The Scientific Reason You Feel Out of Control Around Food (And How To Take Back Your Power)
All my life I've been on a weight roller coaster. From the time I was 8 years old I was very aware of my body and that its shape and size was bigger than most of my girlfriends' bodies. Combine that heightened body awareness with some questionable "health" advice from adult influencers in my life and you've pretty much got the recipe for a lifelong battle with body image.
Overeating is something I've always struggled with. I can feel when I'm getting full, but the ability to stop then has seemed out of reach for me. I once saw a special on the news about a woman who lost weight by "just stopping when she was full." Seems simple, right? Seems like the most intuitive ability we should all possess, right? Well then what was so wrong with me that I couldn't stop at that point?
Fast-forward to high school and college, where I had some pretty rough patches of disordered eating. I was restricting what I ate to far less than what the World Health Organization recommends for the average adult on a daily basis and thought I was doing it all in the name of "health," or at least that's what I told myself and everyone around me. If you've ever struggled with any type of disordered eating (which almost every woman I've ever met has) then you know what it can do to your relationships, your work life, your creativity, your desire to really live; all of a sudden your No. 1 priority is your weight. And it's often under the guise of trying to "get healthy" or "get in shape," which is what makes it even more difficult to realize there's a deeper issue going on.
Once I finished college I was very aware that my relationship with food and my body was not healthy and was trying very hard to remedy that. Instead of counting calories to stay under a maximum number, I was now counting calories to make sure I was eating enough so that people would stop asking me if I was OK. But that, too, became another strange, obsessive version of a diet.
What I'm getting at here is that dieting (counting, weighing, portion controlling, restricting, etc.) does no good for anyone. This might sound like a stretch, but there is no solid evidence at this point in time that proves dieting creates long-term health or weight loss. In fact, most of the research out there actually suggests that dieting just creates weight cycling, which in a nutshell is the yo-yo effect so many people are familiar with; you diet, your cravings feel out of control, you end up overeating and feel the heavy waves of guilt, and then find yourself on another diet soon thereafter. It's a nasty cycle, one that I am so grateful for having been able to break.
So how do you get out of the dieting mindset? I'm not going to pretend like it's a snap decision you can make today to feel free from body image struggles tomorrow. It's always going to be a work in progress. But there are three things that I keep at top of mind—literally on a note on my desk—that help me continue plugging along toward food and body freedom:
A huge part of the reason I never felt like I was able to stop when I was satisfied was because I didn't really feel like I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I always felt like I had to limit myself so as not to gain any more weight. But what happens when we restrict ourselves is a very biological response; our bodies think there is a famine going on and then they trigger all sorts of cravings. That biological response is what makes so many people feel like they can't control themselves around food, because whenever they're around it it's like a feeding frenzy; your body is doing what it can to make sure it has enough food to last through the famine until the next feast. So by really giving yourself permission (I'm talking full-blown permission to eat the pizza, the cookies, the cake, the pasta, whatever it is for you), you will notice over time that most of that food is not appealing anymore. At least not in the large quantities that once seemed extremely desirable. Practice giving yourself permission and just start to take notice of how your cravings shift.
2. Conscious curiosity:
I am always asking myself questions. Why do I want that? What do I really want right now? How am I feeling? Am I taking care of my needs? How is that going to make me feel right now? Later? Etc.
A lot of the time we do things on autopilot; we eat, work, and communicate without consciously realizing what we are doing. By asking yourself some super-simple questions and getting curious about what you really want in the moment, you're much more able to meet your needs. And meeting your needs is crucial in stopping the urge to overeat. Knowing what you really want and then giving yourself permission to have it seems so simple, but it's something so many of us just don't do.
An even better question if you're someone who struggles with giving yourself the permission to go after what you want is "Why not?" "Why don't I feel like I can?" Asking yourself these things hypothetically won't do much other than make you feel more conscious. Go get your pencil and notebook and get serious about your curiosity. If you're not sure where to start, my default is always just "WHY?"
As Americans we often forget the pleasure factor; in France eating with pleasure has always been at the cornerstone of food culture. France actually has the highest dairy fat consumption of any industrialized nation but suffers from far fewer eating disorders, and there is a smaller incidence of dieting than there is in America. Yet as a nation, America has twice the incidence of overweight people as France!
How many times do you crave something but don't allow yourself to have it because it's "bad"? For a while I was a raw vegan and at first it made me feel great, until winter hit and all I wanted was warm foods. Not to mention that I was way undereating and all I could think about was eating buttery bread all day long. But that was against the rules; I couldn't possibly eat that!
Instead of just eating what I really wanted, I tried to fill up on all sorts of other things that were "allowed," like salads and fruits and nuts (but not too many!). But my cravings never went away because my body didn't want more fruits and vegetables; it wanted something warmer and more filling and more satisfying.
Nowadays if I'm craving pancakes for breakfast I eat them. If I'm craving cookies for lunch, I eat them. If I'm craving a salad for dinner I eat it, all without feeling the desire to overeat! And I do it all with gusto, taking absolute pleasure in each and every bite, trusting that my body can hang.
It might sound a little backward, but that is the power of pleasure.
When you give yourself what you really want—what you really find pleasurable—your nonstop cravings and desire to overeat seem to melt away.