Acceptance in Recovery: Important Lessons from April

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April in New England this year has been particularly extreme. First it snowed, just as the crocus began to bloom. The snow melted, then it snowed again, knocking down the daffodils. Despite the intermittent frost and cold white blanket in these first weeks of April, the blossoms are still coming. The fragrant little grape hyacinths are dotting my yard this morning. The tomato and basil seedlings on my porch are stretching out to the sun. 

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I was thinking today that this year’s Spring is a little like recovery. My clients struggle with disordered eating, so that’s my frame of reference, but I suppose recovery from anything can feel like the fits and starts of this season. 

One of my Non-Diet Book Clubs is reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Acceptance is one of those harder parts of recovery work, but it’s essential. When we bring mindful acceptance to our experience, we notice our feelings and thoughts without judgement or without trying to push them away. Easier said than done. I personally find it hard to notice unpleasant feelings without judging, analyzing, or trying to explain them away. This is a challenging concept to grasp, never mind to practice. 

Many of you have heard about one framework from which I work with my clients: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In some ways, acceptance is not the best word to use. Clients often mistakenly think it means putting up with, giving in to, or tolerating things that are difficult or challenging. Acceptance is not about complacency, and it’s certainly not an excuse to do nothing on the path to our goals. Instead of putting up with or giving in to our negative thoughts or feelings, we can accept them by dropping the struggle with them — simply giving space for the thoughts and feelings to arise. We notice our feelings and thoughts, but we don’t need to react to them. ACT terms for acceptance work include “expand around it,” “make room for it,” “let it freely flow through you,” “breathe into it,” or in the words of the Beatles, “let it be.” 

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We don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion or yoga mat in order to practice acceptance. Acceptance happens any moment that you bring your attention to your thoughts and feelings, really notice them, and open up to the fact that you are a human being with those thoughts and feelings. You can choose to respond to them or not. You can choose to express them or not. But you don’t try to judge them or push them away. 

So many of us use food — either the withholding of it or the overindulging on it — to manage feelings that we think we can’t handle. 

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Instead, can we notice our hunger sensations, notice our cravings, and notice how full we are in any given moment? Can we accept these as our experience, even if the feelings in our bodies and minds are occasionally unpleasant? 

Can we notice that we feel angry at someone, but we’re choosing to take it out on ourselves by not eating instead of confronting that person? 

Can we notice how much we crave a certain food, and how much of this is about mouth hunger or emotional hunger and not stomach hunger? 

Can we notice feeling numb when we come home from work and just start eating, and admit that we’d rather eat and feel numb than ruminate over and over the stress from the day? Can we just notice this, without judgement? 

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These are just some of the questions that can take some time to explore and form the foundation for the profound work done by my clients. This is not about an external diet or person telling them how to eat; this is deep listening to oneself and opening to experience so that clear choices can be made. 

One important addition: noticing without judgement does not mean that we don’t also want to change our behaviors!  Maybe we don’t like that after-work, mind-numbing eating. Maybe we don’t like what food restriction in the service of avoiding anger is doing to our health and energy. Can we non-judgmentally notice these behaviors and acknowledge them as doing our best to deal with painful thoughts and feelings in the moment? Yes, we want to learn new strategies for dealing with stress, anger, frustration, loneliness. 

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There’s one very important concept here. (If you take only one thing home from this blog post, I secretly hope it’s this…) Finding new ways to cope and deal with difficult thoughts and feelings will not happen by trying to avoid or push them away. Just ask yourself if this has worked for you in the past…? Avoidance and automatic pilot go hand in hand. Acceptance of what is really happening inside in the present moment is the anecdote. When you can really drop into what is being felt or thought and observe it — and this takes a lot of practice! — you open up the freedom to make choices. You can choose to call a friend when you are feeling lonely, express feelings through writing, choose a snack that makes you feel satisfied and vital when desiring some food, and make other choices that move you towards recovery and the person that you want to be. 

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Recovery from disordered or dysregulated eating — and coming to peace with your body and self — is an ever-evolving process, and it doesn’t stop when you find yourself eating better. Like a flowering bush that needs pruning each year to realize it’s fullest bloom, we are constantly welcoming in the new discoveries about ourselves, as we let old patterns and habits that don’t serve us go. We can appreciate both our petals and our protective thorns. We are human and not perfect, and each of us are one of a kind.

What are the seeds that you are sowing this Spring? What is blossoming within you? What kind of flower are you growing into? What kind of life and person are you wanting to be? Every day, despite the frost, darkness, and other challenging conditions, we strive to blossom and become who we are. In fact, those challenging conditions are part of what makes us like a strong, resilient plant. This Spring, nurture and feed your soul and senses. Provide fertile, nutritious soil and plenty of water. Take good care of the seedling parts of you that long for the sun. 

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One of my favorite quotes is from Georgia O’Keefe, also a favorite artist. “Nobody sees a flower, really -- it's so small -- we haven't time, and to see takes time…” Take time to fully recover and develop a healthy relationship with food, your body, and your self. Get to know yourself and your uniqueness. Get to know what makes you feel alive and bring that aliveness out into the world. Allow yourself a full range of feelings and notice them all. Take time. Slow down whenever you can to check in with yourself and bring awareness to those feelings, even the hard ones— the ones that we tend to want to avoid or pretend aren’t a part of our experience. 

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I have to accept that April in New England is a little back and forth. I arm myself with a good warm scarf, lots of layers that I can peel off, and plant little sprouts on my sun porch to remind me that the sunnier side of Spring is coming. I emerge from the in-breath of winter, and breath out a blog post for the first time in awhile. My winter writing is more introspective and I don’t share so much of it. Today I accept and publish for you the imperfect combination of words here to describe this human’s experience of Spring and my work in it. I am grateful for the work with all of you — in person and on-line — that helps me feel the connectedness of all things. 

As I tend to my little seedlings, taking them inside when the porch gets below freezing at night, I imagine all the seeds being sown in the hearts and minds of humans all over, in all kinds of conditions, this Spring. I accept the cold temperatures, even though I don’t particularly like them.  I accept that I have to wait until the soil is warmer to put my plants into the ground. It’s another cold April in New England. The hard stuff in life is part of it all. 

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.

Eating Disorder Blogger Slowly Returns to Writing and Learns a Thing or Two about Self-Care

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I’m going to be really honest here. I’ve been quiet on this blog for awhile and some of you have asked me what’s up. Well, here it is… 

It’s been too long since I’ve done any significant writing. It started with the fullness of life taking priority, and then I just got out of rhythm with the regular writing practice that I once had. 

And I haven’t danced enough lately.

And I’m not checking in with myself much or feeling rather clear about my needs and desires.

In fact, sometimes (like today) I feel like I’m just going through the motions. A bit on automatic pilot. Not fully present. A little lost. Not fully connected to my thoughts, my body, my true core self.

But …

I’m not using food — either the consumption of it or the withholding of it — to deal with this feeling. I haven’t done that in any significant way in decades. Food can be a way to soothe, reward, and even self-medicate when things get challenging, but in the end, it’s not really the food — or the control that comes from eating “perfectly” — that is really what I’m looking for in the first place. It’s not really what I’m hungry for or what I crave.

So what am I doing instead…?

I’m going to my journal to write and figure out what’s “eating” me.

I’m making conscious strides to find real connection with the people that I love and that care about me.

I’m checking in with myself and my “support team,” which includes friends and helping professionals, to help me remember my values and my needs.

I’m dancing, which is a way that I connect with all of the emotions that are inside.

It’s been a major transition time. My family has been going through a lot of changes. Really positive transitions have their stress, too. Let’s take the example of my partner moving in and becoming a part of our family. It’s a really good event, but it’s still a transition for all of us, bringing up the ghosts of past relationships as well as uncertainties about the future. Then there’s the new school year, which always seems to bring about a strong feeling of change and newness, amid the adjustment of schedules.

Something that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that transitions are challenging and I need spaciousness to take them in. At the same time, I can also be a “dive right in” kind of girl when the creative energy strikes me. Finding balance during transitions and creative breakthroughs may be part of my life’s work, but it feels worth it.

About twenty-five-plus years ago, when I struggled with an eating disorder, it was a big transition that I was anticipating and passing through: adolescence and the eventual moving away from my childhood home. In the past, I might have used food (either with too much control or out of control) to help me bridge the challenges of transitions, but eventually I learned other ways to cope and take care of myself. Now, decades later as a nutrition therapist who works with others struggling with disordered eating, I hope to help my clients move through their transitions and learn to nourish and feed themselves with care as they settle into their true selves.

I’m reminded, with this funky, automatic pilot, oh-my-goodness-what-a-busy-time, knocked-off-center feeling that I have today that we are all really just trying to find balance in a world that often doesn’t give us enough space and time to catch our breath.

Let’s take a moment together to just catch our breath…

And another moment…

Let’s make it three conscious, slow, spacious, deep breaths together…

(Big sigh)…

Taking a breath or two or three allows me to slow down, let go of the busy schedule and to-do list in my head and just live — really live through my breath — in the moment. When I do that, it’s easier to tap into what I really need or desire in any given moment. It's easier for me to listen better to what the the moment is asking of me. 

As I reflect and slow down, I realize that I need to write more. (This keeps me from driving my family crazy with all the things I have to say.)

I need to find time to dance more. (Dishwashing dance party, anyone?)

I need to hug my family more. (Those of you that have followed the blog, I’m sorry to report that guinea pig Boo is no longer with us. Although sad, her passing gave my daughters a chance to learn something about love and death. We recently added a few other critters to the household…)

Bud-bud stands alone.

Bud-bud stands alone.

And I need to honor my center, even as I get knocked off of it, again and again and again. After all, we’re all human beings here together on this planet, trying to find our way.

I don’t use food to negotiate transitions any more, but I still feel the challenges to my sense of self and value when I start to feel a little “off” during them. I’m so grateful for the reflection and skills and open-heartedness that my recovery has offered me. I’m so grateful to be supporting the recoveries of many wonderful individuals as they discover the best way to nurture and feed themselves on many levels.

Writing this blog post today was both a gift to you, my ever-patient readers who I have been out of touch with, and a bit of my own self-care. How amazing when giving and receiving flow so simultaneously, particularly when they come out of a funky, disconnected-from-self place. And it worked! On this end, I feel better already. Thank you for reading. I hope that I can be a small part of your journey toward balance today as I find my own footing this September. How good it is to be doing this living and breathing, eating and growing, doing and being — together.

Day by day.

Bobert the Beta Fish

Bobert the Beta Fish

Moment to moment.

One

deep 

breath 

at a time.

Today, can you make a commitment to slow down, breathe, and check in with those self-care practices that nourish you? Food is nourishing, but it shouldn’t take the place of other forms of self-care. What or who are your supports when you feel less than your stellar self? 

I commit to not letting it be too long before I connect here with you and myself in writing again. What can you commit to today? How can you commit to your Self today…? 


Bubbles the Gerbil

Bubbles the Gerbil





“The grass is always greener where you water it.”

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“The grass is always greener where you water it.”  This seems like an appropriate quote for the Spring, coming a bit later than usual here in New England. (If any of you know who said this, please let me know. I saw it printed with "unknown" after it.) In any case, it seems rather obvious that the grass is greener where it’s tended. One of my clients repeatedly says that she thinks that my work is to point out the obvious that she somehow forgets. Yes, when we take good care of ourselves — when we water that grass — it grows. We grow. Instead of gazing at our neighbor’s green grass (or our neighbor’s body, possessions, partner, whatever…) we can cultivate a greener lawn within ourselves by practicing good self-care.

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Some of us are afraid to practice self-care for fear of being seen as selfish or self-serving or self-absorbed. But these are different states than true care of the Self. Care of the Self fills you up and allows you to be more generous in the world, to give of your own unique gifts, and to give without feeling resentful and depleted on the other end.

But this is no easy task for some of us. It’s a real dance…

So how do we practice good self-care — when it comes to food or anything else? How do we know when we’ve eaten enough or the right things for our unique bodies? How do we know how much physical activity is enough to make us feel good and increase our health without taxing our immune system and making us feel exhausted? How do we really know when enough is enough in our work, relationships, sleep, socializing, or other habits that take time and energy in our lives…?

My Nondiet Book Club is reading Karen Koenig’s book Starting Monday, a terrific read that really lays out the issues underneath disordered and (I like her term better) “disregulated” eating. It’s a challenging book to read, as she asks so many really right-on questions. Chapter 8 is titled “Know What’s Enough,” and I wholeheartedly recommend this chapter (ideally while reading the rest of the book) to anyone who feels that they have trouble with eating. If you go back and forth between under-eating and over-eating — or if you just can’t seem to find a balanced eating style that works for you — this chapter might resonate.

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My favorite thing about Karen Koenig is that she cuts to the chase, exposes our vulnerabilities, but doesn’t just leave us hanging. She generally talks about concrete steps to take, once she points out the issues that get us stuck. Trial and Error is one of the strategies that she writes about in order to figure out how much is enough for you — with food, exercise, work, and in negotiating your needs in relationships. This is one of those (like, duh) really obvious strategies, but yet we are often afraid to employ it. We have to really experiment with how much is enough to know what works for us. Searching out other people’s green grass (“she looks so great, so I want to eat like her”) won’t cut it when you are trying to figure out the way to eat that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all eating or exercise plan, just like there is no one-size fits-all-amount of work that is right for everyone. Everyone has different thresholds for movement, intimacy, exploration in nature, need for quiet, and need for stimulation.

We are all such wacky, interesting, unique beings, but we often look to others to decide what is best for us.  Other people’s green grass might be nice to look at, for sure, but if we don’t play around in our own gardens, then we miss out on the lushness of a fully lived life.

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Trial and Error, as Karen Koenig writes, means trying different foods and really noticing what tastes and feels good. This takes some time and attention. It means cultivating trust in yourself by having an idea and not being too afraid to test it out and see how it feels, even if it’s something that no one else around you has considered. Just a few examples of what you might come up with as you apply Trial and Error to self-care include:

  • I need to have a solid breakfast in order to have balanced eating the rest of the day.
  • I need at least 7 hours of sleep in order to feel focused and alert.
  • Working out 4 times per week is just right for me.
  • Getting together with friends in person a couple of times per week helps me feel connected.

Create your own set of theories around what you need to feel balanced and test them out. How do you feel? Was your idea too much, too little, or just enough? When I started blogging I heard someone say that I had to blog every week. Someone else said to just blog when the mood hit me. I finally settled on every other week (with exceptions like two weeks ago when I had other priorities), as that helped me stay with my writing practice in a way that fit with my current life. It also gave me a sense of discipline and consistency that helps me stay on track. If I tried to blog more often, it felt like a chore that I didn’t have quite enough time for; less often and I lost momentum and missed it. I found my “enough” and it feels right. For now.

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Practice listening to your own sense of enoughness with food each day — and notice that sometimes a whole sandwich is just right, sometimes a half. Notice what types of foods make your body and mind feel good. Practice listening to your sense of enoughness with other things in life, too. Just because everyone in your office works 50+ hours each week doesn’t mean that this lifestyle is healthiest for you. As you pay attention to your own needs and limits and gradually learn to trust yourself more, you will develop the ability to take good care of yourself.  Karen Koenig writes, “Trust produces confidence, which produces more trust, and each reinforces the other.”

I find this work on “enough” is one of the last frontiers of eating disorders recovery, and it’s often something that has to be revisited even by those of us who are quite far along in recovery. The issues come up more often around other things than food — and food is no longer used as a way to deal with challenges of enoughness. Through the process of recovering from disregulated eating, one’s sense of being enough, doing enough, and saying “enough-is-enough” generally gets easier over time. At a certain point in recovery, we stop choosing to eat (or starve) to make us feel better. Instead, we ask for what we really need and soothe our own disregulated emotions. By directly honoring our needs and emotions, we learn how to take good care of ourselves.

As you tend to your own growth this Spring, notice that green grass of your neighbor, but please don’t forget to water and care for your very own garden.

Care of the Athlete (and the Self) Creates a Winning Team

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The recent Winter Olympics buzz inspired me to write about something that troubles me about athletics and sports today: the focus on winning and being there for the team at the expense of the individual athlete. Even in individual athletic pursuits, there is often a focus on competition. The outcome becomes more important than the process. While setting goals can be motivating, I also wonder if so many people lose the joy of moving the body by focusing on the finish and not on the race.

I work with many athletes and former athletes in my nutrition therapy practice. It’s astounding how many of them have challenging relationships with food. You would think that athletes, whose bodies are their instruments, would have increased reverence for food as their fuel. Many of them do, but I am always amazed at just how many also have a lot of conflict and struggle around food.

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Athletic people should ideally be the most in-tune with their bodies. Their bodies are highly capable, and sometimes they depend on these well-trained bodies for a major part of their livelihood. But, more often than I’d like to see, athletes can become quite disconnected from their bodies. They often ignore pain, strain, and fatigue because they don’t want to let the team down. The focus is on winning or finishing or getting the best time or lifting more than they did yesterday... And if a coach has told them that they need to stay thin or lose weight to be top at their sport, then they often engage in dieting behaviors — and sometimes even develop eating disorders — in an attempt to perform their best. Ironically, the dieting and disordered eating often shortens their career or leads to debilitating injuries that last for decades. Some athletes, like football players, are even encouraged to overeat, which can have a lasting impact on their relationship to food and later health.

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It made me think about the way in which all of us “perform” in our lives. Do we operate from our own desires, dreams, appetites — or are we trying to please our “coaches” or “teams?” Are we enjoying the moments of our lives — or are we chasing some goal, some “should” that keeps getting bigger and bigger the more we practice?

Let’s think about this…

  • When you exercise, are you doing it because it makes you feel great and it’s loads of fun — or are you trying to look a certain way for a certain someone or have a certain image? Do you listen to your body when it says it’s time to rest, or do you have a set amount of exercise that you must do in order to feel good about your workouts?
  • When you make a choice about what to eat, do you choose from what you really want to eat and what you know feels best for your body and palate — or do you eat what you think you should, based on someone else's assessment of what is best for you?
  • Are you living your life on your terms, making your own choices? Do you consult with your “team” of loved ones or advice-givers around you, considering their needs and ideas along with your own — or do you give up your own needs for the team, doing what you think you should do?
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My last blog post was a reprint of Sondra Kronberg’s article about eating disorders recovery called “Listening Inward.” She wrote about the importance of operating from a frame of reference that is inside ourselves, honoring our own truths and hungers and preferences instead of those of the people around us. If an athlete is doing that, she is more likely to notice that twinge in her knee and stop, instead of pushing on through pain and hurting herself. If a coworker recognizes that her body wants warm, grounding food and choses the hearty soup, she will feel centered and soothed all afternoon — instead of grabbing the salad, like everyone else around her and feeling hungry, distracted, and unsatisfied afterwards. If we all listen to our hearts and work to create a life that holds meaning and enjoyment for us, then we can say “no” to the things that don’t resonate with the life that we want. We can also say “yes” to the things and people that line up with our values and dreams.

Maybe you didn’t beat your best time, but you ran the race with your friends beside you for a good cause. Maybe you didn’t win the game, but you took many wonderful deep breaths under a clear blue sky. Maybe you didn’t lift as much weight or swim as many laps as you did when you used to go to the gym regularly, but you recommitted to your health and well-being by starting to exercise again. Maybe you didn’t dance as long or as hard as the people around you, but you shook your thang and you loved it.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Enjoy moving — even if you don’t win the gold medal. Enjoy eating — even if you didn’t create the perfect meal. Listen to your body and its wisdom before you jump on the next diet and nutrition fad. In my experience, healing our relationships with food is comprised of the slow, hard work of changing habits and thought patterns, and no quick-fix nutrition solution will do it. Trust yourself above all else. Don’t forget yourself, when trying to be part of a community, family, or workplace. Feed yourself well so that you can move through life the way you want to: with strength, courage, and not overly influenced by your “team.” Life can be a challenging journey. Appreciate your growth, your unique gifts, and the way that taking good care of yourself helps you move through your unique life with grace. You will truly be a better “team player” if you are taking good care of your Self first.

Why Stress Can Make You Gain Weight Faster Than Grandma’s Cheesecake

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You may be wondering why I’m writing about the “w” word at all. Many of my clients and blog readers know that in my work I de-emphasize the focus on weight, aiming instead to help clients find a more balanced, healthy relationship with food — no matter one’s size or shape. I believe in eliminating the struggle around food and weight, so that one’s body settles into the healthiest place it can.

That said, many of my clients want to lose weight (and you may want to as well, which could be why my catchy title drew you in). There is no denying that the desire to lose weight and be thinner often drives problematic eating behaviors. If you fear weight gain, you may not feed yourself well all day, only to find yourself binging at night. If you want to be thinner, you may make food choices that are about calories and not about your own body’s wisdom about what to eat in that moment. Then you feel unsatisfied, and find yourself looking for the cookies. So, by focusing on weight loss — instead of balance, health, and nourishment — when you eat, you may promote the very relationship with food that you don’t want to have. Ironically, trying to lose weight can keep you stuck in a struggle with food and weight.

There are many ways in which body weight is not determined by how much food we eat. Some of the ways that I won’t address in today’s blog post include metabolism differences, heredity, hormones, and even something that I just learned more about recently: epigenetics. The short story on epigenetics in this context is this: the way your parents and grandparents ate when you were being conceived may have an effect on your body weight.  Most interestingly, a study of Dutch famine victims showed that parents who conceived children during the famine went on to have children who were significantly higher weight. It’s as if these children entered the world as caloric-energy-conservers, ready for famine, but then they grew up in a world where food was abundantly available and couldn’t adjust. Fascinating… and yet another reason not to diet during pregnancy!

Today’s blog post will focus on one of these non-food reasons behind weight gain: stress. No, this is not an article on how to “meditate yourself thin.”  I still believe that putting too much attention on weight loss is counterproductive to healing from emotional or disordered eating. But understanding the way that stress can effect weight may ease any blame that you place on yourself about where your body is at — and further encourage you to find ways to ease the stress in your life.

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It’s no surprise that stress might have a role in weight gain. I know that when I have a particularly stressful week, I feel heavier in my body — literally weighed down by the burden of whatever is on my mind. But aside from that general feeling of burden, stress can actually effect our hormonal system in a way that encourages appetite and weight gain. Here’s how…

Your day at work feels pressured or your children are pushing every limit all day (or both). Your professor just assigned another paper and you have two due already that same week. Your partner just got laid off, at just the time a major bill is due. Stress comes in many different forms. And it can also come to us via the internet and TV, as so many of the stories in the news are bleak. Acute stress can initially decrease one’s appetite, and this is an adaptive response that primes us for “fight or flight.” When running from a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t such a good idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack. We all know, however, that stressors more chronic than hungry tigers can often lead us to eat as a way to soothe ourselves, escape our minds for a moment, or make us feel better in the way that only chocolate can. On top of this emotionally-driven increase in eating that some of us have in response to stress, there is a very real hormonal shift that happens in the body which encourages us to keep eating.

Here’s how it works. The hormones that are released when we are feeling stressed include adrenalin, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. High levels of adrenalin and CRH actually decrease appetite at first, as in the saber-toothed tiger example above, though the effects are not lasting. Cortisol, however, remains elevated in the body long after the initial stress response passes. Elevated cortisol over the long-term leads to increased blood sugar levels. Consistently high blood sugar levels, along with insulin suppression when the pancreas struggles to keep up with these levels, lead to cells that are starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy, and one way the body regulates this is to send hunger signals to the brain. Cortisol is a hormone designed to help you replenish your body after a stressful event has passed, increasing your appetite and driving you to eat more.

Again, this works nicely in the case of saber-toothed tigers. Once we run away and the coast is clear, it’s a good idea to nourish ourselves after all that fighting or flighting. But this doesn’t really make sense when the tiger is the daily work grind, our partners’ messy habits, or Fox News. Typically we respond to stress today not by fighting or flighting (and expending lots of physical energy doing so); we respond by slumping down on the couch, stewing in our anger or frustration, and getting lost in a sports game or Facebook with a large bag of potato chips or some other soothing snack.

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We are also much more likely to crave sugar and carbohydrates when we are stressed, as cortisol levels are elevated. If you are stressed and your body feels soothed and comforted by eating these foods, then you learn something about how to feel better the next time you are stressed. The behavioral pattern becomes established.

Some studies have even shown that stress and elevated cortisol not only increase weight gain, but they specifically tend to cause weight gain in the abdominal area. This makes sense, given that cortisol has a role in fat cell maturity and triglyceride mobilization. If you are in a high-stress, unstable environment, it might make sense to have more “survival fat” around. In this day and age, though, high-stress is less about survival and more about lives that are just too full or pressured.

And never mind that your day was so stressful that there was no time for lunch. Add a day of spotty eating to the mix and you have a recipe for emotional and compulsive eating in the evening.

Oh, and did I mention that chronic cortisol secretion in the body can constrict blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, compromise the immune system, and contribute to fertility problems? Yes, all this, and weight gain, too. That’s enough to make me drop my laptop and just say “Ommmm……”

Whether or not your urge to eat in order to manage stress is all about hormones or habit (or a little of both), there are things that you can do to disrupt the cycle of stress, cortisol, and weight gain. Here goes…

Don’t Skip Meals or Go Too Long Without Eating. Starting the day with breakfast and eating regularly throughout the day will keep blood sugar levels steady and lower insulin production. This eventually reduces cortisol levels.

Move your Body.  The endorphins released by physical activity counteract stress and allow a release of some of that fight-or-flight energy. My most anxious, stressed-out clients literally depend on some type of regular movement or exercise practice to help them manage life. Please note that exercising too hard for too long actually is counter-productive! It can raise cortisol-levels and increase stress. Listen to your body and recognize when you are feeling more worn out by your activities. (Injuries, loss of focus after exercise, and needing extra sleep are some indicators.) I often wonder if that’s the force at work when my clients exercise to exhaustion, seem to eat reasonably well, but find that they are actually gaining weight. Find an activity that you enjoy. Twenty minutes of walking or yoga counts. When you exercise an appropriate amount, your body releases biochemicals that counter the negative effects of stress hormones and control insulin and blood sugar levels.

Eat a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet. Stress has been shown to deplete the body of certain vitamins and minerals, particularly B complex, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. These are important nutrients that balance the effects of cortisol on the body. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as foods rich in protein.

Sleep Well. When we don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels rise significantly, which can make us feel more hungry all the time. Good sleep also makes it easier for us to avoid a lot of caffeine to keep us going, another way to keep the cortisol/stress cycle at bay.

Decrease Caffeine and Alcohol. Caffeinated coffee and tea, and even chocolate, can cause cortisol levels to rise, blood sugar to drop, and hunger to increase. Regular drinking of alcoholic beverages can negatively affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

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Practice Relaxation. I say practice because many of us have lost the skill of truly relaxing and need to work on it regularly. We might think that football game is helping us chill out, but the stimulation of the action and the advertising is actually not calming to our nervous systems. True relaxation, in whatever form works for you, produces brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress on the body. Experiment and find out what calms you. Some like putting their attention on the natural flow of their breath, which is always available. Others find meditation, yoga, taking a bath, listening to peaceful music, getting out for a walk in fresh air, or curling up with a good book or a cuddly pet relaxing.

Stress is not inherently bad. It helps us get things done. It creates heroes. But if we feel the effects of stress constantly, especially if we already tend to be a Type A, then it can harm our health and well-being. It weighs us down and keeps us from feeling focused, centered, and present in our lives. As I’ve said so many times before, research shows that weight-loss diets don’t work to sustain a long-term healthy weight. But also consider the impact that stress might be having on your body and your overall health — and try on a little Type B for a change. On the path to self- and body-love and good health, finding healthy ways to manage stress is more important than we may think.


From Binge Eating to Balance

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My client Jessica* walked into her session saying that she imagined herself lying face down on the rug in my office pounding her fists. I told her that she was certainly welcome to embody her feelings. Although she chose not to hit the floor, she did cry more forcefully than usual this session.

Jessica has been feeling very frustrated with her eating. She has been eating lots of things that she considers “non-food,” like cheez-its. She has been preparing and cooking food that she considers healthy, but then she chooses not to eat it while at work, going out to get other “less healthy” takeout food. The other day she ended up eating a whole pizza.

Her tears came with feelings of hopelessness: “I am not strong enough to do what I need to do to take care of my health, and I’m going to kill myself with my bad habits” (something like this). I tried to reframe this for her. Could she observe her eating habits less judgmentally, so that she has more room to problem-solve?

For example, Monday came and she was exhausted from all the housecleaning she did over the weekend. Instead of beating herself up and saying that she can’t get her eating right, she could say with curiosity (instead of criticism): “Hmmm…? I am really exhausted today after the weekend, which is supposed to be a rest from work. This doesn’t seem to be working for me. I know I “treated myself” to that food partly because I wanted to take care of myself in some way or soothe myself because I was exhausted. Maybe I need more help, or to lower my standards about cleaning on the weekend, or something else...”

Jessica’s work in high-tech is stressful and demanding -- and the standard in this industry is perfection-or-you-may-lose-your-job --  so this contributed to her negative self-talk, too. She ate something that didn't feel “right” for her to eat. In her own view, she’d failed at taking care of herself, even though she had really just been doing her best to cope. Binge-eating may have consequences that don’t feel so good, but it’s a very effective coping strategy that many of us use when we want soothing. We also often use food when we want to get out of our heads and into our bodies to experience some sensory pleasure for awhile.

Jessica wants to eat a vegan, plant-based, no-unnatural-oils, very low-fat diet, but she can’t seem to do it. We discussed the way that eating food that tastes good is important to her. However, this “clean” way of eating ends up feeling like a diet, and it doesn’t leave her fully satisfied. When she feels deprived, she rebels and seeks out highly-palatable, filling foods. The cycle starts again when she feels guilty about eating in an “un-clean” way and she goes back to her “virtuous” eating. The overeating and regaining control and overeating cycle continues...

I suggested that when Jessica is faced with a craving or desire for cheese, she think about a way that she can honor her craving for cheese and still create a healthy meal with it. Instead of being black and white (she either won’t eat cheese at all or she will eat a whole cheese pizza), she could have a sandwich with hummus and tomatoes and melted cheese. Yummy and healthful. The part of her that is rigidly clinging to the strict vegan plan will not see this as healthy, but it is still a better choice for her body than the large cheese pizza that ends up not making her feel very well afterwards. This was an example that made sense to my client. She thought she could try this concept of listening to -- instead of denying -- her cravings and working with them to find a balanced food choice. (This is not to say, by the way, that pizza is not a viable option, too. For Jessica, however, this was not the kind of meal that she really wanted to eat in the middle of her work day.) 

I suspect that she will struggle with finding this balance, as the grey is always more of a challenge for Jessica than the black and white. I also suspect that while her work and home life is very stressful and she’s not getting enough sleep, it is hard for her to take care of herself with food and find this balance. She also admits that she uses her struggles around food as a way to avoid harder things and to feel like she has some control over her life. I love the way she called her binge-eating  "lubrication" (something that helps her through tough times), but acknowledged that it has "grit" in it (consequences that make it less helpful to her body, mind, and spirit).

Since the session where she wanted to pound her fists into my floor, Jessica has been gradually embracing the “middle road” in her eating. She is not eating in the most virtuous way that she has always wanted to eat, but she tried it for decades and it didn’t work. She is letting it go. As a result, she is not doing as much binge eating -- particularly when she is being mindful and present and slows down enough to make her self-care a priority. It’s been quite a journey, and I am honored to be a supportive witness to her growth and determination as she improves her relationship with food.

So... how do you find balance in your eating so that you eat in a healthful way that doesn’t deprive you of the sensory pleasure of eating...? (Please share your Comments below.)

* Client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

How Do I Eat Intuitively and Mindfully When I Still Want to Lose Weight?

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I’m a fan of intuitive and mindful eating, in case you didn’t know that already. I work with my clients to honor their hungers and to figure out the ways of eating that work best for their individual and unique bodies. Many feel elated when their relationship with food seems to flow more easily and they are feeling tuned in to their bodies’ needs.

Recently, a member of my No Diet Book Club asked the billion dollar question: How do I eat intuitively when I still want to lose weight? (I say that it’s a billion dollar question because the diet industry that profits from a focus on losing weight is, in fact, a billion dollar industry.)  In my 20 years of experience working with people who are renegotiating their relationship with food, I have discovered that holding onto a primary goal of weight loss just gets in the way.

I firmly believe that in letting go of the focus on weight loss, and prioritizing one’s relationship with food first, we will best take care of our bodies. In doing so, we eat in the way that supports the healthy weight that our bodies are meant to be. Do we choose the food option that makes us feel our best, or choose the lowest calorie option possible just to meet weight loss goals?  The former uses our bodies to make the decision, while the latter comes only from the head.  

This is not to say that we don’t use our minds or our knowledge about nutrition to make decisions about eating when we eat intuitively.  For example, you can say, “Eating that full bag of Cheetos last time made me feel sick.  I don’t want to do that again.”  Here you are using your mind and your past experience to make a food choice, not just your body’s present state.

Let’s look at this more closely...

If you hate your body right now and focus on how it will look in the future (once you theoretically lose the weight), are you able to really be in the present, listening to what food choices really appeal to you and will satisfy you right now?

Isn’t it easier to make a commitment to take the best care of your body possible when you accept your body where it is?

When you see your body as the living, breathing, miracle that it is (extra pounds and all) and focus on nurturing and caring for that body with life-giving, healthful food, there is a very different focus. There is no deprivation. There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts. There are no mistakes -- only opportunities to learn what foods feel best. There is no criticism and guilt. There are only choices.

We can choose to eat the light and fresh salad greens or the more grounding sandwich or the ice cream cone because it’s a hot summer day and that’s what we feel like. We can choose the entree that speaks to our palates, and seems interesting and aligned with our values and preferences, without second guessing ourselves.

We can slow down and savor every bite because the food is so delicious and worth savoring. We aren’t eating a certain amount of calories or carbs or points. We are eating life-giving, pleasure-providing food -- and we will eat just enough of it because we are staying present with the eating experience, paying enough attention to the food and our bodies as we eat it. We take in the sensory enjoyment of the food, the texture, the warmth or coolness, the feelings of hunger and satiety. We are in our bodies when we eat. We are not just in our heads.

Does this seem like pie in the sky?  In today’s world, this is not easy to do. It might involve learning to distinguish between emotional hungers, diet thinking, the effects certain foods can have on our brain, and healthy body wisdom, for example. It might involve reprogramming everything that you learned about food as you grew up, bringing you back to how you ate when you were a toddler and you knew that a few bites of a cookie are enough when there are other pleasures in life to explore. This is why many of my clients appreciate some coaching and support along the way.

Once practiced regularly, mindful eating is liberating, freeing, and truly brings people into their healthiest bodies. That body might not be the “ideal body” that we envision, but it will be a respected, honored, and well nourished one. And isn’t that what is really important...? It’s not how we look in that bikini, really; it’s the fact that we are out enjoying the sunshine. Don’t let anyone -- the diet industry, well-meaning relatives, your partner, your own inner critic -- tell you that you should look different. (If they do, it may be because they have their own body image insecurities.) Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that weight loss is more important than feeding yourself well, in a way that is aligned with your own body’s needs.

Despite all the news coverage of the “war on obesity,” the Centers for Disease Control in 2005 determined that only when the BMI reaches 35+ is there a meaningful decrease in mortality. People in the “overweight” (BMI 25-30) category actually have the lowest mortality rate. Why are we calling these people “overweight" anyway...?

So, the answer to the question at the top of this post is that some people (but not all) lose weight while they work on eating intuitively and mindfully, but I recommend they not make weight loss a primary goal. In my many years of experience, I have seen that when clients fall back into that trap of focusing on weight loss, they do something that undermines their ability to deeply and accurately listen to their bodies. They shift their focus from self-care to trying-to-please, from inner wisdom to outer judgement about what to eat. And then they understandably push back against the deprivation that they feel and find themselves overeating. They want to lose weight, but feel like a failure. This is all on top of what the initial under-eating did to slow down metabolism.

Many studies have shown that 95% of all people who go on diets will gain the weight back (often plus more). Letting go of dieting and restricting and coming into harmony with what the body is really asking for does take some work, but it’s so worth it. And it is the only way that I have seen my clients grow to feel better about their bodies -- no matter what their size or shape. How can you take care of something that you loathe? So.... love that wonderful shape of yours and all your unique curves, angles, bumps, and smooth spots. Give your body wonderful food, energizing movement, and fresh air. You have a unique bodily form that makes you You.

Focus on what you have to gain in the process of learning to eat more mindfully and intuitively and joyfully -- not on what you have to lose!

If you liked this passage, please nourish yourself with the whole book. Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self is available here on my website, on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Also, sign up for free seasonal inspiration below. 

Lose the Diet for Swimsuit Season (why diets don't work)

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As the Spring unfolds around us here in the East (and a mighty long awaited one, I might add), I keep hearing women around me talking about how summer is coming and they need to get in shape or lose some weight to look better in a bathing suit. It makes me sad when the next statement after that is usually about some new diet they are on or some major food group they are eliminating or reducing -- usually flour, sugar, gluten or carbohydrates in general.

Now, some people do indeed have gluten intolerance, wheat and other allergies, or celiac disease and need to avoid some forms of carbohydrate for their health and well-being, but there are more and more people reducing carbohydrates with the goal of weight loss. There is no question that many people eat more grain-based and sugary foods than their body might need. However, the recent fad to lower carbohydrates across the board is reminiscent of the low-fat, no-fat craze in the 80s and 90s that I remember when I started my work in nutrition. (Those of you as old as I am, do you remember Snackwell Cookies? They were fat-free, and we somehow felt like we could eat whole sleeves of them, even though they replaced all the fat with sugar.)

The diet industry is a billion dollar industry, so the diet pushers will not tell you the facts.  Research shows that 95% of people who go on a diet will gain all the weight back (and often more) in the end. In fact, studies have shown that going on a diet is actually a predictor for having an increased body weight, particularly if you went on a diet during your child or teen years.

LDet's take a look at why dieting is particularly nasty...

Some physical risks of repeated dieting include:

 

  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Decreased metabolism
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Alterations in fat deposition
  • Hypertension
  • Increased risk of cardiac and cardiovascular problems
  • Premature aging with weight cycling and nutrient deficiencies
  • Gallstones

Some psychological risks of repeated dieting include: 

  • Obsession with weight
  • Heightened responsiveness to external food cues
  • Decreased enjoyment of food
  • Disordered eating patterns
  • Disordered lifestyle (excessive or inadequate exercise, social life affected by avoiding certain eating occasions, etc.)
  • Increased incidence of eating disorders
  • Increased pressure to conform to society's standards of beauty
  • Increased sense of failure
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Financial burden

So, if dieting doesn't work (remember, the 95% chance you'll gain the weight back is just not good odds), then what is the alternative if you want to feel good in your body at the beach this summer?

First and foremost, remember to view yourself as a whole person (body, mind, and spirit -- not just body) and take care of all of you. See my prior post on body image for more information about loving our amazing, miraculous bodies. Many of my clients have troubled relationships with their bodies and with food, and finding a way to nourish the body with balance and care is a struggle.

So, what is a non-diet way of maintaining a healthy body weight, no matter what body type you were born with?

Non-diet eating involves:

  • Listening to what the body needs
  • Responding to internal cues of hunger instead of external cues (sight, smell, the power of suggestion) most of the time
  • Not turning to food to deal with stress
  • Being personally in control of food choices instead of being controlled by the diet prescription
  • Realizing that feeling healthy and taking good care of your body will make you more attractive than a diet will
  • Abandoning short-term weight loss for long-term and lasting self-confidence, health, and wellness
  • Having space for more nourishing pursuits and for what really matters in life

So... you choose. And remember that it's not that you don't have willpower. Don't let the wealthy diet industry convince you of that. You have the power and control and choice to take the best care of your body that you can. It's the dieting that is making you feel like a failure. Restrictive eating is not sustainable. Our bodies and minds protect us against it by making us want to eat. And eat more.

Do your body and spirit a favor and ditch the diet (and maybe even the string bikini that you wore when you were 18 and you swear that you will get into again some day). Respect your body where it's at and help it ease into the healthiest shape that it can be by vowing never to diet again. And if you need help with a troubled relationship with food, my colleagues and I in nutrition therapy would be happy to help you practice tuning in, listening, and respecting that inner wisdom that we all have within us. Most of us used to eat intuitively and according to our bodies' needs when we were young -- until the diet industry and other well-meaning persons told us that they think they know better.

Learn to trust your own inner wisdom again instead.