Making Peace with Food and Your Body
Imagine a world where our bodies were all considered equally beautiful. No more dieting (and the bingeing that naturally follows a diet) in order to conform to this culture’s current standard. What a liberating fantasy!
Our culture, unfortunately, is still entrapped in its rigid norms. An unrealistic standard of beauty unattainable by most women is put forth and upheld by the beauty industry in particular, and by sex-oriented advertising campaigns in general. Our self-esteem as women suffers as we are told that we are not okay as we are — our noses are too big, our stomachs too round, our breasts too small — leading us to believe that if we fix these “flaws,” we will be “acceptable” and our lives will be perfect. Since all of us long for love and acceptance, we may buy advertising’s ploy, convincing us that we are not okay as we are.
It is important for us to understand that the current standard of beauty is unhealthy for most women. Unless you were born with an ectomorphic body, you cannot have a model’s size and shape and still be healthy. Many models need to starve themselves in order to meet the industry’s current standards. Even then, an “imperfect” body part may be substituted with another’s in a spliced photograph. And these are the standards to which we as women compare ourselves!
Do we really want to change our bodies every time the fashions change, like we do our clothing styles? In the 1950’s, we would have had to get surgery or wear “falsies” to look like the hourglass-figured beauties of that era, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. A decade later, we would have to starve or have surgery to look like Twiggy! A lot more drastic than trading straight leg pants for bell-bottoms! When we believe that only the culture’s current standard is acceptable and our bodies are not okay as they are, we may try to explain our problems by focusing on these so-called flaws of our bodies, setting us up for our first diet.
Diets, however, do not work long term. Most dieters will tell you that they have lost weight on diets (often a lot, often many times). So this is not a problem of willpower. Yet 95% regain the weight. Why? Diets don’t work — for both psychological and physiological reasons.
A diet assumes that there is a beginning and an end. Diets that eliminate the food you love and want set up an urge to binge as a rebellion against feeling deprived. Diets that dictate what to eat and when to eat keep us reliant on external cues rather than responding to our body’s needs for food. Diets that severely restrict the quantity of food turn a weight loss diet into a maintenance diet as the body’s metabolism changes to prevent what it believes is starvation. We can recognize underfeeding by its symptoms: lower energy, apathy, intolerance to cold, irritability and depression, preoccupation with food and a slower metabolism (so less food will cause weight gain once you stop dieting). This helps us understand how dieting perpetuates the compulsive eating cycle, and eventual weight gain.
A prevailing myth tells us that all fat people are overweight and should lose weight. It is important to differentiate being large from being overweight. You can’t necessarily tell by looking at a person if they are under or overweight. Being overweight simply means being above your set point, i.e., your body’s natural weight (determined by your genetic heritage, your age and your metabolism after years of dieting and bingeing). So it is possible to be large and yet not overweight. It is also possible to be an average size and yet be severely underweight, if it is being maintained by starving the body.
So how do we find our set point range and get out of the cycle of dieting and regaining weight? We change our lifestyle, at our own pace, adding exercise (a crucial ingredient for our bodies’ health), deep breathing, rest and nourishment.
The following 10 tips are guidelines for “making peace with food” and finding your natural, healthy weight without dieting.
- Fuel yourself throughout the day, as underfeeding sets us up to make poor choices and to overeat. Eat four or five small meals each day to keep your energy even and prevent the sluggishness that results from consuming large quantities.
- Plan ahead. Have tasty and nutritious foods available to you at all times so you won’t be vulnerable to whatever catches your eye when you get hungry.
- Choose exactly what you want to eat instead of reaching automatically.
- Don’t deprive yourself. If you feel deprived, you are likely to make up for it — and more — later. If you don’t have a strong preference, however, choose what’s healthier (the apple tart instead of the chocolate cake; whole wheat bread instead of white, a pear instead of ice cream).
- Practice conscious eating. Slow down your eating and enjoy each bite to the fullest; you will enjoy it more and be satisfied with less.
- Add nutrients whenever possible. Look for ways to add fruits and vegetables to foods: fruits to cereal, pancakes or salad; vegetables to eggs, pasta, salad or soup.
- Nourish yourself with water, rest, exercise and oxygen as we often use food to fulfill these needs.
- Check if you're tired, not hungry. We tend to overeat when we’re tired. Take a few slow deep breaths and relax your body. Give yourself permission to take a nap or go to bed early.
- Change the taste in your mouth if you can’t stop eating sweets. Drink some water, eat a small amount of protein or vegetables or brush your teeth.
- Don’t beat yourself up. If you do eat to the point of uncomfortable fullness, try to learn from this experience. If you are eating to comfort yourself and nothing else will help, try to have compassion for the state you are in. Eat slowly enough to taste the food and experience it soothing you. You will you feel calmed and the emotional eating experience will not turn into a binge.
For many of us, food has been a source of comfort when none was available. Food is a way to cope with the stresses of life. When we stop using food to stuff our uncomfortable feelings, we become more aware of our sadness, anger, and loneliness (since our feelings live in our bodies).
Who wants to feel those uncomfortable feelings, you may ask. There’s a price we pay for cutting ourselves off from our feelings and intuition. It’s a kind of numbness, a deadness inside. If we are to live life fully, we need to experience all of it. When we let ourselves experience all our feelings, we begin to know ourselves better and what is important to us. As we reconnect to ourselves, we can relate to others authentically. Our energy is freed to redesign our lives.
Barbara L. Holtzman, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and coach in Providence and Wakefield RI. A former binge eater herself, she is author of Conscious Eating, Conscious Living; A Practical Guide to Making Peace with Food & Your Body and frequently offers workshops at All That Matters in Wakefield, RI. Contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 401-789-0777.