This is part 3 of a 3-part sequence. Here is part 1 and here is part 2. A detailed breakdown of the stages of changing your thinking is here at "rewiring yourself."
If you read what I have written here, you'll note that there are no punitive actions involved. There is no talking about "bad", "shouldn't", "can't" or "won't". There is no guilt. There is no beating myself up or berating myself as "weak" or "out of control". Mainly, there are conversations, considerations and choices. Sometimes, the main problem with people who overeat is that they never stop to think at all but rather just act and then reflect after the fact. When you decide to lose weight, the decision itself changes the dynamic because you start to question what you have been doing. You want to start asking the questions and considering before you act. Even if you choose to do the destructive thing the first time, the second, or the third, you may find you can stop yourself in the future (or reduce the potential "damage") once you grow accustomed to having the dialog before taking action.
Asking these questions each time you are pondering a destructive choice is very important, perhaps much more important than your response to them because repeatedly asking them will eventually change your thought processes. The types of questions you ask are very important and I encourage anyone who wants to make long-term and lasting changes to adopt a respectful, mature, nurturing and compassionate tone with themselves rather than a patronizing and punitive one. This is all about teaching yourself to gradually interact differently with food, not disciplining yourself like a misbehaving child. You deserve patience and kindness, and giving it to yourself will make the learning faster and more effective.
While I may seem to be asserting what I have done as a cut and dry process of asking a question or considering a situation and following up with the "best" response or the one which was most conducive toward repairing my damaged relationship with food, that is certainly not what happened in every case. It was much more uneven than that. There were times when I considered the situation, and still made a destructive choice. Through time though, repeated and consistent consideration resulted in the more constructive choice more and more often. After even more time, the more productive choice started to come without the accompanying mental dialog. So, if this seems like a maddening assortment of considerations to play through your head, consider that the dialogs fall away through time as you naturally reach better choices with less (and eventually no) resistance. Also, every item on the list was not going through my head every time I approached food. Only the relevant dialog was in play for each given situation.
Mental conditioning changed as each stage of physical conditioning changed. It is very important to keep in mind that these two things were synchronized based on the demands of the physical changes. What needed to be done at the beginning was quite different than what I'm doing now which is likely different than what I'll be doing a year from now.
Here is the short version of what I did as best I can summarize and recollect at this time:
- When I reduced portion sizes, I often felt that I was missing something or was going to feel deprived. I asked myself why I felt I needed a huge cup of coffee. How did a third of a cup more liquid make the experience of a morning cup better? Did I need that large amount, or simply want it because I had become accustomed to it? I had these sorts of conversations with myself every time I had a reduced portion and felt I wanted more. This dialog eventually resulted in my satisfaction with very tiny portions of treats (like one or two bites). I conditioned myself to feel that a small amount was quite sufficient rather than to desire large amounts.
- Since I wanted more "experience" with food and that was one of the reasons that I wanted large portions, I asked myself in what way "more" was making the experience "better". Would I really enjoy 8 bites of a candy bar more than 2 or 3? Was I even processing the experience of each and every bite on a sensory level or simply eating by rote? Every time I wanted more of a treat, I had this type of conversation with myself. These types of conversations were what caused me to eventually practice mindful eating in the future. These conversations promoted an attitude of valuing economy of experience in which I got the most sensory gratification from the fewest calories.
- When I lapsed into mindless eating, I tried to recognize this behavior. At first, I did it after the fact. I thought about why I ate a huge pile of pretzels until I reached the bottom of the bag and reflected on why. If I was just stuffing food into my mouth without thinking about it, I tried to "catch" myself in this process and consider why I was doing it. Later, I could stop myself before eating it all. Later still, I recognized the impulse before I started. Now, I don't do it at all. I asked myself questions like: Was I really hungry? If so, was this the food to be eating to satiety? (Usually, it wasn't.) Was I tired or depressed? Was I just eating it out of habit because I put the bag in front of me? Was I deriving comfort or satisfaction from the mere act of putting food in my mouth and swallowing it and, if so, what would comfort me more constructively? (Often, that was the case.) This sort of reflection both stopped compulsive eating and got me into the habit of always serving myself portions on a plate which I add into the food log before I eat them so that I am aware of the impact of such things on my daily intake.
- When I had a craving that was preoccupying me, I focused on the fact that food cravings are related to the memory of pleasurable experiences. Essentially, you want the pleasure because you remember having had it before. I asked myself how much was necessary to refresh that memory of a food I desired and focused on eating a little to relive the experience rather than eating a lot to fill my stomach. If I was genuinely hungry, then a craving wasn't the answer. The craving could be gratified, but I told myself that filling the belly was another issue entirely. I told myself that I could have both of these needs fulfilled, just not by the same food.
- When I was hungry, I asked myself if it was because my stomach was empty, my blood sugar was low or if I simply wanted to eat because eating compulsively or impulsively was such a part of my routine life that I just felt an absence of something when I didn't just go and eat. This isn't the same as "boredom". It is more like having the T.V. on in the background for company and not watching it, and feeling something is amiss when it is turned off and quiet. Eating was a companion, and I was trying to become aware of that relationship.
- Once I became aware of habitual eating, I sought to replace this habit with productive distraction. Note that this is not mere distraction, but an effort to implement useful, long-term, and more helpful habits into my daily routine. The easiest choice was to either do something creative like doing actual work or doing housework. As time went by, rather than being a forced activity, these new habits seamlessly replaced eating as part of my daily routine. This is a big part of why I think less about food in general. It has stopped being a companion activity that I engaged in out of habit and other actions have become the default that my mind wanders to.
- When I had food in front of me and was eating it, I forced myself to be more aware of every bite of the food and to think about how my stomach felt. As someone who grew up poor, I am reluctant to throw away any food (my mother got angry if we "wasted food") and often cleaned my plate (and my husband's) by rote . When I felt like I should eat everything I had in front of me whether I was hungry or enjoyed it, I thought about how my eating more calories would not extract more value from the money I spent on the food and that I am worth more than a few cents worth of food. Sometimes I had to force myself to scrape the food into the bin, but it got easier the more I told myself that I was worth more than the cost of food.
- I started to analyze the food I ate for pleasure for it's sensory value and asked myself if I was eating it all because it was "special", expensive, or because I felt I really enjoyed every bite. For example, when I wanted pizza, I considered which parts of the pizza I really enjoyed and which parts had limited pleasure associated with them. I didn't eat portions of food that didn't bring me sufficient pleasure and told myself that I am worthy of eating only the very best part of a dish. Later, I started to prepare food differently in accord with this thinking.
- When I was genuinely hungry, I reminded myself that hunger is a part of losing weight and that the body is justifiably fighting back, but I am the master of my body. I started dealing with hunger and cravings by using delayed gratification techniques. That is, if I really wanted something, I'd try to put it off for 5 minutes, then 5 more, then 5 more if I could. If I really felt I couldn't delay any longer, I'd have a small amount of what I wanted and make myself wait 15 minutes before I had more.
- I started practicing hunger conditioning where I tried to learn to tolerate hunger more effectively.
- I started to practice restraint in the face of possibility. When I started out, I always ate as much of everything I could up to my calorie limits. If I wanted more and could "afford it", I had it. I think early on this was actually necessary, but as time went by, it became less important both physically and mentally and I started to not eat just because I "could". I saw saying "no" when I could "afford (the calories)" to say "yes" as a mental muscle worth exercising. This was the beginning of a practice which has lead to my not eating up to my calorie allotments every day when I'm not actually hungry. Essentially, practicing restraint became an end unto itself rather than a means to an end.
- When I pined for some experience which I felt I enjoyed more because food was involved, like watching a movie and eating popcorn, I deconstructed the scenario and thought about how one experience actually detracted from the full enjoyment of the other. I thought about how coupling behaviors renders each of them more mindless rather than more enjoyable. I started to purposefully untangle experiences (even those unrelated to food) and to single task rather than multi-task as my default habit. I try to "live in the moment" more fully with everything, including food.
- "You can have it later" has become a huge unforced mantra for me. In the beginning, this is how I managed to get through low-calorie days when I started calorie counting. I told myself that "tomorrow", I could eat anything I wanted (and I could) and I just had to endure today. This has gone from a forced mantra to a situation in which it comes rather more naturally and by desire. If I eat lunch and think I'd like to follow it up with a treat, I think that I'll enjoy it more after some time has passed. I don't even have to tell myself that anymore. It's just a natural response. Delaying gratification makes the satisfaction better because it is spacing out pleasurable experiences and making them more distinct. This practice has helped me not eat late at night when I'm hungry as well as not overeat because I want something and have eaten enough calories. After a year of saying, "it's okay if you want it because you can have it later," this has become a fairly effortless response.
- When I was sad, upset, or depressed and wanted to eat to comfort myself, I thought about how eating would not fix the problem and forced myself to think about what would. I also pondered whether or not eating was related to what was bringing me down. More often than not in the early days, my depression was related to my weight or physical pain, so I'd think about how I had to break the cycle of suffering induced by eating. These days, I don't get as unhappy about my relationship with food (but still get sad about other things), but the way in which other changes have reshaped my thinking has stopped me from feeling driven to food for comfort. These days, I just try to tell myself that sadness happens and I have to just experience it. It doesn't have to be something that I have to slap a food-filled band-aid over to mask the feelings.
- I remind myself that taking pleasure in food is a wonderful thing which humans are meant to experience, but it doesn't have to be achieved with volume and that more food actually undermines the taste experience as taste buds lose their sensitivity. I remind myself that "more is better" is a reflexive thought which is not based in the reality of the eating experience.
- I question my desire to eat in terms of really being hungry or simply wanting the enjoyable experience of eating. This is one thing I still have to do on a semi-regular basis. Often I will be able to afford the calories or enough time has passed since the previous meal that I could eat if I wanted to, but I don't if the only reason I want to do it is to enjoy food. It's not overeating that I'm trying to avoid in this case, it is trying not to "entertain myself" randomly with food. I separate this type of desire to eat something pleasurable from the desire for a snack or a small dessert. It's also important to note that this is not boredom. It is simple pleasure-seeking via the sensory delight of food, and I brush this aside when it seems to be happening by telling myself that when I'm genuinely hungry, I can have the pleasure of eating what I want. This happens most often when I'm cooking or baking something for future consumption, but the food is appetizing now.
- When I grew frustrated with the cumbersome nature of weighing, measuring, and logging in food, I remind myself that I have a physical disability that requires monitoring just like many other disabilities if I want to be healthy. My disability is that I have no idea how much I should be eating and must track my food or I will end up eating too much or too little. Resenting this disability or growing frustrated at the necessity of the process is unproductive. I see my lot in life in this regard as no different from that life-long diabetics must deal with. It is simply a task that I must do, like washing dishes, and I should just accept that it is necessary without attaching any value (either positive or negative) to the experience one way or another.
I'm not sure if this is "everything", but it's a big chunk of it. While compiling this list, I am struck by how doing so has clarified some of the links for me between my present mindset and the actions I took. In particular, it seemed at one point as if some magical transformation took place for me in terms of not being obsessed with food and weight loss, but it wasn't transcendent. It was progressive replacement of old thinking and acting with new thoughts and actions.
All of that thinking, questioning, acting, and conversing slowly and almost imperceptibly built a new path in my mental jungle that is now more comfortable to travel down than the one I had for many years. It was a slow arduous trail to create, but it has become the more natural one through time. I just had to keep (and still have to keep) pruning away at it when the weeds attempt to grow back over the path I've built.