“I wish I just didn’t have to eat at all!” That’s what Jamie told me during a recent office visit. I understood what she was saying. She’d been “serial dieting”, trying one thing after another, rejecting certain foods one week only to embrace them the next. She was confused, frustrated, irritable and hungry. Her clothes still didn’t fit, and she had no idea how to even think about food without getting anxious.
She’s not the first woman I’ve come across to have this feeling. Fad diets are big business in the US, with new options popping up all the time. And these diets, that typically don’t produce the results they promise (or, if they do, it’s only for a short time) often position certain foods as okay and others as off limits. So as women try one after the other, their entire relationship with food is thrown off course.
Let’s take a look at why our relationship with food has become so dysfunctional, and then I’ll give you some practical tips for repairing that relationship so you can enjoy eating again and maintain a healthy weight.
Why so many women have a difficult relationship with food
Food is so much more than sustenance in our culture. That’s one of the main reasons women have such a rocky relationship with food – almost as complicated as their relationships with other people.
We aren’t eating simply because it’s necessary for survival anymore. In fact, we eat for almost any reason! Celebrations often feature long buffet tables laden with food, or for more formal occasions, a big sit-down meal. We eat to reward ourselves for a job well done. We eat to console ourselves when something doesn’t go as expected. Hunger often has nothing to do with when (or what) we eat.
On top of that, women have been conditioned to see food as either good or bad, hero or villain. Sometimes, we think that some of the very foods we need to keep our bodies functioning well and maintain an ideal weight (like healthy fats) should be avoided at all costs. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers, and the messages from the media and the diet industry are often contradictory. No wonder so many women are confused!
Sometimes the relationship is so contentious it develops into an eating disorder. If that’s the case for you, it’s important that you seek professional help to work through it before doing irreparable damage to your health. But for women who simply need some guidance and a few practical tips to shift the balance, I have some thoughts on how to get back on track.
Repairing Your Relationship with Food
As women struggle with their ideas about food, we are realizing more every day that nutrition is our best chance at being healthy. Food provides information to every cell in our bodies. And the information a cookie provides is vastly different than the message broccoli sends. The phytonutrients in plants provide positive data to the DNA in our cells, which makes a difference in our skin, hair, nails, energy levels, and overall long term health.
Understanding this is the key to making changes. It’s time to stop feeling guilt about eating, and start learning how to enjoy it. Changing the way you feel about food will take time.
Instead of looking at food as an adversary, try thinking of it as a friend and mentor. When you do, food just might become one of the best friends you’ve ever had!
I’m not saying it’s easy, but the good news is you don’t have to manage it alone. In fact, I have a whole program designed to help women lose weight and keep it off – because it teaches them what’s behind their detrimental eating patterns while offering real strategies for changing habits once and for all.
If you aren’t ready to go all in, I can still help. I’m here to support you every step of the way, at whatever level you’re ready for. Let’s start with a few tips to help you love what you are eating – and yourself for making healthy choices!
Create New Traditions
Many of our habits are born out of family tradition or cultural norms. Unfortunately, many of these traditions (especially in the US) center around unhealthy foods. Baking with children or grandchildren is great fun, but it’s really the feeling of togetherness that we love. You can bake a healthy treat and enjoy the same quality time with family. Or start a new family tradition – go for a hike, pick apples, or volunteer to help others.
Try the “Cookie Experiment”
Consciously experience the different messages different foods send to your body. For a 3 o’clock snack one day, eat a cookie. Write down how you feel – satisfaction levels, cravings, and energy – for the next 3 hours. The next day, eat an apple and some cheese, or carrots with guacamole, at 3 o’clock. Again, write how you feel over the next 3 hours. Compare your observations, and keep the difference in mind next time you reach for a quick sugar fix.
Don’t Make Food Your “Fix”
Dr. Pam Peeke, author of The Hunger Fix says that we all have a fix, “an entrenched habit that’s so comfortable, it feels like a hug or an island of calm.” For many women this fix is some type of food, but it doesn’t need to be. Peeke recommends finding “healthy fixes” that are “productive, positive habits associated with feelings of pride, happiness and achievement.” For you, this might be yoga, hiking, running, dancing, playing a game with your children or grandchildren, painting or drawing, or making something – a craft or even a healthy meal or snack. There are so many options available – choose a couple and turn to them when you need comfort, instead of turning to the cupboards for an unhealthy snack.
Hit the Pause Button
Often, eating isn’t about hunger at all. You might be bored, stressed, or on emotional overload. Colette Baron-Reid, author of Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much, discusses the complex emotional reasons people eat. “We turn to food to feel grounded in our own physicality, separate from the confusing jumble of emotions we’re experiencing,” she writes. Though it isn’t easy, the key is to find new ways to get yourself grounded quickly. A few deep breaths or a quick visualization of something you love can help get you there. Then you can make a real choice. You can discover what you are really craving – maybe sleep, comfort, or love – instead of defaulting to food.
When you stock your shelves with unhealthy choices, you’re setting yourself up to fail if healthy eating is your goal. If you have trouble resisting a bag of potato chips, don’t keep them in the house. Avoid the grocery store if you are in a tough place emotionally – wait until you are feeling better, and you’ll be far more prepared to leave the cookies on the shelf.
Take Your Time
Even when you find yourself needing to eat by yourself or on the go take a few moments to really experience and enjoy the food. Sit in the sunshine, eat slowly and pay attention to each bite. Enjoy the smell, texture, and taste of your food rather than rushing through the experience. You will feel much more satisfied when you are finished.
It’s not as scary as it might sound to cook with fresh ingredients. You are worth the time it takes to prepare a delicious meal packed with seasonal vegetables. Spend a little time choosing great recipes, planning your meals, shopping, cutting and preparing the food. Allowing yourself to experience the food from store (or even better, farm) to table can help you appreciate what you are eating so much more.
Make a conscious choice — every time you eat!
You have an opportunity to make a choice with every single snack or meal — even every bite! Don’t fall into the trap of eating six cookies just because you ate one. When you recognize that YOU have the power, you can choose to indulge a little, and enjoy it. That’s because you’ll be making good choices most of the time. I follow the 80/20 rule, and recommend it to my clients as well. If you eat good, healthy foods 80% of the time, you have a little leeway with the other 20%. Often, when you stop thinking certain foods are always off limits, you won’t even want them anymore!
Taking the time to build new habits, find new recipes and create new traditions isn’t always easy. But you are worth it! Putting great things into your body will help you love it more – inside and out!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD