food was a way to push these feelings away at the business event. By talking about them, she was getting a way to validate the feelings and start to get them out, instead of keeping them repressed and turning to emotional eating. She also got insights about what she needed, such as tips for networking and approaching people. There are books and programs for this, which would give her more confidence. She also needed to change her belief that people assume the worst about her, and she had plenty of examples where this wasn’t true. And she could see that she had anger towards her parents for judging her body, when in fact she wasn’t that overweight as a child. They just compared her to her ultra-thin sister and considered her the fat one.
She also realized as we talked, that for her a banquet of free food shouldn’t go to waste, especially since money was tight. She often overate when food was readily available and she hated to see food go to waste, even if it was food she didn’t even like. As a result, she often overindulged, only to feel really sick afterwards and nearly pass out from getting so full. She said this really affected her productivity at work and some days she didn’t even go in because she felt like she was in a fog. I asked her how much that was costing her, and she had an ah-ha moment. Maybe it was costing her more to eat all that food than to simply let it go to waste. Not only did it cost her at work, but it cost her more in healthcare costs and having to buy larger and larger clothes. And it cost her in low energy and poor self esteem. Not only that, the heavier and worse she felt about herself, the harder it was to feel welcome walking up to people at business events.
Creating Easy Resolutions
As you can see, her behavior with food that night at the cocktail event was being driven by many different emotions and beliefs, some of which dated back to her childhood, that she couldn’t see for herself. Yet once she was aware of them and began to address the feelings, change her beliefs and get networking guidance, she found she could attend any event without turning to food as her crutch. She finally felt free and relaxed, and to her surprise she discovered she loved networking and now goes to events frequently.
When you can peel back the layers and understand what is driving your behaviors, you may be surprised yourself to find that what is really going on is more complex than you might expect and may have nothing to do with food. Fortunately, once you know the underlying drivers of self-sabotage, whether they are related to food, fitness or any other behavior, the real issues are usually fairly easily to resolve.
Ellen was finding she felt more excited and enthused when she was trying something new or mixing up her exercise activities. She realized she had always known that variety was important to her, but she had discounted it as being a flaw in her personality. Ellen felt she needed to be more serious and dedicated to specific exercise workouts and had to stick with them for years to come to reach her goals. Yet inevitably she would get de-motivated and quit just weeks after starting a new program. She came to me to find out how to increase her motivation, so she could stay on track long-term.
The answer was in the very thing she was fighting: variety. If variety made her excited and enthused, then this was the perfect thing to leverage as a motivator. Instead of seeing it as a flaw, she could instead see it as an advantage. To accept this, she also had to change her belief that the only worthwhile exercising was structured, specific and needed to be done at least 3 times a week. That was easy; she was delighted to give up this belief. The idea of doing the same routine over and over was unappealing and de-motivating.
Ellen is one of many clients who have this misconception that worthwhile exercise is a specific and rigid work-out routine, which comes from the fitness industry. Even though a personal trainer will mix things up when they meet with a client, the recommendations from trainers for those working out on their own is usually a fixed cardio and strength training routine they can do at home or outdoors several times a week. The reason is you need a trainer’s knowledge to know how to substitute strengthening exercises appropriately and organize them in the most effective order. When they can’t be there to guide you, all they can do is provide a structured set of exercises. This is why in magazines, the routines are very specific and you are given the recommended number of days a week you do them.
Yet, it is ideal to mix up your aerobic and strengthening activities. Our bodies adapt fairly quickly to doing the same exercise in the same way routinely, which means you get less return for your effort the longer you do the same thing. So, to the amazement of Ellen and many of my clients, variety works to their advantage.
The same is true with food. Most people who like variety in their fitness activities, also like variety in their meals and snacks. Again, this can be used to your advantage. Plan for more variety and let the desire to try new things help you to expand your healthy choices.
3 ways to tell if you need variety to stay motivated:
- Do you get bored doing the same activities, whether it is exercise-related or elsewhere in your life?
- Do you feel energized when you aren’t stuck in a routine and get to have lots of variety?
- Do you have more fun when you are mixing up your activities and foods or trying new things?
3 ways to mix up exercising to be motivated and more effective:
- Give yourself permission to get aerobic exercise by being active for x minutes or x days a week. Allow yourself the freedom to decide which activity you will choose based on your mood or what works best on a given day. For example, Karen likes to bike, walk, kayak, swim and do Zumba, and she can pick from any of these to reach her weekly minutes goal. She doesn’t have to commit to doing any one of them regularly. Instead she will go with what feels good that day, without the burden of worrying about what she should do in the future.
- Pick a few types of aerobic activities you want to be good at and do each of them at least once a week. One of my clients is doing Taekwondo, racquetball and walking her dog. She is working toward new belts in Taekwondo, and she is learning how to play racquetball so she can do this with friends. Each week she learns new things and pushes her body in new ways that feels really good.
- Train for a triathlon, which requires mixing up swimming, running and biking throughout the week and adds in greater intensity levels as the training progresses.
Take advantage of whatever it is you prefer to do to reach your goals. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t assume that makes you a failure. Instead see what does work and how to turn it into a motivator that will keep you jazzed for the long term.
On Mother’s Day, mothers receive collective permission to take care of themselves with a day off from taking care of everyone else and certificates to wellbeing spa treatments. It is also a day to be appreciated, pampered and indulged. Why not feel this way every day? Who wouldn’t want a little of this everyday or at least once a week to take the edge off of daily stressors?
We as women, even those who aren’t mothers, however are more accustomed to neglecting our needs for the higher good of others. When did this start happening? Is this our role or have we chosen this path? While it would appear that no one would forsake themselves willingly, in fact that is exactly what women are choosing to do. And in that decision there is some sort of emotional pay off. It proves us to be heroic and saintly, deserving of martyrdom. A martyr is someone who dies for their convictions or faith, and women who sacrifice themselves for their families or even for their careers discover that they end up losing themselves and control of their lives. They look like they are functioning fairly well, but many are operating without self esteem, self love or self preservation. I work with many of these women, and I can’t help but wonder just how many mothers are dead women walking?
A mother said to me once, “If I’m not suffering, I’m not doing it right. I’m not a good mother.” And for her, this means giving up all that matters to her wellbeing, health and fitness. Another mother told me “I feel guilty if I take any time for myself, so I can’t take time for exercise and making meals that would really be healthy for me. I just can’t do what would make me feel better or find any time for me.” But that is just what mothers need: a little me time and self-care sprinkled throughout the week.
Me time doesn’t have to take up all that much time, but it does require changing some beliefs and creating a home environment that supports it. A common belief that mothers hold onto is that they have to do everything, and they have to do it all right. Mothers don’t want to burden their kids with responsibilities nor have their husbands attempt to do things they aren’t going to do well enough. So they take it all on themselves, and it never ends. In fact it keeps adding up, and that is when mothers begin to feel like they’ve lost themselves. Not just a piece, but all of themselves. Are you one of these mothers who wonder what happened and question why you don’t feel alive anymore?
You might consider some steps you can take to feel better, such as taking a class, getting a facial, going to a yoga or dance class or taking a time out for a nice long bath, but will you ever do it? My guess is no or not often, and the reason is from a fear of feeling guilty. But when you neglect yourself long enough, you aren’t the only one that suffers. Your kids and husband are also likely suffering from your lack of self-care.
In part this is because when you lose yourself, you also lose your passion, humanity and good nature. And without these it is difficult to hold your tongue, give unconditionally or set healthy boundaries. Isn’t it better to give the kids a bit more responsibility they can be proud of, your husband more room to contribute, and the family an opportunity to support your needs? They want you to be happier, stronger and healthier. They want to pamper, appreciate and indulge you throughout the year, if you’d only encourage them.
Self care is not a luxury. It is the basis of a healthy lifestyle and wards off chronic stress, poor eating habits, weight gain and self-hatred. Lack of self care is evident in the escalating weight gain during the past decade and the high levels of stress that women live with on a daily basis. Both of these put women at risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer and poor reproductive health. This is a high cost for putting oneself last on the list of priorities.
Mother’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the need mothers, and all women, have to lead healthier lives that include regular self care time. Self care starts with listening to your body and honoring it, determining whose beliefs are running you, rewriting the rules about being a perfectionist and discovering what really makes you feel good. These are just some of the things you can do to start living again and feeling great about yourself and your body. Consider what you can do for yourself. You may be surprised to discover your family won’t fall apart. It might even come a bit closer together.
Clair prides herself on being really good when she diets, until she isn’t. And then she is really really bad. She can’t seem to help herself. The moment she gets derailed and succumbs to food she knows she shouldn’t have, she is taken over by an insatiable desire for all the foods she’s been denied the past few weeks. The pattern is always the same.
Then there are people like Betsy, who are really good during the day, only to leave work and find themselves unable to stop their desire for fast food, ice cream, chips or cookies. Betsy would head to the closest convenience store after work, where she loaded up on cookies, an ice cream bar and candy, and then hurriedly ate it all on her commute home. Mike did the same, always stopping for some candy.
Nancy never stopped; she would go straight home, but then raid her cabinets for any junk food she could find, feeling as if possessed by a demon. Why she would ask me, as the others did, am I so bad at night after being so good during the day?
For the same reason dieters go on a binge the night before their diet starts or right when it ends.
I call it restricted rebellion. You can also call it the deprivation-binge rollercoaster. When you have been restricted or deprived of foods you want, you want them all the more. And then when you get your hands on that food, you feel compelled to eat as much as you can while you can, knowing you are bad and it has to be the last time. That self-imposed belief that you should and will be restricted again creates an emotional need and child-like rebellion against that very restriction.
In addition, eating food you believe you shouldn’t have creates guilt, anxiety and a self-loathing that is soothed by eating comfort food, temporarily relieving the feelings with a dose of happy denial. Another name for this is emotional eating.
The answer is to give yourself permission to have all the foods you love as part of your diet. You can call it cheating, but that only recreates feelings of being bad and guilty, which drive emotional overeating and bingeing. Instead, cheating only works when you don’t believe it is cheating.
Cheating suggests there are bad foods you shouldn’t have, and that if you have them you are bad and will either gain weight or not be able to lose weight. That is simply not true. You can eat any food in moderation, particularly if it is part of a healthy balanced diet. This is what Clair, Mike, Tiffany, Nancy and Betsy learned. By eating more of the foods they wanted during the day in a healthy way, they no longer felt deprived or in need of rewarding themselves for being so good in the evening or when their diets stopped.
They also discovered something they would never have believed. They no longer wanted to overindulge in their “bad” foods once they had permission to eat them. They were finding they were easily satisfied by less and that overeating and bingeing wasn’t enjoyable. Nancy couldn’t believe it when she actually threw away half her big cookie, because she really didn’t want any more of it. “Was that the real me?, she asked.”
It was. She was no longer being driven by her inner child rebelling for more or by her need to stifle her guilt. Now she could actually focus on tasting her food and being fully satisfied with less of it.
When you don’t let yourself have what you want, you will eat excessively in an attempt to gain that elusive satisfaction. Better to go ahead and cheat, and let yourself have the food you love. You will have less of it and have greater success with achieving and maintaining weight loss.
As the saying goes “you can only love someone as much as you love yourself”, and I’ve learned the hard way how true this really is. Sadly there are too many people that don’t love themselves much, and often it is because of their internal self-criticism and belief they should be something other than who they are.
Sadly we live in a society where the emphasis is on an ultra thin body image, perfectionism and trying to measure up to an idea of what we think others want us to be. What about what we want for ourselves? What about appreciating our unique gifts, abilities and bodies? I know that sounds all very well and good, and I also know how hard it is to put into practice. I’ve been there, and lived a life of self hatred and shame up until thirteen years ago.
What is different is my choice not to judge myself and to revisit my beliefs that were causing me to be so self-critical. I discovered I really can love myself, and then to my surprise I found I no longer judged others and could have compassion and love more fully from my heart once that happened.
To make the transition, I started listening to my internal voice, which I found was saying “look what you just did you idiot”, “how could you be so stupid”, “I am unlovable”, “I will never be good enough”, “I can’t do this so what is the use”. As you can see, these are extreme and harsh things to be saying to oneself, and they are hardly true. This was my own distorted view of things based on my beliefs, and it was affecting how I felt about myself, how I viewed daily events, and how much I let others into my life.
Do you know if you are saying similar kinds of things to yourself? The only way to find out is to decide to pay attention and listen. You may be as shocked as I was when I first started to really hear what this inner voice was saying to me. I realized just how outrageous, unfair and debilitating this voice was, and that it was exaggerating what was really happening. It was also reinforcing beliefs that I had grown up with that were not ones I would have chosen had I been making the decisions.
Beliefs are the things you believe true about yourself and the world around you. They are your understanding of how things are or supposed to be, which get formed from repeatedly hearing and getting the same messages. Most beliefs come from our parents, friends and family, childhood experiences and the media. Once we become an adult, we take these beliefs on as sacred and unchangeable, and they become the driver of our thoughts, decisions and behaviors. But you can change your beliefs.
Beliefs are just that, beliefs. You can choose to believe you are unlovable, or you can choose to believe the opposite. You can believe that only thin women are beautiful, or you can believe women of any size can be just as lovely. You can believe that your favorite foods are bad and therefore you are guilty and bad whenever you eat them, or you can believe that it is fine to have your favorite food in moderation. Then if you happen to overeat that food, you can observe it without judgment and understand with compassion what triggered it – knowing there isn’t something wrong with you.
Judgment of yourself affects your self esteem and can lead to feelings that are just too hard to face, and that can lead to emotional eating, stress and depression. Judgment of others leads to the same thing. Think about it. If you don’t care what others think and they choose to judge you, who is affected? Them, not you. So the moral is to be aware of your own judgment and notice where it is coming from and if the associated beliefs are negative or limiting you.
The easiest way to change your belief is to be aware of your self talk, notice the extent it is critical or untrue, and then to create new beliefs and affirmations, which affirm your new belief. Affirmations are statements you say or read repeatedly over a period of days or weeks. “I am adorable and lovable” or “I can eat my favorite foods in moderation” are examples of affirmations. You may not initially believe them to be true, but the more you say them the more you reprogram your belief system and the more they will become your truth.
This Valentine’s Day, pay attention to what you are telling yourself and reprogram the messages.
How often have you made New Year’s resolutions that you struggle to keep because they were just too much work? I remember making my lists each year of all the things I should change about myself and the things I should start or stop doing. By the end of the first week in January, I was always failing to keep up with my expectations, and by the end of January, I had given up on my resolutions all together. How often have you had the same experience?
I now do resolutions differently. Instead of focusing on what I should do differently, I focus on picking a few things I would like to experience or do more of in the coming year, and I don’t set a specific date for getting started. I set an intention that I would like specific things to happen and then wait to be inspired to take action. For example, I decided five years ago that I wanted to try Pilates. A few months later, I was running errands in town when I ran into my neighbor, Adrienne, who taught Pilates. I didn’t know she was teaching Pilates, and I was excited to find out she was working with clients in their homes and didn’t need equipment to do it. This was perfect, and I was inspired to work with her. I loved it, and I’ve been doing Pilates ever since. It wasn’t a struggle; it wasn’t a chore. It was so easy and effortless to get started and stick with it.
A few years ago, my New Year’s intention was to add kick boxing to my fitness activities, and I wanted a certain type of instructor who could either work with me in my home or who had their own facility. Nearly eight months later I was introduced to Heidi, who was exactly the person I was looking for, and I trained with her for nearly two years. I loved working with her, and again it wasn’t a chore to me. It fit my lifestyle and my personality. It is possible that a whole year could have gone by without meeting her, and if that had happened, I would have re-evaluated if that was still a resolution I wanted that next January.
Very often, just the act of setting resolutions and feeling excited about a new year can be the inspiration you need to make a change in your life. When I started exercising eight years ago, it was the desire to take advantage of New Year’s that inspired me to make January 1st the date I began my commitment to fitness. There is something inspiring about a new school year or the beginning of the calendar year, and if you feel this way, it is the perfect time to take action.
The challenge is often narrowing the list of improvements down to just a couple of things, or just one thing, so you don’t lose your inspiration. A change to your routine or way of thinking isn’t easy to maintain at first, particularly if you’ve decided to make several changes at once. Very often, people who want to get healthy and fit attempt to add exercise and a change to their diet all at once. While some people do fine by combining these changes, many others find making several changes at once too overwhelming and difficult to keep up with. For them, it is better to pick one change at a time and to pick the one they are most inspired to do first. Then as they assimilate that change, they are encouraged by their success and have greater desire to add another change to their lifestyle.
There is nothing wrong with taking small steps and doing them in the order that feels most enticing to you. In fact, you have greater chance of success if you set small resolutions. You can always add to your resolutions at any time during the year. When you resolve to do something for yourself to improve how you feel or how you live, you are the one in control of your expectations. Give yourself permission to set more realistic and enjoyable expectations. A great way to do this is ask yourself on a scale of 0-10, how confident are you that you will achieve the resolution you’ve created. If your confidence is anything less than a 10, reduce the goals to the point you can say you are fully confident at a 10 on the confidence scale.
Resolutions and their start dates don’t have to be carved in stone. They can be fluid and adjustable. They can also be chosen to accommodate what you want to experience so they feel good, instead of being a “should” that is measured against a rigid expectation. This year, set yourself up for success instead of disappointment.
Ahhhh another school year. Whether you have kids or not, the change in temperature and shorter days reminds us all that is time to get refocused and back to work – or back to the gym and regular workout routines. But just like kids, you don’t want to go back and you put it off for a day and than one more day. And the next thing you know it is the holidays and you never did start exercising or eating better. And of course you can’t get started once the holidays begin, so you wait until New Years when you feel more uncomfortable, overweight and disappointed in yourself. Is this a familiar story? It doesn’t have to be.
Why not create healthy routines that you look forward to instead of dread. To succeed long term in getting back into shape, maintaining your health and achieving a great feeling in your body means creating a lifestyle that fits your life, not the other way around. Forcing something to work that you really resent or is more than you can really take on isn’t likely to last. The first time your schedule gets disrupted it will be the first thing to go and the last thing to add back in. Think of what usually happens for you and if this is generally true. Do you really want to get back on that treadmill or start that diet? I didn’t think so.
Determine instead what is realistic for you and your body. Start by creating small realistic daily or weekly practices that slowly change your lifestyle so that eating better and regular exercise get easily incorporated in your planning and schedule. It is better to start with just a few changes and a small commitment – maybe exercising a few days a week doing as much time as you can and working up to five days for 30-40 minutes. What is most important is incrementally increasing the days, time and intensity in a way that is best for your fitness level and schedule. This isn’t a race or a comparison game. It is a process of incorporating fitness for a lifetime.
The same goes for food. When we feel fat, we start a diet. But diets have less than a 4% success rate. Almost no one can keep the weight off a year or more after the diet, but that doesn’t stop us from trying what everyone is doing. This is particularly alluring for us as women. We are compelled to do the next diet. It is far better to select healthy options from among foods you enjoy, and to eat when you get hungry and stop before you get full. You will be more successful long term if you enjoy what you eat, feel free to eat what you love without being deprived or judged, and creating a routine that isn’t driven by the latest diet. This is easier than starting something new every six months.
And know what is right for you. Decide what is realistic and sustainable in your daily life. Everyone’s goals, abilities and schedules are different, so it is best to focus on your situation and not someone else’s. If you push too hard, you can get burned out, frustrated, injured or impatient for results. If you cut too far back on food, you will lose your muscle mass, reduce your metabolism and end up overeating when the diet is done. It is better to start with moderation and healthy choices with enough variety to keep you interested and your body supported, so you have successes and feel motivated to stay on track.
Focus on choosing things you think you will enjoy most of the options you have available to you. Sometimes that means trying new things, such as new foods or new types of activities. You may find that you really like some of them. This is how I came to love Pilates, kick boxing and even P90X. Listen to your body and what feels best to you. You might find that a new way of eating or activity grows on you because of how good it feels to your body.
So now that fall is in the air, what simple steps can you take that are appealing and realistic to boost your aerobic levels, balance your meals and take care of your health, so you can avoid that holiday weight gain?
My client Lori had stopped eating junk food after learning how easy it was to be consciously in control of her food. She was also finding, much to her surprise, how much she actually wanted to eat whole foods and vegetables. She was having fun cooking up healthy recipes, easily making healthy choices and loving how good she felt. Lori told me she couldn’t imagine ever going back to her daily Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds and late night snicker’s bar routine. She just couldn’t see why she would want to do that again.
Yet two weeks later, when she called in for her session, she had done just that. She felt awful about failing and what she’d been doing to her body, and she couldn’t believe she’d gone back to a routine she knew didn’t work for her. She felt even worse that up until the moment she picked up the phone to call me, she hadn’t even realized how far she had slipped. And then she told me that her daughter had been in a serious accident 10 days earlier and was still in critical condition.
All she’d been able to focus on was getting back and forth to the hospital, rearranging her schedule to be with her daughter as much as possible, dealing with the doctors and insurance company, and dealing with her emotions about her daughter surviving and what would happen in the months ahead. Yet she knew that letting her own health slide wasn’t going to help, and she felt terrible for not being able to keep up her new habits.
The truth is, getting derailed was to be expected and nothing to feel terrible about, especially so soon after making those healthy changes. And once she understood what had happened and why, she was able to get back on track and come up with a healthy routine during the next eight weeks her daughter was in critical care.
What happened was simple. While she was busy focusing on her daughter, she put her eating choices on autopilot and turned them over to her subconscious. Her subconscious then defaulted to her junk-food routine, which was more deeply established than her newer healthy choices. She hadn’t even noticed, because her conscious awareness was consumed by her daughter’s situation.
When you aren’t conscious, your subconscious runs your habitual and deeply ingrained patterns on autopilot. Just like getting in the car and turning the driving over to that part of you that knows how to drive, as you think about other things. Obviously, the more conscious you are of your driving, the more likely you are to make better decisions when a dangerous situation arises. Just as with food. The more conscious you are of what your body needs and how it feels, the more likely you will make healthier choices.
That is why being conscious of how you feel when you eat (whether it is how hungry you are, how you feel physically orhow satisfied you are) is key to being in control of your behavior around food, especially in the first year of making significant changes in your eating routines. In time, when you have fully reprogrammed your subconscious with healthier habits, then running on autopilot is less of a problem. But until then, having a way to stay conscious around food and putting strategies in place to make it easier to make healthy choices during the day is the best way to stay on course, even when you are facing challenging situations.
Lori was so grateful she didn’t have to feel guilty, and she realized that it didn’t take all that much effort to have a good breakfast, keep an eye on her hunger levels, have some healthy snacks with her during the day and get a decent dinner in the hospital cafeteria. It was simply a matter of conscious awareness.
Have you ever noticed that when you aren’t satisfied by the food you are eating, you eat even more in an attempt to get satisfaction?
Maybe you are settling for food you think you should have, instead of what you really want. Or maybe you think you want a food because it is supposed to be good or once was, so you eat it expecting a certain experience. I see this happen a lot with my clients who overeat out of a desire to feel good only to end up feeling disappointed, full and wishing they hadn’t eaten so much. They don’t even recognize this pattern because it is subconscious and they aren’t paying enough attention to how they feel physically or emotionally.
In our culture where dieting rules, we aren’t taught to value the importance of eating for satisfaction. In fact we are taught the opposite. We take on the belief it is virtuous to avoid the food we love, feel badly if we succumb to foods that are really good and assume that any food we really want is a bad food. We proudly deny the need in ourselves to enjoy food and feel satisfied, believing we are being good and will be rewarded on the scale. Sometimes that works, but very often it doesn’t.
Satisfaction is a genuine need that a part of you (often your inner child) craves and will do anything to get. Instead of resisting this desire to enjoy certain foods, give yourself permission to have the food and fully appreciate it without any guilt. If you are afraid of overdoing it, which is a valid concern at first, be strategic as to how much of your favorite food you can access at one time. If what you really want is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, see if you can get just one Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar in your favorite flavor. If you love a certain type of cookie or candy, find a way to get or create packages of just a couple at a time.
What so many of my clients have discovered to their amazement is that once they have permission to have their favorite foods and to experience the pleasure of satisfaction, they don’t want to eat all that much of it. When they pay attention to how good it tastes, they don’t overeat. Instead they may have just one of the two cookies they put on a plate, just one slice of pizza with a salad or just a few bites of a rich yummy dessert. That is all they really wanted, and they are amazed that by giving themselves what they really want they are intuitively and naturally in control. There isn’t any struggle or resistance.
It is when you deprive yourself, you give the food control over you. You obsess about it, eat it when no one is looking, eat too much of it or eat everything else in sight. It’s as if you are helpless to control yourself, and you are when you are unaware of the subconscious need to be satisfied that is driving your behaviors.
The same thing happens when you think you are allowing yourself a favorite food but still carry the diet mentality, believing you really shouldn’t have it and feeling guilty about it. When this happens, you can’t fully experience satisfaction. Instead the guilt feeds emotional eating, which causes you to overeat and create more fear about being out of control around this food.
When you stop judging foods as good or bad and allow yourself the pleasure of eating what you really enjoy, you discover it doesn’t take all that much to be satisfied. Even three bites can be enough, which is why some people go by the three-bite rule for yummy foods that aren’t highly nutritious, such as desserts and appetizers. I personally love dark chocolate and have two bites (1/2 square of bittersweet Bakers) with my lunch and dinner most days of the week. It does the trick and I can have chocolate in the house without overindulging. You can too.
This month, pick a food you’ve denied yourself that would be satisfying. Find a way to start off with just a bit of it in a controlled way, so you don’t scare yourself or experience overdoing it while you are still susceptible to the good/bad mentality and subsequent guilt.
Many people believe they are addicted to sugar, simple carbohydrates or other specific foods, because they crave them all the time and then seem to go crazy on a binge when they gain access to them. There is a good argument to support this belief in Dr. David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, which puts the blame on the food industry for developing foods specifically to create this uncontrollable preoccupation and compulsive eating.
Yet, having worked with many people who struggle with cravings, binges and a belief they are addicted to certain foods, I know the issue is just as much driven by subconscious factors as bio-chemical ones. I also know you don’t have to give up these foods to be in control of them, as he strongly recommends.
Dr. Kessler’s research findings conclude the reason people crave specific foods is the combination of fat, sugar and salt often used in those foods to stimulate dopamine in the brain, which feels really good. Once you’ve had a food with this combination that stimulates arousal, you’ll want it again and again. This is certainly an important breakthrough in understanding why people are irresistibly drawn to food that isn’t healthy and struggle to stop eating even when they are full. No doubt, the food industry has taken full advantage of this potent combination, putting them in processed and fast foods where you’d least expect to find them, to keep people coming back for more and boosting their profits.
One approach to dealing with this is to simply stop eating all types of desserts, packaged and processed foods, fast foods, and most restaurant meals, and replace them with healthy whole foods with no sugar, fat, salt or emotional triggers. And that will indeed eliminate the cravings, for a while.
But like dieting, very few people can stick with eliminating foods they enjoy long term without feeling deprived. While Kessler acknowledges this problem by suggesting you rewire your circuitry by creating unappealing images of the food, this doesn’t address the real issue of deprivation backlash and the need for food satisfaction.
A better way to address foods that are designed to trigger cravings is to incorporate them into a healthy diet, so they are balanced with other foods to create satisfaction. Satisfaction is an important element of eating, and you are just as likely to overeat in an attempt to reach satisfaction as you are when you are over-stimulated by too much satisfaction.
6 ways to control cravings and binges without giving up favorite foods,
1. Pay attention to how hungry, satisfied and full you feel. If you don’t know when you are satisfied physically or when you are full, you won’t realize you are overeating or appreciate how unpleasant it feels to get full.
2. Identify the food for what it is instead of calling it a bad food. Most highly stimulating foods, like cookies, are primarily a simple carbohydrate with saturated fat. It is harder to tell if it has much salt.
3. Balance this food with other foods that have complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fats and lean protein. If you want a cookie, then the trade off is to not have simple carbs or saturated fat in the rest of your meal or snack. When most of what you are eating is really healthy, having a little less healthy food doesn’t throw off the balance or make it unhealthy.
4. Give yourself permission to have this food in moderation when ever you balance it with healthier foods. When you eat food you think you shouldn’t, it creates a feeling of guilt and reinforces the belief that you should be deprived of it. This fuels emotional and rebellious eating, giving the food power over you. To take back your power, you have to stop seeing the food as a guilty pleasure or a forbidden food.
5. Really taste this food to see how much you enjoy it. When you aren’t over-stimulated or concerned about being deprived, you can more easily focus on tasting the food you crave. Most people find it isn’t as good as they thought and that healthier foods actually taste better.
6. Focus on creating satisfying meals with healthier foods. The more you remove the charge of highly-stimulating foods by allowing them in balanced moderation, the more likely you’ll gravitate to choosing healthier ways of being satisfied without feeling forced or deprived.
This approach, which is the basis of Intuitive Eating, addresses the emotional and bio-chemical cravings for foods designed to get us hooked. The less we eat of these foods, the less the food industry profits from them.
Do you binge, but don’t purge? Do you overeat at night on a regular basis? Do you eat when you are stressed or to cope? Do you eat in secret? Do you feel like a sugar or carbs addict? Do you eat lots of junk food?
Are you good during the day, but bad with food at night? Do you overeat forbidden foods before or after a diet? Have you been on multiple diets, yet still can’t seem to make healthy food choices or stay in control around certain foods? Or do you have restrictive eating and cheat days?
If you said yes to any of these, you have an eating problem. That does not mean you have an eating disorder, but you may be heading for one if you don’t change the way you eat and your relationship with food. Those with eating disorders are diagnosed with bulimia, anorexia or binge eating disorder, which are severe enough to put one’s health in danger.
Julia never worried about having an eating problem. She’d done about ten diets by the time she was 30, and she knew she could always diet to get into her favorite little dress when she needed to. But as her work got more stressful and her boyfriend began needling her about losing weight, she started skipping meals during the day and bingeing at night, often alone. She couldn’t seem to control what it said on the scale, and this scared her. She didn’t want to lose her boyfriend, so she starting purging after dinner and weighing herself constantly to ensure she was losing enough weight. Soon her routine became the norm, until she landed in the hospital weighing under a hundred pounds. She was stunned to realize she had taken things so far. She never intended to become bulimic.
It is likely that more than half of all adults in the US have an eating problem, but it goes undetected and unreported. No one talks about overeating, night eating, stress eating, emotional eating, sweets or junk food eating as a serious problem, but those who have these food patterns know it isn’t healthy and often carry feelings of shame about the way they eat. Many are also at risk, like Julia, of shifting into eating disorder behaviors.
Sadly, dieting contributes to the problem, yet dieting is the primary solution people are given to resolve eating issues by well-meaning physicians, nurses, coaches and nutritionists. In research conducted nearly twenty years ago, it was determined that 35% of those who dieted became pathological dieters, and a fourth of these people would progress into eating disorders. Very likely those percentages are much higher today, which explains why specialized eating disorder treatment centers are seeing such an increase in patients.
So what are the signs you may be heading for an eating disorder?
1) You are continually obsessed with counting calories, your weight, or what type of food you are (or are not) eating.
2) You get on the scale multiple times a day to check your weight.
3) You believe you are never perfect or thin enough, and you must control yourself with more restrictions and diligence to reach that state of perfection.
4) You exercise excessively to compensate for eating or to punish yourself for eating too much.
5) You hate your body, no matter how thin you get.
6) You are ashamed of the way you eat and often eat in hiding.
You don’t have to progress into an eating disorder to get help. More dieticians, coaches like myself, and a growing number of psychologists are now skilled in treating eating problems, particularly emotional eating, binge eating and body image issues. It is far easier to resolve these issues before they become life-threatening, but you have to be willing to reach out for our help.
The good news is, eating problems are fairly easy to resolve. So don’t wait to get help if you think you have a problem, no matter how small you think it might be. You can eat normally, and you can be free of the shame you carry about your body and yourself. I know, because I used to carry that shame and struggled with eating issues for most of my life. I wish I had gotten help sooner. So does Julia.
You wish your sweetheart took better care of themselves and weren’t so overweight, but whenever you try to help, it backfires. You’ve tried friendly suggestions, cooked up healthy meals, kept cookies and ice cream out of the house, and resisted saying too much. Yet it bothers you that your significant other is only getting heavier and doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it, and it is affecting how you feel about them. Now what?
Martin had the same problem with his girlfriend Ellen, and more than once she told him to back off when he tried to give advice or encourage her to make changes. He loves her, but he wasn’t sure he could stay with her if she didn’t start taking care of her health and losing some weight.
The truth is, you can’t force anyone to change, no matter how nice you try to be about it. But you can make it easier for them to make those changes for themselves. As we all know, when it is just as easy to get a delicious hearty salad as it is to grab a bag of cookies, it is more likely we will have the salad and maybe a cookie or two to go with it.
If our environment makes it simpler and easier to make healthier choices, than we are more inclined to do them. This is why more businesses and communities are working to provide easier access to walking areas, healthy foods and fitness support. You can do the same for your partner.
Have healthy foods in the house
To make it easier for both of you to eat well, you need to stock your refrigerator and freezer with healthy foods that are fast to make, easy to dress up and taste really good. These days it is easy to find good frozen foods, pre-cut vegetables and very simple fast recipes.
But do not remove unhealthy food from the house in an attempt to force healthier choices. Your mate will only go out and get more of that food out of anger and a genuine fear of deprivation.
Buy healthy meals or a meal service
If you don’t want to prepare meals yourself, get healthy to-go options at your favorite restaurant or grocery store, and look for a service that delivers meals. You may be surprised how affordable these options are.
Everyone prefers healthy foods if they taste good, including vegetables. You may be surprised how much your significant other looks forward to these balanced healthy meals.
Suggest healthier restaurants
Some restaurants are healthier than others, and more places are providing locally sourced foods, which often includes more vegetables and cleaner foods. Go exploring to see what new healthy restaurants have popped up in the area, and make it a date night. The goal isn’t to stay on a diet but to find delicious well balanced fare, so it’s easier to make a healthier choice.
Keep healthy snacks and water around
One of the main reasons people overeat and binge on junk food and sweets is because they get so hungry they go for the easiest food and then can’t stop eating out of a compulsion to make up for not getting enough food earlier. The way to avoid that is to have healthy snacks on hand in the house, in the car, in your bags or in the office – for yourself and your partner. Water is also important. When you don’t get enough water, you deplete your energy and your metabolism slows down.
Take a cooking class together
Cooking can be fun, and a cooking class is a great way to do something together, taste new interesting foods and get recipe ideas. The class doesn’t have to be just about healthy food. The idea is to learn some cooking techniques, discover new flavors and be open to cooking at home. It is easier to prepare healthy foods for sweetie, if you both know how to cook or have some recipes you like.
Suggest some easy activities
Try suggesting activities you can do together that sound fun and don’t take lots of time or exceeds your partner’s physical capabilities. You want to make being active inviting instead of intimidating, such as birding, walking a nature trail with great views, seeing a great view that takes some stairs, dancing, taking a ballroom dance class, or anything enjoyable that requires limited exertion. Baby steps are the key to getting them interested in doing even more active outings.
Offer to be a walking buddy
Your partner probably assumes you would not be interested in walking with them on a regular basis. Yet you might actually enjoy that. Martin did, and Ellen was totally amazed. She knew she couldn’t walk as fast or as far, and she thought Martin would hate walking with her. But that wasn’t true. He enjoyed getting time with her after work, and he loved that it was outdoors and doing something active. So if you think it is appropriate, offer to be a walking buddy, even if the pace is slower than you prefer at first.
Be loving and non-judgmental
It is so easy to judge others for being overweight, yet you don’t know what they are dealing with or why it is so hard for them to change. Honestly neither does your significant other, who also struggles to understand why they don’t do as they know they should. And the more they try, often the worse it gets, because the real problem is not lack of willpower or intelligence. The problem is buried deep in their subconscious beliefs and emotions, which drives choices and behavior unconsciously on autopilot.
Don’t sabotage their efforts
You may think you know best and can help your sweetheart by either denying specific foods or rewarding with treats. That doesn’t help at all. Nor does pushing someone to be better or make better choices. They aren’t you, and if you push, they will rebel and get angry. Let them discover that the more they do that feels good to their body, the more healthy things they will want to do, particularly if they aren’t trying to measure up to someone else’s expectations.
The worst thing you can do is make the one you love feel guilty, ashamed or bad about themselves. That will backfire. It is human nature to resist doing anything for yourself when you have low self-esteem, just as it is normal to turn to food to avoid painful feelings or shame.
As Martin learned, the best thing you can do is help your partner feel good about their choices and about themselves by supporting them in a non-threatening way. By doing little things that made healthier decisions easier, Ellen started to make small changes and feel good about her little successes. Martin didn’t try to take the credit or push her to do more; he was simply there to listen and be supportive. A year later, Ellen had slimmed down and became the one who wanted to take an active vacation and encouraging Martin to run with her in a 5k. The same could happen in your relationship.
This column was originally posted at YourTango.com.
If you’ve ever lost weight and rewarded yourself with a whole new wardrobe, you’ve wrestled with what to do with your fat clothes. Do you keep them just in case? Do you toss them, with hopes this will keep you from regaining the weight? Or is there a better way to deal with them?
I get asked this periodically from clients experiencing weight loss, and my answer often surprises them. I encourage them to keep at least one size (or even two sizes) larger than where they are now. So each time they lose a size, they can clear their closets of clothes two or three sizes too big or at least keep a few of the garments they really love at those sizes.
They wonder why I would suggest they keep any of them, since with me they lose weight slowly as an extension of their new healthy choices and don’t expect to be regaining it. I can understand why this might seem contradictory, but I have learned through personal experience that it helps to have a range of sizes in your closet even if you stay active and fit. This is particularly true for women. We retain water, have hormonal fluctuations, go through menopause, and don’t easily stay at one size month after month.
I’m a good example. After my second year of achieving regular exercising and eating well, I was wearing size 4s. Two years earlier I was in 16s and prior to that I had been wearing size 6s and 8s from my many years of dieting. Over the past thirteen years I’ve found myself mostly wearing size 6s and sometimes 8s. Had I gotten rid of all those 6s and 8s in my wardrobe, it would have been a big mistake. I seldom fit in those 4s, but I hold on to them for when I do.
This isn’t because I fail to keep active, go on binges or lose control. It is because it takes a lot of exercising for my body to be a size 4, and in maintenance mode (really just my healthy lifestyle mode), I don’t want to work that hard at it. I am also susceptible to gaining weight, as so many of us are, and when I get sick or injured and can’t be as active for weeks at a time I will go up to a size 8. Yet I always know that I’ll be more active soon enough, which gives me the freedom to wear the larger clothes in my closet without getting bent out of shape about what might be happening with my weight.
Similarly, when I decide to embark on really intense exercise challenges, like when I start working with a new trainer or doing a new fitness program, I know that I have those 4s ready for me if I need them. I’m not a natural size 4 and can’t sustain that size without a lot of exercising to shift my metabolic set point, yet periodically I will get motivated to become super fit and then I find myself back into those clothes.
It is not uncommon for those who lose weight, whether by dieting or a healthier lifestyle approach, to reach a weight or size they can’t fully sustain. The difference is, those who lost it by taking it slowing and creating a fit and active lifestyle will find they fluctuate a bit around that size (up or down) depending on their current levels of activity. Those who dieted for rapid weight loss will likely regain all they lost and add on even more.
When you stop getting attached to being a certain weight or a certain size as you embark on an active healthy lifestyle, you can relax and let yourself have periods when you are less active and not pushing yourself so much. This is incredibly freeing and gives you permission to feel just fine wearing your larger clothes. If you find those clothes getting a bit tight, as I did not too long ago, it gives you the motivation to amp up your activities and your metabolism. By then you will probably feel ready for the challenge. Most people who have been active for a number of years get restless to do more after periods of taking it easy.
The nice thing is, you can go with that flow in your closet if you have a range of sizes. My range is 4-8; others I know have a range of 12-16. We all have our own optimal healthy weight, and one is not better than another. It depends on our family genetics, our history with weight and diets, our hormones, our level of regular activity and how well we fuel our metabolism. My father was tall and slim, and I inherited his build and metabolism. Had I inherited my mom’s frame, I would likely be wearing 8-12s. That wouldn’t change how I felt about myself or my clothes; I’d still be glad I had a range of sizes in my closet.
It happens to all of us at one time or another: the inability to exercise for a few days or even weeks as a result of illness, injury, an emergency, extra work, vacation or any number of situations. It has happened to me twice in the past three months. In December I couldn’t do any aerobic exercise for almost three weeks due to bronchitis and holiday travel, and then I tore a muscle in my arm that has been slow to heal. Yet unlike the past when I would have felt I’d failed and it was too much to get restarted, I was able to easily get back on track. But for most people getting started again feels too hard and challenging, yet it is easier than you may think.
The biggest issue is the perception about a derailment, regardless of the cause. Too often it is seen as evidence of failure, even if it is totally outside of your control. You aren’t in control of getting sick or injured. You can’t avoid times when you have to step in to deal with a family emergency or address an issue at work. And you wouldn’t want to skip going on vacation or taking time out for other types of activities in your life. And none of these make you bad or a failure if you aren’t able or don’t choose to exercise during these times.
There was nothing I could do about getting sick or injured, and the best thing for me has been to rest, take it much slower or lower the intensity when I am active, and let myself fully heal. Under these types of circumstances, you can look at non-exercise as another way of taking care of yourself, equally as beneficial as exercising. Then when you are ready to be active again, you can start back into your routine gently at a slower pace.
This is the safest and most successful way to get back on track without overwhelming yourself or your body, and within a short period of time you will be in full swing as if you hadn’t missed a day. Looking back a few weeks or months later, you would have a hard time even remembering that you had a week or two off or had a week of doing a bit less – sort of like when you take a vacation.
Feeling like you have to start all over again is one of the most common reasons many people don’t resume exercise after a period of inactivity. It feels like too much effort to start over, and from that perspective it looms over you and zaps your energy. Yet you aren’t starting over at all; even if it feels that way. You are just resuming after a short break. And surprisingly, you will bounce back very quickly once you get going, and you don’t have to start back at the same frequency, pace or exertion level you had before the time off.
So why not give yourself a break and start back with lower expectations and a gentler pace? There is nothing wrong with that. This is the best way actually to regain your motivation, re-establish how good it makes you feel to get moving and get your body back up to speed. It doesn’t matter if it takes you a few days or a few weeks to regain your former fitness levels.
Instead of seeing a break in your fitness routine as a setback or derailment, see it as an expected part of your fitness lifestyle that will occur from time to time and one that you can easily accommodate and work with.
Does it make you uncomfortable to throw out food these days, compelling you to eat it instead? Did you grow up hearing that kids are starving in Africa, to always clean your plate or that throwing out food is no different than wasting money? Many of us did and it hits home during an economic recession, but that doesn’t mean those beliefs warrant eating food that you don’t need or don’t want. Instead, it may be time to reconsider the benefits of wasting food rather than eating it.
If you stop and think about it, whether you finish eating something or you don’t will not save you money, and having a clean plate as an adult is really a habit and doesn’t serve any real purpose. To address these beliefs requires a change in thinking and some techniques to change your habits.
It starts by looking at these beliefs and deciding if they still serve you or not. If not, what belief would make more sense for you now, such as “before I get full, no matter how much is on my plate, I will stop eating and determine the best thing to do with the remaining food.” Sometimes the best thing is to save them as leftovers, mix them with new ingredients for another dish, or ask for a doggy bag. Or you could throw the rest of it out, if none of these are possible.
Throwing food away is more challenging for most of us. It really does feel like money is being wasted, but this needs to be put in perspective. If you can’t see a way to save it, then you are faced with two options. Eat it or toss it. The cost of tossing it may be far cheaper than the cost of eating it – if you take a long term view rather than an immediate one.
Let’s look at the cost of wasting it versus putting it on your waist. Often this issue comes up at dinner time, which is the most expensive meal of the day. If the meal costs $16 and there is 25% more than you need, then the amount you don’t eat is worth $4. If this happens five times a week, and you can’t find a way to reuse the food three of those times, the total cost for the week is $12. Or perhaps you didn’t eat half of the food on some of those occasions, so the total cost is $20. How often do you spend $20 a week on things you don’t really need? Could you buy smaller portions of food, split portions with others or put less food out on your plate to begin with to avoid the extra expense?
Now consider eating all that food instead. If you eat a few hundred more calories than you need or than you burn off, you are putting on weight. As you gain weight, you need larger clothes and you will likely contemplate starting a new diet. Both can be costly. How much have you spent in the last year doing a diet or on buying new clothes – either from gaining weight or yo-yoing down and back up?
In addition, this weight gain often gets added around your mid-section, and this fat is the leading cause of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and the need for medications. What are you spending in co-pays for doctor visits and medications related to these conditions?
And there is one more thing to think about. Overeating affects your energy level, your mood and your self confidence. What is it costing you to feel lousy and dragged down? Probably more than you think.
While wasting food is not ideal, it is better to look at your options than to carry a black and white belief about waste. The next time you find yourself with more food than you need or want, consider what your beliefs are, if you think they make sense, and what would be better. You have the power to challenge and change your beliefs around food if you stop and look at them. This week, take the opportunity to see what your beliefs about wasting food are costing you.