It’s the classic story. You have decided that you want to improve your eating habits and you have done your research. You know the way of eating that nourishes your body best. Mostly minimally processed foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean meats, quality wholegrains, moderate dairy and the occasional indulgence.
You really do want to limit the less nutritious, highly processed, high sugar and high fat foods. You want to make sure the ‘sometimes foods’ are only eaten, sometimes. But there you go again. Someone brings it into your space and you eat it…lots of it.
“I’ve got no self discipline”, “I’ve got no will power”, “I’ve got no control”, “I just can’t stop myself”.
Do these lines sound familiar?
Guilty, deflated, demoralized. This negative self-talk can become a mantra of helplessness and it does nothing to promote good self-esteem or happiness. Rather, it is likely to set you on a course to giving up even trying.
Many have done this cycle again and again, and again. Trying the same old rules to ‘control’ themselves around food with the same short term results. Its a cycle you may recognise: Restrict by ‘banning’ foods including some of your favourites, ‘cheat’ a little, overindulge a lot, feel terrible and hopeless, give up completely. Hop back on the cycle again, perhaps with different rules but with the same ultimate end point.
It’s a dead end cycle but the good news is, there is another way.
Here are my top tips to start help you hop off the diet cycle and start walking toward a healthier relationship with food.
It’s time to get positive and try something new!
1. Give yourself permission to eat it. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but psychology tells us that a sure-fire way to increase our desire for something is to tell ourselves we can’t have it. Once you ‘give yourself permission’, you can stop and think. Ask yourself these two questions. Do I really want it? Why do I want it? Be curious, not critical of your thoughts, emotions and decisions so you can learn from them.
2. Record what you eat and why for a few days. I’m not generally a fan of food diaries. I find that they can increase ‘food on the brain’ thinking patterns which can make it harder to tune into and honour hunger and fullness signals to guide your eating. But, for a few days, it can be very helpful to jot down a note of what you ate and why. Then you can reflect on your habits and choices. Are you eating to manage boredom, procrastination, habit, emotion? Are you rewarding yourself with food? Identify the situations or people that help you make a healthy choice and those that derail you. Once you know this information you can develop some strategies to help manage your non-hungry eating habits.
3. Make it easier to make a healthy choice than an unhealthy one. “Out of sight, out of mind” is actually quite true when if comes to non-hungry eating. If you do have ‘sometimes’ food in the house, placing it out of sight can help prevent the sight of it prompting you to want it, rather than listening to internal cues. If you know that it is purely habit that has you eating biscuits or chocolate with your tea, don’t keep the biscuits next to the teabags, or the chocolate next to the coffee mugs. If it is ‘indulgence food’ that you actually don’t like that much but find yourself eating for non-hungry reasons, like cheap easter egg chocolate, perhaps throw it in the bin. Food is not more wasted put in the bin than put into your body if you don’t need it. Pleasure foods eaten but not enjoyed are already wasted.
4. Don’t camp next to the food table at a party or function. When we are chatting at a party or function, it can be quite difficult to tune into hunger and keep reaching for more food simply out of habit even though we are full. This can be even more difficult when you have rules about allowed and forbidden foods as you buy into the ‘mentality of scarcity’ . Not knowing when you will next ‘allow’ yourself to eat the chocolate, you eat it all, and keep eating it even though it is no longer even pleasurable. If you are still working on this mentality, it will probably help you to choose what you want to eat, then move away. The more in tune and responsive to hunger and fullness cues you become as you practice this new approach, the less you will need to modify your environment to manage your eating.
5. Find a way of giving yourself the opportunity to say no. A post-it stuck on the biscuit jar saying ‘do you really want it?’ can be all you need to remind yourself to consider whether you really want to eat something. So often non-hungry eating of indulgence foods is a knee jerk reaction to an emotion or feeling: Scoffed quickly, barely tasted, and certainly not solving the triggering cause. Building a little prompt to take a mindful pause and ask yourself a few non-judgemental questions can help you listen to your body and make a better decision.
6. Give yourself time. If you are not sure if you are about to eat out of hunger or for non-hungry reasons, set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Go and do something while you wait. Perhaps have a glass of water to help distinguish between hunger and thirst. If you still feel like it after 10 minutes, go ahead and have it but do it mindfully!
7. Practice eating just a small amount, slowly, mindfully. Instead of pushing a whole handful of maltesers in your mouth while watching TV or hiding from the kids in the pantry, take your time. Sit down, engage your senses. Look at it, smell it, taste it and think about what you are tasting. Consider how you are feeling. Do you actually like it as much as you thought you would? Do you actually want to keep eating it after a few mouthfuls? If you consciously ‘tune in’ to the experience of eating using all your senses, you will be more content when you are done, and likely to want to stop because you are genuinely satisfied. No willpower required!
8. Don’t look back. So you ate a whole lot of high-energy, nutritionally-poor food. You ate past the point of physical comfort and it’s weighing on your mind. Try not to stress or beat yourself up, this will not help you make a better choice next time. Remember, you are allowed to eat whatever you like, it’s your body and you are not a bad person because you overindulged. Be kind to yourself. You made your choice, there is nothing you can do about it now. Accept it, try to learn from it and move on! This is a process, there is no ‘all or nothing’. The more you practice and learn from your decisions, the more consistent you will become, the better your relationship with food will be and you will feel more peace.
Say goodbye to the diet cycle! Start to listen to your body, not your inner critic, to help you make the decisions you want to make for healthier, happier you.
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This is a revised version of a blog I originally wrote for Body Beyond Birth, an online health and fitness program especially for Mums. If you are already a member, check out my article ‘Am I Hungry?’ in the members section for more tips on tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
Image credit Kristina D.C Hoeppner ‘Blocks of Chocolate’ https://flic.kr/p/7ARRbR Used under Creative Commons licence.