If you had told me 10 years ago that I could have as much dessert as I wanted and still be healthier and happier than ever, I would have thought you were joking. But that’s exactly what I am now able to do now — though the journey hasn't always been easy.
As a teenager, I imposed strict rules on myself: celery and carrots rather than chips with lunch, no more than three bites of dessert, and limited portions of sugar or carbs. I was healthy, but I also always felt deprived by the rigidity of my rules.
Once I got to college, I was unable to maintain such a strict way of eating. I started eating more sugar cookies and pizza in the dining hall. When I gained weight or ate too much, I felt so angry at myself that I would try to only eat very “healthy” things for days. But it never lasted long. I would always break my rules and spin off into a cycle of restriction and overindulgence. I knew that my overall eating was unhealthy, and even worse, it made me unhappy to feel so out of control.
Eventually, I got so frustrated that I decided I had to find another way. I wanted to be healthy, but even more than that, I wanted to feel like I could trust myself with food. So instead of limiting any foods, I promised myself that I could eat whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted, as long as I was hungry.
I’ll be honest: This was not easy to do. I was afraid that if I let myself eat whatever I wanted, I would drink gallons of melted chocolate every day and gain 400 pounds. But that didn’t happen. Here’s what happened instead:
1. At first, I consumed a lot of junk food, and it was scary.
For years, I had fantasized about certain foods: peanut butter cups, carrot cake, apple pie with cinnamon crumble on top. And when I told myself that I could eat anything that I wanted, I went to town on those foods. Eating this way was scary — not only were these foods unhealthy, I was also afraid I was going to gain a ton of weight.
And yet, I noticed that my feelings toward these foods seemed to be changing. Once I gave myself permission to have as much as I wanted, a single slice of cake or pie was usually all I wanted. Bizarrely, I wasn’t gaining weight despite eating the junk food, which seemed to be due to the fact that I was eating only when I was hungry and stopping when I was satisfied.
2. Gradually, I started eating healthy foods because I wanted to.
To my own surprise, I gradually started eating more nutritious foods — protein, fruits, vegetables — without forcing myself or making any rules. My boyfriend at the time even noticed that I had started carrying precut vegetables in my purse instead of a chocolate bar, which had been my habit when I first started letting myself eat whatever I wanted.
The best feeling of all was knowing that I was eating this way not because I “had” to but because when I asked my body what it would genuinely like to eat, it chose relatively healthy foods.
3. My biggest lesson was that eating like myself is more important than eating like a guru or diet expert.
For years, I had felt like I “should” be eating the diets I saw in magazines or self-help books. I thought I should give up sugar or carbs or meat or dairy entirely. And when I kept breaking those rules, I felt angry and upset with myself.
But taking away all of the rules forced me to listen to my own body. I was happily surprised to find that when I listen to my own body instead of imposing some external rules, I make relatively healthy decisions.
If I eat ice cream or fried food at one meal, my body naturally will want to eat something lighter later. If I eat out a lot on vacation, it naturally wants simpler food for a few days afterward.
Of course, I still have chocolate almost every day, but I have found a balance that works for me. Now I can go out to dinner with friends for Mexican food, or keep cereal or Nutella in the house, and not worry about getting “out of control.”
And that has been a truly amazing thing.
Do you struggle with emotional eating? Here are a few tips to help you take control of your eating habits.