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.

Low Carbohydrates Lead to Big Cravings

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I sat around the table at a restaurant with several other parents. Sometimes when I go out, I like to pose as an insurance agent so that I can really have a break from my work, but this group knew that I was a nutritionist. My colleagues in nutrition often commiserate about being stalked in the grocery store. Someone even followed one of my dietitian friends around a buffet table, saying that she was going to take exactly what my friend was putting on her plate (as if we nutritionists somehow have the answers to what all bodies should have to eat at any given moment!). Well, all eyes were on me at the restaurant as I ordered the seasonal root vegetable stew and enjoyed a homemade roll. Every other person at the table ordered a salad with some sort of meat and didn’t touch the bread. I saw more than one person look longingly at my plate and felt sad for them.

I remembered the time, early in my career, when everyone was so afraid of the fat in foods. I’m dating myself when I talk about Snackwells Cookies, where the fat (and taste) was taken out and replaced by more sugar. Those cookies would probably not sell today because, collectively, we are more afraid of carbohydrates than fats this decade. I have an old handout from the 90s about the reasons why fat is essential in the diet; it sits in my file cabinet like a relic of nutritional history. Today, the number one food component that my clients are avoiding is carbohydrate.

While I’m delighted that we are not starving our brains of fats any more, I’m equally disturbed by the elimination of yet another macronutrient. Macronutrients in foods include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water. These differ from food’s micronutrients -- the vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals -- that we hear about so frequently as having health-giving properties. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats contain calories, units of energy that are the true fuel that our body can use for everything that it does. If macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) are our gasoline, then micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are the spark plugs -- important to make sure the engine runs smoothly, but not the major fuel source.

The body needs a certain amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in order to function optimally, and there is some debate as to just how much we need of each. In my experience -- and I have 15+ years of nutrition counseling behind this -- taking in too much or too little of any food component causes problems. Too little fat makes us preoccupied with food and contributes to reproductive system decline. Too little protein makes us tired, weak, and hungry constantly. And, because this is a post about carbohydrate avoidance, I’m going to spend a little more time on this one...

When a client comes to me and complains about intermittent binge eating or over-eating at night, there is often an emotional or stress-related trigger. But, along with this, there is frequently a diet that is too low in carbohydrates. The cravings for high-sugar, high-starch foods (the cookies and chips and other baked goods) that accompany the compulsive eating are often encouraged by the fact that the client is not eating enough grain-based foods during the day. This is particularly easy to do with  low-carb, gluten-free eating trends today, as restaurants are trying to accommodate consumers’ desires to eat less carbohydrates.

"Aren’t we eating too many carbs, though?" many clients ask. It’s not good to eat up the whole bread basket before eating a meal, right? Of course. Moderation, while not a very sexy term in the nutritional lexicon, is always advised with any eating. In fact, if one tunes in and eats mindfully, moderation is what will keep coming up. The public health message that we need to decrease our carbohydrate intake comes from the fact that, in America, our muffins are gigantic, our intake of sugary soda is excessive, and the super-sizing of everything from ice cream cones to sandwiches is significant. Over the last several decades, typical portion sizes of high-carbohydrate foods have increased, and this makes it increasingly hard to eat moderately and trust our instincts. Large portions becoming commonplace has made it hard for us to decide when we are full and have had enough to eat.

That said, restricting carbohydrates is NOT the answer! One of the members of my Non-diet Book Club said this morning, “Any time there is a suggestion of deprivation, I go crazy.” As many weight-loss-diet veterans will agree, taking away foods creates a state of deprivation, which often leads to cravings and overeating of the “bad” foods. This is particularly the case when someone greatly decreases their carbohydrate foods -- especially grain products, like rice, whole grains (oats, quinoa, millet, etc.) breads, cereals, and pastas. In fact, I find that when someone eats less of these foods per day than their body needs, they often crave sugar, the simplest form of carbohydrate.

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So how much carbohydrate does one need to eat in a day? That depends a lot on your body size, activity level, metabolism, and the overall composition of your diet. If you are really lost here, seek out a registered dietitian to give you a reality check around how much carbohydrate and grain-based food is typical and minimal. Ultimately, you have at your disposal the ability to modulate your food intake quite well, if you are willing to slow down and listen to your body. Young children do it quite easily. My daughters’ guinea pigs do it well. But somewhere along the lines, we learn not to trust ourselves. We learn that someone else -- some expert or diet book author or nutritional guru -- knows better about what we need to eat. We choose what to eat from influences outside our bodies versus the knowledge that we have within. Again, if you feel really out of touch with your internal cues around food choices, as well as hunger and fullness, a registered dietitian/nutritional therapist, particularly one who has a specialty in disordered eating, may be able to steer you back to the path of intuitive eating.

Carbohydrates also supply glycogen to muscles. Carbs help active bodies recover from physical exertion, so it is particularly problematic for active people and athletes to eat too little carbohydrates. Fortunately, I find that most active people find themselves picking or binge-eating to make up for a diet low in carbohydrate -- and preoccupied with hunger. The body hates to be starved of major nutrients.

This cycle of restricting carbs (whether it’s intentional or not) and then overeating or binge-eating as a rebound is certainly distressing, and it can often be avoided if enough carbohydrate is eaten in the first place. I’m not minimizing the use of food for soothing, comforting, or other emotional coping, but there is often a nutritional reason for the compulsive eating along with the emotional ones.

To find out if you might be eating too little carbohydrates, check in with yourself. Does this sound like you...?

  • You find yourself binging or compulsively eating high-starch or sugar foods, particularly in the evening.

 

  • You feel weak, tired, and have less energy for physical activity than you used to.

 

  • You find that it’s harder to physically exert yourself two days in a row, as if your muscles take longer to recover than they used to.

 

  • You have cravings for sugar or sweet-grainy foods (like cookies, muffins, breads) that don’t just show up as part of pre-menstrual syndrome.

 

  • You find yourself drooling over your neighbors’ plate of pasta or root-vegetable stew and unable to enjoy your own more moderately-carb dish. (There’s nothing wrong with your lower-carb dish, by the way.  If you were eating enough carbs regularly, then you might not feel so deprived and just enjoy it.)

While the above conditions could be caused by other lifestyle or nutritional factors, these are the things that I find many of my clients complaining about when they are eating too little carbohydrate, particularly grain/starch-based foods like rice, potatoes, and grains.

Julia Child was a famous chef who lived here in Cambridge, Massachusetts for much of her life and lived to be 92.  Anyone who encountered her or watched her very popular cooking show would not deny that she celebrated the pleasures of food. She said, "Because of the media hype and woefully inadequate information, too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.”

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Life is too short to spend it afraid of noodles!  One of my great joys in this work is seeing clients find joy and peace in eating again, no matter what their individual path is to do so. “Bon Appetit!”