I just came across an article in the New York Spirit about Jena LaFlamme, a woman who designed her own weight loss program called “Pleasureable Weight Loss”. Her program helps women take the focus off restrictive, punitive diet and exercise regimens that lead to binge eating and teaches them how to find pleasure both in eating healthier foods and in other areas of their lives.
The article inspired me to write a piece about conscious eating since there are SO many articles and advice columns written about eating that make it sound as if it’s just simply about portion control and will power which really minimizes the struggle people go through with food. Simplifying also adds to the shame people may feel if they can’t “just make up their mind to lose weight like..” the newest person on the cover of People Magazine’s weight loss issue.
These simplistic approaches also fail to take into account JUST HOW DIFFERENT each person’s body really is. Some people have thyroid problems, some are addicted to sugar which fuels cravings, others have medical issues, some are on medications that slow weight loss… it’s way more complex than the way it’s portrayed.
In the article, LaFlamme says : “The reason you haven’t yet lost the weight you want to lose, is that you’ve been relying on food as your main source of pleasure. If you learn to make your whole life more pleasurable, from how you work to how you socialize, to how you exercise to how you make love, to how you dress, then food is able to take its natural place in your life and so too, your weight will naturally rebalance.”
I agree with this premise and think it’s a great starting point with a few added points.
The out of synch body
Over the years in my practice, I have worked with women of all sizes including myself (!) struggling with the push and pull relationships they’ve developed with food. This well known pattern of relating to food leads to the familiar cycle of depriving ourselves on a diet, losing weight and then binging to make up for lost time and lost food that we missed out on while we were dieting. Some people get into this deprivation-binge cycle using crash diets, some even on weight watchers despite it’s more integrated eating plan because they still feel deprived on a “diet”. In this circular loop that everyone from Oprah to your mother goes through, one thing we do is show very little genuine respect for what our bodies want.
Some of these patterns developed early on when some of us watched our mothers with the best of intentions telling or modelling for us “you can’t eat what you want… you just have to diet if you want to stay thin” and we quickly learned that it’s not about what the body wants! If we want to look good- we pay the price.
Of course the desire to be thin (AND healthy!) is understandable. It’s just that the way it’s done and the lengths we will go through to attain this often dishonors the body.
With regard to dieting, I am not saying diets are bad. Moderation if of course an important thing to learn and without some structure- it can be difficult for people to taper their eating habits. However, its how we approach diets or ways of eating that matter. If we can begin to become aware of our processes, our patterns of thinking that need some restructuring or challenging as well as our feelings which could use some of our attention, dieting will be a different experience as well. It’s how we approach and frame what we’re doing.
Our deprivation- binge cycles are kind of like saying to your child “you want to sleep?..okay you have one day to go try to get in all the sleep you and then there will be no sleeping for months even if you’re tired. Then we’ll have another sleeping binge for a few days where you can cram it all in again so get ready..…” Clearly this would teach your child he couldn’t be trusted to listen to his internal cues to know when he’s tired. It would also set up a fear of deprivation where he feels he has to get it all in now because he’s going to be denied of what his body needs for awhile. It’s very black and white and there is no integration or room for attunement to your body here. Think of religion that’s practiced out of fear rather than with any intuitive or emotional connection. (I know – it goes on all the time, but it’s sad).
With binging and then restricting too much, our focus becomes distorted to what we SHOULD do TO our bodies rather than partnering WITH and allowing our bodies to guide us on how to respectfully tend to them. In these kinds of cycles, we learn to betray our body’s natural rhythms and we become taskmasters to our bodies, dictating to them what they HAVE to do rather than trusting that the body knows what it needs and can regulate itself (though sometimes guidance is needed to help us LEARN regulation as well).
So just eat what you want?!
This is not to say that we need to just eat what we want. For some of us, our bodies sometimes want more food than we actually need for fuel, and this can often be due to the addictive nature of the chemically treated foods that flood our markets, hormones (such as leptin) that go awry from eating these foods, genetics, hormonal imbalances as well as confusion between our physical signals of hunger and our emotional ones.
But, what if we could learn (return!) to listening and cultivating more of a trust in our inner cues rather than ignoring or denying them?
What does this look like and NOT look like?! Once upon a time, I had a therapist encourage me to “eat whatever you want.. follow your body’s rhythms”. I was very excited about this dumping the diets thing. Eat whatever I want? It felt so freeing and like a new revolution.. off to the bakery! Well… needless to say this turned into an Entenmann’s food festival for me as I just never stopped eating!! (well ok I eventually stopped but NOT when my body said it was full!).
This was NOT a helpful intervention because at that time- I was not in tune with when I was eating out of physical hunger and when I was eating out of emotional hunger. (As Tina Fey once said in an SNL skit “sorry- I was in the cafeteria eating my feelings!). So there are levels within this process. I was also addicted to sugar back then- which I highly recommend considering gradually detoxing off of – to ease the binge cycle.
So how do we become more in touch with our eating patterns? There are skills we can learn about how to feel ourselves before and while we are eating. Even just bringing small amounts of awareness into the middle of a binge can be enough to help you become more conscious of HOW you are eating, and THAT you are eating compulsively.
What is awareness? It can be simply noting “huh.(pause noise) Why do I always eat 3 cookies? What if I ate 2?” and then noticing the resistance that comes up. And sitting with it rather than eating it away.
Even if you DO end up eating the 3rd cookie- see if you can bring some curiosity to your pattern and the tenacity of your grip (“I’m NOT eating 2!!”)
Many books have been written about how to trust our bodies again by learning to differentiate between physical and emotional hunger (so I won’t go into this here). Slowing down to feel ourselves – or noticing that we just WON’T put down that fork and pause to see what would happen if did, can give us a lot to work with on ourselves and our emotions. “What am I afraid would happen or that I might feel if I slow down? “
In the midst of an eating spin cycle- in that space between one bite of food and the next bite – lies the possibility of discovering a whole world about yourself if you bring just a little bit of awareness to your experience. In that space, we might become aware of the gap between how much our body really needs to eat (physically) vs. how much we THINK we need to feel filled. How do we do this? We ask and we notice and we pause from the constant motor activity of eating…”What’s this frenetic eating about?!”
The desire to feel “filled” is also a really important experience to explore. It may be different for each person.
Maybe we don’t know how to comfort ourselves other than through food. Maybe the food isn’t even quite the comfort we want and doesn’t quite hit the spot but it quiets our desires so we don’t have to feel our longings which are uncomfortable for us to feel for some reason. Maybe when we get some comfort we don’t even know THAT we got it because we’re so worried about when it’s going to run out. A good place to start on decoding your eating habits is an earlier book by Geneen Roth “ Breaking Free From Compulsive Eating”. How we relate to food can teach us a great deal about ourselves including how we are in our relationships.
Also, what we THINK is pleasure- often is not! We think it’s pleasure we’re seeking and getting when we stuff ourselves (until later on that night when we feel nauseous and bloated!) What’s REALLY going on is that we’re not in contact with what we’re doing in those moments.
You’ll know you’re more in touch with your eating when you can even notice WHAT you’re doing eg THAT you’re binging or maybe when you slow down and taste more of each bite and chew your food more completely without those feelings of panic and urgency that usually accompany binges.
When binging, (and also when you’re starving or depriving yourself) you’re more in contact with your ideas and thoughts of deprivation, panic, the fear of having to starve tomorrow to lose the weight (or for some the fear of gaining any weight) and usually out of contact with your underlying sensations and feelings at those moments (e.g. hunger, feeling stuffed etc..)
With eating- it’s not always just about seeking exclusive pleasure from food. It can also be about avoiding deeper levels of knowing our experience and being with ourselves and our underlying feelings, as well as an avoidance of engaging more in life and experiencing the pleasures and playfulness available beyond food.
Sometimes this work is best done with a therapist who is good at helping you notice how you avoid your feelings and how your eating patterns serve you in some way you’re not aware of. Gestalt therapy does this best in my opinion because the focus is not on talking “about” your feelings but actually teaching you HOW to stay with your feelings in session so that you can apply this to your life after therapy.
Jena LaFlamme’s approach also helps women find ways to cultivate pleasure by designing exercise routines they will enjoy rather than dread. This helps people connect with the pleasure and function of having a body and the enjoyable experience of movement. If you’ve never danced or taken a class that allows you to discover the fun of moving playfully- consider it as an experiment. By finding other sources of satisfying experiences in your life, she believes and I agree- that food will find a more balanced place in your life and no longer be front and center. If you have other areas of enjoyment- you may look less to food to do it for you. For more information on Jena’s approach visit her website at http://www.pleasurableweightloss.com/blog
La Flamme’s approach is based upon the writings of Regena Thomashauer (aka “Mama Gena”)- a writer dedicated to helping women find more pleasure in their lives. She writes in one of her books something quite profound: “The absence of appetite is the absence of life itself,” (I have to add though that the expresssion of too much appetite in one area of life can also be a problem!)
This approach to really getting to know and allowing your passion for life is crucial. People often figure out early on that food is their friend, their comfort, their escape; it’s easy, it’s LEGAL, it’s cheap and it soothes the brain chemicals – at least initially.
So why would anyone give up their sole source of pleasure if they haven’t found other sources of comfort and nurture? The same is true for any addiction.
Also why should we give up or stifle THAT we have an appetite…that we are sensual, passionate and playful creatures? It’s just that maybe we can extend our sensuality out to other areas and find a way to balance things out (see my blog Psychological Wisdom from the Kabbalah http://bit.ly/s9D4oS for more on this topic).
What to do with the new “space” in your life when food goes backstage?
A big slogan in psychotherapy is “don’t take someone’s defenses away until you have new patterns to replace them with.” This is why when I work with issues such as OCD or anxiety- I keep an eye out for helping people develop new structures that will replace all that free time they will now have in their life when their past patterns or worries start to recede.
Rituals take up a tremendous amount of time when you have OCD, as do other repetitive patterns like checking your social media sites and binge eating. So if you don’t know what to do when you give them up- you may find yourself going back to them.
Sometimes we go into our patterns of avoidance or obsession (often unconsciously) that we absolutely hate and make us miserable. So why do we do that? Because they offer us some degree of safety or certainty. They are familiar to us- more than trying something new is.
These patterns are not always pleasureable (food may be for some people) but they keep us feeling protected from experiencing new aspects of life or ourselves when we are not feeling enough support to experiment and move out of them.
As someone who has worked with my own eating patterns- I can say first hand that this has been a complex and multi-layered journey. (Hopefully for some of you- it will be easier).
The first layer often involves learning about what function food serves in your life. And there are likely many that it serves- ranging from avoiding feeling what you’re feeling (such as boredom, loneliness, fear etc..) to not really knowing how to get in touch with feelings to reducing stress in a quick fix way.
It’s also important to really get in touch with the reasons why it’s no longer working for you to continue this pattern and to get very specific about these – so that once you start to create goals you can remind yourself in a positive way what you DO want. “I want to feel healthy and good tomorrow.. “ “ I want to feel lighter when I move”, “I want to wear clothes I have always hoped to wear” rather than “I look bloated and ugly” or “I have to be thin for that party”.(I recommend using positive affirmations rather than negative ones).
But then what? How to make the actual shift in your eating? One approach is to start by making list of other sources of pleasure you’d like to explore and begin doing this so that at some point your brain actually learns to make the shift from “Ugh! There’s nothing exciting for me to eat when I get home tonight..” to “Oh.. I have other things I’m looking forward to doing tonight (besides eating) like getting lost in a good book etc..”.
I also highly endorse finding a substitute treat that you enjoy and can look forward to rather than just giving it ALL up so that you can realistically still have foods you enjoy even if you’re making healthier choices. You’d be surprised how many there are.
In between all of that- you’re not just finding a substitute for your former habits- you are learning about all the feelings you didn’t pause to feel- but you stuffed instead. And as I always say in these blogs- you had your reasons for stuffing! Don’t think you did it because you’re “just out of touch..” or some other derogatory idea. Maybe it was the best way you knew to take care of yourself in a home that was difficult or unsupportive of your feelings. Maybe you witnessed really poor eating habits growing up and never learned to slow down (not just with eating- but in many areas). Respect your struggles, allow the compassion for what is/ was and now lean into something new because there’s no short cut that I have yet found to learning more about who you really are inside. And no pricetag for how grateful you will be when you do learn.
Exercises for cultivating conscious eating:
1. Consider shifting your focus at times to some of the good things about having a body.. the ways it has supported you as you move and walk and reach for things you want… and not just on how it looks to others. Feel yourself move.. allow yourself to dance and inhabit your physicality. Judgments may come such as you’re not “thin enough” “you look too fat to go to a dance class “ etc.. – so just allow them to be there and offer yourself some compassion for how deeply ingrained it is for you to beat yourself up and how easy it is to stay in that place of criticism. This will help you shift over time.
2. Next time you want to binge or starve- gently check in with yourself and your body “what’s going on right now?””… Am I eating (or restricting) out of an idea or is it out of genuine hunger? (vs. “I will never get to eat this again! It’s the best bread!” or “everyone else gets to eat this except me.. (deprivation lens)…or “I must look thinner at that party or else..” See what you can learn about your self talk and the motivations behind your plan of action (or unplanned action!).
In Geneen Roth’s book “Breaking Free From Compulsive Eating” (the best I’ve seen on this topic though I know you don’t want to be spotted reading this title on the subway.. I get it), she offers tips for responding to your mind’s deprivation fears.
So for example- if it’s Thanksgiving and you’re feeling like my doorman who just told me “but there’s so much food to eat and it only comes once a year.. I have to eat it all!” You might have to calm your inner deprivation elf and tell him that “yes.. but if I’m not hungry- this is harming my body to overeat and I can always find a way to get this when I am hungry” (You can ask (beg?!) that person to make that stuffing for you another time during the year- or find another one you can have WHEN your hunger is in synch with your eyes next time!!)
3. Practice slowing down as you eat. Really chewing your food, tasting it as if it’s your first time and engaging all your senses as you eat. (This is based upon a well- known mindfulness practice which is done with a raisin.. eating it super slow ). Try putting down your fork or walking away from the food you’ve buried yourself in (see the chihuahua picture above!). See if you can do something else and delay the continued eating and if the urge/ craving passes. You will sometimes feel “NO WAY!!” Well.. just that is important to explore!
4. ANY awareness you can bring to a moment when you are “on automatic” can help you. If you’re about to eat more cake and then you ask yourself “do I want this? what am I afraid I’ll lose/ feel if I don’t eat this right now? What if just this once I bear the feelings that come up when I don’t eat more? It takes some persistence and willingness but it’s an investment in your self awareness. (Sometimes if you don’t know how to do this- therapy can help you with this process).
5. What else gives you pleasure? Do you know? explore. See what stops you from engaging more in other areas of your life. Also DO have a treat you can look forward to. See if you can find a substitute for your binge foods that still satiates enough that you feel you have your daily treat.
6. Forgive what you notice. If you notice you shovel food down.. recall how food was experienced in your family. How did people eat? You are where you are. But you CAN make changes despite past struggles and histories. Awareness is the beginning of change because it allows you the space to discover that there are other options for you.
7. Notice what attachments you have to food. Do you notice if you’re going out to eat with people that you start to tell yourself “its not fun to go out if I can’t eat like everyone else!” Here’s your deprivation lens. Can you shift your focus to what you DO want to “I want to feel good in the morning and treat my body well…” “I feel some disappointment that I can’t eat like everyone else but I feel good that I’m taking care of my body and my health” etc.
8. Ask the food what it wants to do for you…what you want it to do for you- and see what answers you get. This can be very rewarding and surprising to do. (For more of this… try some gestalt therapy!)
9. Practice having one meal with your family or a friend where you don’t talk and you just pay attention to what you’re eating. You may notice a tendency to eat less when you do this and that you’re more in the moment. Or you might eat more out of anxiety because maybe you’ll discover food keeps you from having to be so present with your experience…. Either way, you will learn something about you and your way of relating.
This is for sure a journey but it DOES work, you CAN do it and you may someday find yourself not even wondering what’s in your fridge… because somewhere down the road you learned how to tune into what’s in your heart and know what you really want.