This week, I’m writing in response to a question from a web program participant as part of a web program forum discussion about establishing a normal relationship with food. Since my answer to her question was rather lengthy and detailed and, I believe, relevant to you all, I thought I’d share the question and answer here for this week’s “Tools for Recovery” article.
If we’ve spent years using food to cope and stuck in the Diet Mentality, how the hell do we have a clue what is normal around what to eat and how much?
In my own personal recovery and my 17 years as a specialist in this field, if there’s one thing I have learned, it is this: In the early stages of recovery, it is not helpful to focus on food in a structured way or to get caught up in some external meter of what to eat, when or how much.
However well intended and healthy the guidelines, at the early stages of recovery, your Drill Sgt. and that well-worn Diet Mentality path will glom onto any structure around food as another diet. Soon you’ll be back where you started: judging how well you’re sticking to the plan, and berating yourself when you don’t; forgetting to focus on WHY you’re using food to cope, and instead, focussing on what you’re eating. Isn’t that what you’re working to change by being here?
I find that once you’re a little farther along in your healing (and some of you may very well be there now – if so, more on that later), you will be able to choose to not have certain foods or to not have certain foods at certain times or in certain quantities without feeling at all restricted, without triggering your good old Diet Mentality and the DS’ judgement and pressure.
The most important thing to focus on early in recovery is WHY you’re wanting to eat what and when you’re wanting to eat. Figuring out the WHY is the key as that then frees you to approach food in that moment from a place of rational thinking and self-awareness. This means that even if you are so overwhelmed at the time you choose to binge or restrict or purge after using your tools (which can happen early on), your binges etc., are much smaller and less overwhelming after you’ve done a list of stressors or DS dialogue, if they happen at all.
Learning to eat naturally is the act of doing your best to wait until you’re hungry to eat and doing your best to stay present enough to stop when you’re comfortably full rather than stuffed – no guilt for eating certain foods as long as you’re eating when hungry and stopping when full. It’s also about learning to respond to stress in appropriate ways by identifying what is causing your stress and looking for life-enhancing solutions for the problem.
In my personal and professional experience, if you try to bring in any structure around food aside from the gentle structure of Natural Eating before you’ve figured out how to identify and attend to the WHY of your eating, you will just start to obsess about what you’re eating again, and your eating disorder is off and running yet again, leaving you feeling like a total failure when you could have been incredibly happy and successful just by taking the focus off food.
Before you can safely begin to focus on directing your food choices, you must have some consistency with your ability to remind yourself, when you start to want to binge or think about restricting or purging, that this is just a coping strategy. This consistency will naturally lead you to remind yourself that there is some stressor in your life that is triggering your irrational, all-or-nothing thinking: a trigger that is making you feel so overwhelmed that somehow it makes sense to think that binging or purging or restricting is going to help you.
When you witness yourself consistently connecting these dots any time you feel drawn to use food to cope, you will be free of the stranglehold of binging, purging, and restricting, and naturally have the foundation to begin to safely invite yourself to be more conscious around what you’re choosing to eat, and how much.
Let me be clear that in all my years of professional experience, the clients who move through this process with the greatest speed and ease are those who are willing, for a period of time (set yourself 3 months or 6 months), to:
- a. set aside any judgements of what they are eating;
- b. and instead, just focus on reminding themselves when they are using food to cope that that is, in fact, what they are doing;
- c. use their tools of the 4-7-8 breathing, DS Dialogue, and List of Stressors daily; and
- d. set aside their judgement of what they choose to eat (oh, did I say that already?).
This is not to say that what you eat has no impact on your body in terms of health. On the contrary, it’s about:
- accepting the reality that right now you have a dysfunctional relationship with food;
- accepting that in order to straighten out any dysfunctional relationship, you’ve got to first acknowledge that it’s dysfunctional and that you play a part in that dysfunction;
- taking a big step back from trying to control and change the other person/substance and do the work you need to do on your thinking and your behaviour in order to be the person you need to be to have a healthy relationship with that person/substance (i.e., let go of trying to control food and instead focus on why you’re wanting to control it or overuse it at that moment);
- re-entering the relationship with your new skills and awareness and self-esteem, and continue to use your tools in the relationship whenever you feel any of the old stress or triggers arising. Around food, this could look like gentle invitations to change certain choices (i.e., stop having dairy if it makes you feel sick, maybe stop all together or just have a little a few times a week; stop having 3 diet pops a day if you notice it dehydrates you, maybe just have 2, then one…) or to balance the kinds of foods we choose (I.e., a gradual reduction in our consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars and an increase in whole grains, fruits and veg) that are appropriate and will be successful here;
- experiencing true peace and integration as you stay grounded in your rational mind and clear thinking and the self-respect and self-compassion that that brings, regardless of what’s going on for the other person (or in this case, regardless of what food is around you and how much and that there’s no one around to see how much you have or don’t have).
So accepting this reality means we acknowledge that right now our connection with food is confused, and that we can’t expect ourselves to make the best choices about when and how much to eat because we use food to cope with stress. As such, expecting ourselves to have a different relationship with food when we still have the same stressors and have not got a firm grasp on new, life-enhancing tools to identify and resolve our stress is not fair or reasonable.
How would you feel if you applied for a job and then upon arriving for your first day at work were given little or no training and then judged, shamed and berated for doing a crappy job? That’s what you’re doing if you give yourself a hard time about your food choices when you know that you use food to cope but haven’t used your tools in that moment to identify your trigger and look for a reasonable solution.
I have found that when, through discussion and agreement with the Drill Sgt., people who use food to cope just give themselves a period of time to learn the core tools of recovery without giving themselves a hard time for the times when they need to use food to cope, they ultimately don’t need to create structure (diet/nutrition plan) around their relationship with food in order to come to a natural weight for their body. This has certainly been my truth and that of many hundreds of clients I have counselled over the past 17 years.
You may find that, as you get farther along in your healing, you become aware that certain foods make you feel unwell or bloated or headachey or tired. This is typical, as we often have sensitivities to certain foods (particularly dairy or wheat) from our overuse of these foods in our efforts to numb and cope with our stress. These sensitivities will typically fade in time if we approach these foods moderately for a year or two; although it is possible that an allergy has developed through overuse. A doctor would be best to consult if you have concerns about this.
It is easy to choose not to have certain foods in your diet if they make you feel unwell once you are grounded in self-esteem and not needing to use food to cope. This does not ever feel like restriction at this point in your healing – it just feels like rational thinking and great self-care. Whereas, in the early stages of recovery when we still feel the need for food to cope, any restriction will be met with resistance and a compensatory overreaction (binge).
If you feel the need to experiment with quantities at all in the early stages of healing, despite my sharing above, the best way to do this is to invite yourself (if you overeat) to start out with 2/3rds of what you’d normally take at any meal, reminding yourself all the while (and meaning it) that you will let yourself have more when you finish that portion if you’re still hungry.
If you finish that portion and you’re still hungry, take a little more and then check in again. If you finish the first portion and you’re not hungry but want more you say, “This is me wanting to use food to cope. Let’s get out our pen and paper and do a list of stressors and see what’s stressing me and where my all-or-nothing thinking is hooking me, and if I still want more when I’m done, I can have it.”
If you try to do the 2/3rds thing and you end up binging or feeling really anxious, you’re still too immersed in using food to cope and in the all-or-nothing thinking to be able to feel safe stepping back from your coping strategy. Acknowledge this and give yourself 2 more weeks with the tools (using them every day – 15 mins is sufficient), and then try again. When you’re grounded in your tools, the process moves very quickly and your relationship with food becomes simple: Eat when hungry, stop when full.
If you restrict primarily, you will want to invite yourself to take just a few bites more than you otherwise would, for just one meal each day, and let that be all you ask of yourself for a week. Then when you can see that your body is fine and didn’t blow up like a balloon, add a few more bites to another meal and so on. It make take a few months to get to a reasonable-sized portion if your restriction is severe, but this way it will feel safe and it will be lasting, and you will see that your body can eat well and not be overweight.
This approach to coming back to center in your relationship with food is truly the fastest, simplest path to healing.
Keep in mind, most folks who have any sort of Diet Mentality at all are well aware of what a healthy choice is. I have rarely met a client who needs help figuring that out. You know what to do. You just need help figuring out what stands in the way of you actually doing what you know is honouring of your body and your goals for fitness and health. That’s where the core tools that teach you rational thinking, empathy and compassion come in.
So this is a long way (but sometimes our Drill Sgt. needs all the bases covered) of saying, if you feel like you need structure around food, it’s likely because you’re still in Diet Mentality mode and not trusting yourself around food.
The solution is not to get structure around food but rather to get structure in your brain and start to think rationally about your stress and to begin to see yourself as worthy and capable of creating a life that is full of joy, passion, love and safety. Your relationship with food is quite easily sorted once you’re no longer using food to cope.
I hope this helps, and please keep the questions coming.