Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Eat What You Want

I tore into the tube of raw chocolate chip cookie dough with my teeth, right there in the middle of the street while walking from the grocery store back to the room I was renting in a D.C. house.  I dug into the tube with my fingers and ate half of the tube in less than a block.  Disgusted and yet strangely satisfied, I tossed the rest of the tube in a garbage can.

Get ready, folks, because I'm about to put myself out there.

Demolishing that tube of cookie dough in the summer of 2010 was my rock bottom.  My eating had spiraled out of control since hitting my goal weight at the end of May.  I had plateaued for about four months before finally losing the last two pounds to reach my goal (which I have since raised by those two pounds).  The long slog towards goal had been demoralizing but I hadn't realized how much so until I began my summer job at my firm.

Surrounded by free snacks in the break room, three-course lunches at nice restaurants every day, happy hours, dinner events, parties, and my non-firm social life, I soon found myself giving up on any semblance of restraint and swinging completely in the other direction.  Not only was I indulging, I was over-indulging.  Heck, I figured, if it was this difficult to resist foods and stick to a reasonable diet, I might as well just eat EVERYTHING.  You can read my mid-summer reflections on the situation---along with an AMAZING mental visualization by Martha Beck---here.

That afternoon with the cookie dough, I spent about an hour convincing myself that NO, I did NOT want cookie dough.  No.  I did NOT.  No.  Definitely not.  Do NOT go get cookie dough at the store.  Just DON'T LEAVE THE HOUSE.  NO!  But the only thing I could think about was cookie dough, and when I finally got my hands on it, I ate over 1000 calories in cookie dough in less than three minutes.

Cookie dough has always been my kryptonite.

After the summer was over, I got my behaviors back on track by heating healthier foods in reasonable portions.  But more important than my behaviors was the psychological goings-on behind them.  In other words:

What the heck happened to me last summer?

How did I go from a healthy eater at her goal weight to a fledgling binge/compulsive overeater who was mainlining cookie dough on the street until her stomach hurt?

Little known fact:  before getting started on heroin, Bubbles was a cookie dough addict.

Now, I want to stay at a healthy weight for my entire life.  But something clearly went wrong for me last year.  In order not to repeat my mistakes, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my dieting and eating behavior that led up to that moment on the street with the cookie dough.  I've come to the point where I think I may have a coherent observation to share.  My big mistake while losing/trying to maintain my weight?

I didn't eat what I wanted.

Now, I understand why this sounds a bit counter-intuitive.  In my cookie dough story, I wanted the cookie dough, I ate it, and that certainly was not a healthy or laudable behavior.

The problem, rather, was in not allowing myself the foods I wanted while trying to "be good."  In trying to save Weight Watchers points or cut calories or whatnot, I was constantly turning down cake, avoiding situations where I'd have to drink a lot of beer, lightening up recipes, or choosing alternatives to my favorites ("Hey, this red velvet yogurt is just as good as a slice of red velvet cake!  Seriously!  I can't even tell the difference!"  ::grits teeth::).

This did me a disservice for several reasons:

1.  I was lying to myself.  Red velvet yogurt is NOT the same as a moist, dense slice of red velvet cake with cream cheese icing.  It's just not.  In no universe is it the same.  Trying to tell myself that I was just as happy with the one as I would have been with the other created a cognitive dissonance that I eventually overcame by gorging myself.  I was devaluing my own wants, desires, and worthiness by telling myself that I didn't want what I really wanted.  Eventually, I rebelled.

2.  I created a taboo around foods.  By telling myself, "NO!  You CANNOT HAVE!" I just made myself want it even more.  That's just human nature.  If I tell you to think about anything you want right now, but just DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES THINK ABOUT PINK ELEPHANTS WITH SPARKLY WINGS---well, it's really hard not to visualize those damn pink elephants.  Same with food.

3.  I developed a "Screw It" mentality.  Cookie dough costs a lot of WW points.  It's also pretty calorie-dense.  By not allowing myself to have it because it's a "bad" food, if I do have it, I've breached some kind of rule or protocol.  In my mind, this linked to "Oh well, game over."  And if the game's over, then I might as well just go for a few cupcakes too then, right?

All of these realizations were essential to addressing the behavior.  I found a lot of insight in Geneen Roth, whose attitudes towards self-love, self-trust, and overcoming emotional eating helped me complete the puzzle and come up with a plan to heal the damage I'd inadvertently caused by trying to be a "good dieter."

(Available here for $9)

After yo-yo dieting for most of her life, Geneen Roth had a radical idea:  she'd give up diets and just eat whatever she wanted.  The only catch:  she would stop eating when she felt physically satisfied.  That was the only rule.  Any food she wanted, any time, but she had to actually be physically hungry.  Within a few years, she'd lost 60 pounds and found herself at a healthy weight.

WTF?

Here was the thing:  removing the taboo around foods allowed Geneen to listen to her body's hunger signals and desires without implicating the crazed animal inside all of us that is afraid of being starved.  She gained some weight for several months, since (woman after my own heart) the only thing she wanted to eat for dinner for the first two weeks was cookie dough in various forms.  Eventually, though, she balanced out.  She healed the wound inside her that had been caused by deprivation dieting.  She craved chicken.  She wanted some vegetables.  She still ate cookie dough, but once she assured herself that there WOULD be cookie dough in her future, she was free to eat other foods.

Geneen Roth was willing to gain a hundred pounds or more if she had to, just to prove to herself that she could trust herself and her desires.  Adapting Geneen's insights worked for me.  Here's what I learned:

  • My appetite is not infinite.  There was a point when I truly believed that, if left to my own devices, I would eat mounds upon mounds of cookie dough without stopping.  Allowing myself those foods when I want them has taught me that I DO actually want to stop eating them.  Surprisingly, I often want to stop eating after having a reasonable portion.  I used to overeat these foods in large part because I knew I wouldn't let myself have them again after "misbehaving" and overeating them.  Once I removed that element, I was free to listen to my hunger signals and trust that the foods would be back the next time I wanted them.
  • Sometimes my appetite is not even for food.  Limiting myself to moments of physical hunger before eating taught me to recognize moments of emotional hunger.  Often when I found myself craving ice cream in the middle of a 2am study session, what I really wanted was not to eat, but just to go to sleep.  Sometimes when I wanted a pint of beer what I really wanted was just to fit in, feel social, and relax with my friends.  On those occasions, I found another way to satisfy my desire.  As Weight Watchers likes to say, "If hunger isn't the problem, food isn't the solution."
  • There is a difference between "I like that" and "I want that right now."  While "dieting," it's easy to feel that, at any moment, you would drop everything and slap someone in the face if necessary just to get a cupcake.  When you really trust yourself to eat what you WANT, you realize that what you WANT may not be what you LIKE.  I love cupcakes.  But just because I pass a cupcake shop, does that mean I really want to eat a cupcake right now?  No, it doesn't.  With that self-trust comes a sense of self-awareness---I don't actually want a cupcake right now, even though I like them and know a cupcake would taste good.  Next time I actually DO feel like a cupcake, I promise I will eat one, but that time is not right now

But most of all, you honor yourself.  This point above all.  Allowing yourself to eat what you want really addresses the fundamental issue at the heart of a lot of strange eating habits---that you deserve to be happy.  Let me say that again.  You deserve to be happy.  Geneen uses an example of a woman in one of her workshops who was about to sit down to a nice dinner she'd prepared when she realized that the only thing she really wanted to eat was a slice of lemon pie from a diner twenty miles away.  So she waited patiently for her husband to finish their dinner, and then they drove, in the rain, to this diner where she ordered a slice of lemon pie.  After three bites, all of which she savored, she realized she'd had enough.  Really, the pie was (on some level), about assuring herself that she was worth it.  She was worth driving half an hour on a whim, and her desires were worth satisfying.  It wasn't even about the hunger.

But if it had been about hunger, she (and you) are worth satisfying in whatever way you want.  Who says you have to eat dinner first?  Why not order the brownie sundae as your entree if that's what you really want?  I found that when I did this, I freed myself not only to listen to my hunger signals (I seriously do not WANT to eat to the point of physical pain...a small portion of sundae is usually more than enough), but I also sent myself the message that my desires are important and deserve to be recognized.  I deserve to eat what will satisfy me, and I deserve to throw out half the sundae if I don't want any more without feeling badly about wasting it.  It's not about overeating, although admittedly it's a very fine line.  "Eat what you want" is shorthand for listening to my body, my hunger signals, and my desires.  Because I am worthy of my own desires.  And so are you.  And we are worth more than a half-tube of cookie dough.

When I embraced that message with my eating habits, it had a way of lifting me up in other areas of your emotional life, too.  A healthier relationship with food was just the start.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Do you have a healthy relationship with food?  If so, has it always been that way?  If not, what do you think is going on?
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