Thursday, July 8, 2010

Trusting Yourself with Food

On a popular weight loss forum, there was a discussion recently about entering into the mental conversation about whether or not to eat something. This came about because someone wrote a book which said that once you ask yourself the question of whether or not you're going to eat something, you're doomed because the answer will always be "yes, I will eat it." The underlying premise is that you can never trust yourself with food so it is best not to ask the question. One should rather wall oneself off from all food options that are not in the "good girl" vein. All pastries, cakes, cookies, etc. are to be placed completely outside the realm of possibility.

This situation reminds me of a scene in the Simpsons where Homer is hitching a ride on a truck full of watermelons. The driver tells Homer that he must ride in the back with the melons because the driver's pig must ride up front with him because, "you can't trust a pig with watermelons." As he says this, Homer is in the back of the truck devouring the melons. Are we pigs that cannot be trusted around food?

Everyone has heard variations on the saying that "trust is earned, not given." Trusting ourselves is something we can earn, but not if we operate from a central notion that we cannot be trusted with food. One of the reasons that I advocate mindful eating practices with small portions of treats on a daily basis is that it helps build a sense of control and trust in ourselves around food. If you eat small portions of a treat food - half a cookie, a bite-size candy, a few bites of ice cream - and then stop enough times, you will feel that you can stop every time. One slip up will seem a lot less dire if you have a history of not losing control.

That being said, I am not immune to anxiety related to (not) trusting myself with food. Even after all this time and practice, I still second guess myself. I mentioned in a previous post that after prolonged periods of eating 1500 calories per day, my body will rebel and insist that I eat to absolute satiety, and sometimes I just have to eat closer to 2000 calories. This type of hunger is not psychological, but physiological and is marked by desiring things like eggs or lean meat rather than craving specific types of food such as sweets or salty foods. That actually had not happened for quite a long time for me. However, last night, I had one of those days where I simply had to eat more.

Even though I only ate about 1900 calories yesterday, I felt strange about it. I didn't exactly feel that I was going to lose control, but rather that my trust in my ability to endure hunger and not eat in accord with my desire to lose weight might waver as a result of "giving in". I realize that this is paranoia, and not something that I should actually be worried about. Frankly, it's not something that I'm deeply feeling or have any but surface anxiety about.

Feelings cannot be denied or censored. They simply exist, and I have to experience them, but I don't have to allow them to penetrate my confidence and undermine the trust I've earned in myself through repeated success and recovery from small "failures". The reason that this is not a dire, nail-biting situation is that I have come to trust myself with food. That trust is not absolute, but it is quite solid, particularly given my history of losing control. Through time, with more practice, that trust in myself will continue to grow.

At the same time that the discussion on the aforementioned forum about having a conversation about "to eat or not to eat" was going on, there was another thread started by a woman who talked about how it was easier to "diet" if she was "safe" in her home. Free from temptation and in absolute control of exposure to various foods, she had control. I felt for her, and I understand why many people may desire a similar cocoon when it comes to food.

That being said, I think that if you can only succeed under such conditions, that success will not last. Eventually, one must go out in the real world and be exposed to temptations and ones family members will grow weary of keeping all "junk" out of the house for the sake of your protecting yourself from your impulses. If you don't endeavor to incorporate methods to build trust in yourself with food, you will have to live in your safe environment forever, or you will eventually lose control and start to regain weight.

I think part of the problem with the way in which diets work is related to the assertion by the writer of the book being discussed. He is telling people (mostly women) that they shouldn't trust themselves. There isn't even an attempt to teach people practices or methods to build trust in themselves. There is only affirmation of your inherent and never-ending weakness when it comes to food. With that sort of mindset, is it any small wonder that we feel powerless when it comes to food?


Florida Food Snob said...

I agree that with food there needs to be a certain level of self control / trust but for some reason if I ask myself about working out then its down hill. Exercise is something I just had to do sometime without giving myself an option of skipping.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I am one of the persons (maintaining a 50 lb loss for two plus years) who believes that -- at least for me -- sugar, processed foods, and most "treats" really are addictive, and that it's impossible to integrate small amounts of these types of foods into my daily diet. I can't tell you what a relief it has been not to worry about "eating just one cookie," and then often eating another, another, another . . . I used to think it was a matter of willpower, but I don't anymore. I think there is a physiological response to these unhealthy foods and that they lead you to want more of them. That said, I know that many people do manage to eat small amounts of sweet treats and maintain their weight. But for me, it was just not worth it, and I feel tremendous mental freedom simply to have those types of food in a category of "I just don't eat these things." I remember some time ago reading Judith Beck's book about her not eating cake at her daughter's wedding, and thinking at the time, "That is insane! I never want to be so rigid around food!" Now, it's not really rigidity, just that I don't want to eat these things that made me so unhealthy and unhappy . . . Just a different point of view. Good luck to you on your journey.

screaming fatgirl said...

Florida Food Snob: I don't have a priority on exercising with what I do, but I can understand why you feel you can't give yourself the option to skip. Part of the problem is how ones life goes. If your life is busy enough, then it becomes very easy to skip when things get hectic and the only way to do it is to prioritize. It also does depend on character.

I do exercise, mind you, just not like most other people trying to lose weight. My exercise is pretty modest, and I actually enjoy it (what little I can manage with my frailty). It's never been something I've had to push myself to do aside from enduring pain to get to a point where I could do it with less pain... if that makes sense.

Anonymous: I used to have the same addictive biological responses to such foods as you describe. Those responses don't tend to kick in with small portions, particularly when they are consumed at the end of a meal and the blood sugar effects are minimal.

Obviously, everyone has to choose what is best for them, but in general I think the large rate of regaining is linked to the inability of people to resist treats forever and then having no psychological tools at their disposal to reintegrate the foods they resisted during dieting back into their lives. When it's "all or nothing", many people can't live with "nothing" forever, and then they're right back where they started, or worse.

I think that for folks like you who can live with your choices, it's fine to do as you do, but statistics would indicate that few people can do what you're doing. Their needs and situations need to be addressed, and I really think that the biology is a much smaller part of it than people think. The brain responds to all stimuli in a particular way, and sugar or salty treats can set off a strong response, but that is something which can be tempered with psychological conditioning (much as relaxation can cause certain biological changes to occur).

If you read back through some of my other posts, you'll see that I absolutely do not believe in the notion of "willpower", and in fact, believe it is a useless and pejorative word. I'm not talking about willpower, I'm talking about behavioral conditioning which leads to having a relationship with food in which one has more control. It's a skill that can be acquired. It's not a character trait.

I don't believe that pleasurable foods made me unhappy and unhealthy. I believe that my lack of control when consuming them made me those things. The food itself is a neutral thing. It's how I acted on it that caused the problem. By acting differently on it, the problem has been solved.

I understand your viewpoint. As you say, it's just another perspective. Good luck to you and congratulations on maintaining your loss.

My post on why I hate the word "willpower" is here: