Asking for What We Really Want is Harder than Saying “Pass the Dessert”

 In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite.    

In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite. 

 

Do you find yourself munching when you are not really hungry? 

Do you find yourself using snacks as reasons to take a break from work? 

Do you reward yourself with a treat when you finish a task — or use a treat to get you through it? 

When you get upset about something, do you find yourself in the fridge or pantry to console yourself? 

If so, you are experiencing emotional eating. 

And we all do it sometimes. 

Who hasn’t overeaten over the holidays because those favorite foods bring back good feelings? Who hasn’t mindlessly eaten to get themselves through a tough assignment? We all do this once in awhile, sometimes without even realizing it. We can’t always eat mindfully and with focus, savoring our food and stopping when we are perfectly satisfied. But for some of us, this overeating happens all too often, causing distress — and sometimes health problems. 

When I see a client in my nutrition therapy practice, I often look at whether she or he is eating a balanced diet. These days, many clients are not eating enough carbohydrates. So many people are afraid to eat too many of them. Not eating enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — as well as not eating enough total food energy or calories — can be a set up. An imbalanced or inadequate diet may lead to low energy, cravings, thinking about food too much, and overeating. However, sometimes the foods clients eat seem to be in alignment with their nutritional needs, but they still find themselves binge eating or eating beyond comfortable fullness regularly. It’s frustrating and it really has nothing to do with their food choices much of the time. This is pure emotional eating. And it’s a growing epidemic, so to speak. 

And why not? 

Food is legal and readily available. It’s grounding, sensual, and only takes a few minutes out of our to-do list to engage in. But is that snack really what we are hungry for? Do our bodies need food at this moment — or are we really looking for downtime, stimulation, sensory pleasure, or soothing? Food can provide all of those things for us, but at what cost? Tuning in to what it is that we really want and need — in any given moment — is a practice. It is not easy — particularly if we are someone that is oriented towards serving or taking care of others. (I am all too familiar with this myself.) 

I’d like to propose that the more we ask specifically for what we want and need — of ourselves and from others — the less we will feel the pull to put food in our mouths when we are truly not hungry. And the more we will feed ourselves nourishing food when we are indeed hungry, too.

One of the exercises that I encourage clients to do is to have them set an alert on their phones.  (We carry them everywhere, so we might as well use them for personal growth, right?) The alert should go off at random times several times per day. When that alert sounds, the client has to stop what she is doing and tune in. She should ask: What is going on in my body? What am I feeling? Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Bored? Do I have to pee? Do I feel lonely? Cold? In an uncomfortable position? etc… 

For many of my clients, these alerts may be the only times that they truly check in with themselves during the day. Some begin to notice when they are hungry earlier than when they are ravenous and just about ready to eat their best friend. It’s hard not to overeat when we get that over-hungry.  

Some clients realize that as they work, play, connect, and engage in life, they forget to eat. After a full day, they find themselves starving — literally and figuratively. They may race off into more adventures in search of fulfillment, while denying themselves the food and reflective connection with themselves that they actually need for sustenance. 

Some people do the random alerts exercise and discover that they are frequently in discomfort, but were never aware of it. This prompts them to get help for some physical injuries or digestive issues. 

Some people realize that they want something, but they are afraid to ask for it. It’s easier to just plow ahead and take care of everyone else’s needs rather than tune in to their own.

When clients are helping professionals or parents, they often find it hard to stop and turn their focus on themselves. Eventually, they discover that when they take the time to check in and and take care of themselves (with a bathroom break, snack, short walk outside, stretch, deep breath, or whatever they need in that moment), they are actually better able to be generous and helpful to those around them.

Sometimes our little mindless snacks throughout the day serve that purpose. We’re trying to take care of ourselves some, but not too much. We don’t really take the time to think about what we really need in those moments — connection, touch, warmth, beauty, movement, fresh air — sometimes because we are afraid that we can’t get it or that we don’t have time to get it. But a nibble here will do… 

I’d like to argue that we don’t have time to ignore our needs and desires! 

If we do, it can create stress, exhaustion, resentment, an unfulfilling life… oh, and, yes, overeating and any of the health-oriented “perks” that come from that…  

This week I worked with a client who reflected that she was binging or eating mindlessly after work on a regular basis. When we dug deeper about it, we found that she was using food as a way to “take off the day.” Food helped her get out of her head and into her body, transitioning her from work to home after a stressful day. There was a part of her that was so used to using unhealthy ways to cope with stress and transition, she didn’t really feel like she deserved more than a binge. When we did some imagining about what it would be like if she didn’t hold the belief that she doesn’t deserve the self-care, she was able to come up with an alternative to binging. 

She is indeed hungry when she gets home from work around 4pm, so having an appealing, satisfying snack that could hold her until dinner was the first order of self-care. Then, taking a walk so that she could do something physical seemed like a good way for her to shift gears. She wanted to literally pound the pavement after a challenging work day. Walking helps her breathe deeply, slow down, clear her head, and transition from a day of taking care of others. She realized that thinking of physical activity this way was nurturing and would support her mental transition from work to home, as well as take good care of her body. The positive effects of exercise on our brains and bodies are well documented and she knows this. But it worked better for her to think of exercise as a “want” instead of a “should.” 

It was hard for my client to ask herself for a healthy yummy snack, physical movement,  and some self-care and transition time between work and home. It was easier for her to be careless with herself and operate the way she always has. Once she identified what she really wanted during that binge-filled afternoon time and was able to ask herself for it, she could come up with a plan for how to take care of herself. The challenge will be bringing consciousness to that time of day so that she can really make the change.

She still might need to contend with the part of her that feels undeserving of good self-care, but she has a plan and some compassionate, curious language to use with herself when that comes up. Having me to check in with around her progress helps her to take it seriously, and hopefully I’m modeling non-judgmental processing of her progress on these new afternoon practices. I’m seriously rooting for her and she knows it.

If you find that you aim to make food and self-care changes, but you just keep getting stuck, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with a nutrition therapist or other professional experienced in disordered eating that can help you non-judgmentally explore your resistance to change. Often our own self-judgement gets in the way of helping us make the changes that we want. It may also help to talk to friends or family about your new practices — or connect with a higher power or nature and ask for help. A little compassionate support often goes a long way. 

The next time that you find yourself trolling for sweets or gobbling mindlessly when you aren’t really hungry, ask yourself, “What do I really want? What am I really hungry for right now?” Even if you can’t stop the eating, keep asking this question and stay curious instead of critical. Knowing your desires and needs is an important part of healing from compulsive eating. In fact, it’s an important part of healing from any disordered eating, even restrictive under-eating. When you know what you want, you can ask for it — of yourself or of others around you — and you can stop using food as an inadequate (albeit yummy and soothing) substitute. It takes courage to ask for what you really want and desire, as well as time to reflect and really get to know what’s inside. But it’s worth doing, no matter how long it takes. There may be many bumps along the way, but the result is not only freedom from disordered eating but a more passionate, heart-centered, satisfying life.

Resolutions Schmesolutions!

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Have your New Year’s Resolutions started to go south yet…? I’ve noticed that it’s kind of trendy this year to not create resolutions. Like it or not, though, there is an energy of change and renewal that comes with January. It’s hard to deny. So we ride it, and think about breathing out the things that we’d rather leave in 2013 and breathing in the new…

So many of us set New Year’s resolutions or goals about weight loss or change in diet or exercise. I know this because clients have told me that the gyms are packed and the weight-loss commercials have increased. It’s a January phenomenon. Then, by March (if not before), the gyms are less crowded and many resolutions are forgotten. We sort of forget about them until next January. This can leave us feeling rather demoralized and ashamed, as if we have somehow failed or don’t have enough willpower or strength.

As a nutrition therapist, my work is all about assisting in behavior change. My clients want to eat more wisely, or move more freely and confidently in their bodies, or discover the freedom that life without disordered eating can bring. I believe in setting goals (realistic ones) and being patient with and honoring the process to get there. So, how can we look at those new year’s wishes in a new light so that we don’t run out of steam by March…?

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First, I propose New Year’s Explorations (instead of resolutions). Yes, we want to eat healthfully, in a way that makes us feel vital and energized, but how to we get to that place? Over the last 16 years that I have been doing this work, I have discovered that the majority of my clients actually know how to eat well. I don’t mean perfectly, as I don’t believe there really is one perfect way to eat. In fact, our bodies are all so different — and people all over the world live and thrive on so many different kinds of diets —  that I just don’t believe that our food choices deserve the scrutiny and obsessiveness that we have developed here in the U.S. With practice, I have seen many people figure out the way of eating that best suits their lifestyle and values. But what if you know the way that you want to eat, and you already know a lot about nutrition, but you just can’t stop eating patterns that sabotage this? For example, you want a diet that is balanced and moderate when it comes to sweets, but you find yourself binging on the foods that you are trying to moderate. Or maybe you don't want to be obsessed with what you eat, but you are so afraid of eating too many carbohydrates or calories that you find yourself restricting your food and feeling famished and focused on food all day.

We often use food — either over- or under-eating — as a way to deal with (or not deal with) challenging feelings or thoughts. Eventually, it can just become a habit. Compulsive overeating is something almost all of us do at times (particularly around the holidays) and is sometimes a way of self-soothing when our physical and emotional needs aren’t being met. Find yourself eating those holiday cookies in order to keep yourself awake to wrap gifts — or during holiday obligations that weren’t all that fun? Maybe you really wanted sleep or different company, but you treated yourself to food instead. You took care of the part of you that enjoys yumminess in your mouth, but not the other part of you that needed sleep or connection.

A client I met with this morning had the wonderful experience of being at a social gathering with friends that felt so nourishing. She was so “fed” by the company and the activity of the evening that she really had little interest in all the wonderful food that was present. She ate when she needed to, but she mostly had little interest in eating as her spirits were being nourished elsewhere. Another client today talked about the way in which she could be more flexible with her food choices, allowing herself to eat in a less rigid way, if only other parts of her life felt more fulfilling. Her elaborate food preparation rituals and the pleasure that she takes in eating her highly-planned meals is “all I’ve got” for self-care and pleasure in the day. She was able to imagine, though, that she could think about food a lot less and eat a quicker, less time-consuming meal if she had other pursuits in her day that were engaging her passions. She is trapped by her disordered eating, but her disordered eating also takes so much time that she has little space to think about how she might go about cultivating more of what she really wants in her life.

In the Non-Diet Book Club this morning, we also talked about the ways that we can be so afraid in our culture to sit still and ask ourselves what really fills us up. What nourishes our hearts and souls? We compulsively eat, drink, shop, exercise, text, clean, play games. We are — all of us, and I am far from perfect here — sometimes afraid to just sit still and simply be. We don’t often check in with our hearts. We are sometimes afraid of what we might find. We are afraid that we don’t know what our heart’s desire really is. Or if we do know what it is, we don’t know the first thing about connecting to it or bringing it into our lives. So many clients say that it’s so much easier to just keep [insert food behavior, whether it be binging, restricting, or eating carelessly] than to change and do something else, even if that something else might be good for them. Some of us are so conditioned to feel lousy, criticize ourselves, and live in our heads instead of our hearts, that it is hard to imagine operating otherwise. Change is hard. We need support and strength in order to do things differently.

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I know that clients are moving towards full recovery from disordered eating (no matter their path to get there) when they begin to truly cultivate the things in their life that help them to feel connected to themselves — and their unique values and purpose. Do you feel that groundedness and that sense that all is well in the world when you do something that you are passionate about? Doesn’t your life just flow better when you are feeding your spirit and senses — and when you find moments of being in the present? It can be simply spending time in nature or with a trusted friend or meditating or being lost in a project that you are passionate about. Not thinking endlessly about things that already happened or worrying about things in the future that are beyond our control, but just being in the present. Doesn’t life just flow better for you? Do you feel a little relief from that thinking, analyzing part of your brain? Do you not even think about food then, at least until your body gives you the clear signal that it’s time to refuel? Some of us find these moments of just being present more easily than others. Be patient with your very own journey.  

In 2014, I wish more of those moments of presence and deep heartfulness for you. And how do we all get there? Not by making resolutions, but by making explorations and finding out — in the quiet space that you give yourself — what it is that really “feeds” you. When you spend more time nourishing your spirit and soul, the power that food has over you becomes weaker -- and you are able to use your psychotherapy, nutrition therapy, and individual soul work more effectively.

Ask yourself these two big questions in 2014:

  • What fills ME up? What nourishes my soul and spirit and keeps me grounded in the present?

Some examples from my clients this week: listening to music, praying or meditating, walking in nature, taking care of someone that you love or your home, hanging out with a friend, playing with a pet. In fact, animals are particularly helpful for keeping us in the present. They don’t know any better.

  • What form of movement nourishes and feels good to my body and soul? Do I like to move my body alone or with others? Does vigorous or more gentle movement really ground me?
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I don’t know about you, but the right music can transform dish-washing into a satisfying dance party in my kitchen. Movement comes in all shapes and sizes. Think outside the gym.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat or exercise differently in the new year and setting goals to do so. But don’t forget that the reason that you might be overindulging in food, drink, or sedentary living just might be that you are starving for what matters most to you and trying to fill up or reward yourself with something else. Explore this in the new year… Check in with yourself (or, if you are a planner, your calendar) every month this year. Are you filling your life with the things that matter most? If not, make appointments with yourself to do so. Build that nourishment right into your life the way that you schedule all your other priorities. (Most busy people have to do this.)

Explore and discover what makes you feel happy, present, and full this year. You may find that eating becomes less of a battle and big deal when your soul is being adequately fed. And the really cool thing about the eating binge or the exercise resistance creeping back in here and there… Well, I recommend trying to dispense with the self-criticism and recognize this as a sign that your soul and spirit needs more nourishment. Don’t be afraid to sit quietly and ask your heart what it really needs if you find yourself hanging out with food you don’t want to eat. Be gentle with yourself and explore what you hunger for in 2014.