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Eat by Choice, Not by Habit
Practical Skills for Creating a Healthy Relationships with Your Body and Food
By Sylvia Haskvitz, Dan Shenk
PuddleDancer PressCopyright © 2005 PuddleDancer Press
All rights reserved.
Being Your Own Best Friend
"The one who stays by your side and finds a home in your heart is indeed a true friend."
How can I befriend my body when it feels like a distant relative? I can't get rid of it, but I don't enjoy its company. And food is like an illicit lover. I'm always thinking about it, even when I don't want to. I don't even know what a healthy relationship between food and body is. What do you mean?
Imagine eating — or not eating — with a sense of harmony and balance because you're firmly connected to your feelings and needs. You know what choices to make in every moment. You eat in moderation, moving away from the table easily, without hassle, guilt, or the inclination to manipulate yourself into starvation. You savor six chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven on occasion without blame or shame. You step on a scale once in a while out of curiosity. You don't cringe and avoid the scale, and you're not wedded to weighing a certain number on the scale either. Instead, you're enjoying every sensual flavor of food — and of life, too.
* * *
I need to diet, or I'll be out of control. Not being on a diet sounds scary and too good to be true. I can't eat chocolate chip cookies and lose weight.
Robert Fritz once said, "Diet is a path of feast resistance." Looking for a fight? Deprive yourself of all the flavors and textures you've come to love, and keep yourself in a perpetual state of hunger.
According to Fritz, the word diet is synonymous to many with starving yourself. You feel hungry because you are hungry. "There will always be a discrepancy between the actual amount of food your body is consuming and the amount of food your body wants. Solely counting and restricting calories to lose weight doesn't provide lasting results. But it's one surefire way to kick in your obsession about all the food you shouldn't be eating."
When you count calories and restrict your intake you will inevitably come to the place where you just can't stand measuring one more teaspoon of garlic sour cream mashed potatoes. Or you can't bear to watch your husband eat another bowl of peach ice cream, making "Mmmm ..." sounds with every spoonful. So you indulge. You not only eat the six gooey chocolate chip cookies, you eat the whole tray, the peach ice cream, and all the garlic mashed potatoes, and a bag of chips, too, for that satisfying crunch. That unleashes the dreaded shoulds. You should eat differently. You know better. Shape up. You should lose weight. "Look at me. I'm a fat pig. I can't even control myself." This outburst is followed quickly by "Screw you; I can eat what I want."
Now you're not only dieting, you've activated the demand/resistance cycle, too. Demand change. Then resist it. As a bonus, moral judgment comes bounding in — you're "good" when you eat "right." You're "bad" when you give in. Moral judgments and compassion can't coexist. Without compassion, long-term change is impossible. According to Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and author, "Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses ... We cannot change anything until we accept it."
Ultimately, you are having a relationship with struggle rather than deepening the relationship or connection with your body and your needs. Words like should, shouldn't, can't, and won't deny your own responsibility for the choices you make.
The process of Compassionate Communication has helped create peace between warring countries, rival gang members, hostile business partners, married couples, neighbors, and friends. Just imagine how tuning into your needs and feelings could help you create peace between you and your body, as well as the way you eat and the foods you choose.
* * *
Why are diets so popular if they hardly ever work? Everyone seems crazy about the low-fat, low-carb, or high-protein diets.
They do work — in the short run. We are a culture craving quick fixes. And fad diets are just that — fads, like hula hoops, hot pants, and disco. Here until the next diet sensation. They were never intended as permanent solutions. Instead, they provide the newest one-diet-plan-fits-all gimmick to hook you into ways to alter your body without acknowledging your unique life experiences, habits, choices, and physical makeup.
Say you go on the latest diet to lose weight for a wedding or a class reunion, or to get revenge on your ex-boyfriend. After the long-awaited event, if you haven't unearthed what needs and feelings motivated you to hold the weight in the first place, you'll likely boomerang back to your familiar eating patterns. Because fad diets are short-term and don't address your personal needs, you'll continue your yo-yo dieting, unaware of a different way of being with your body and food.
In addition, fad diets often produce health repercussions that may last longer than the diet ever did. When Oprah Winfrey launched her first highly publicized protein diet, I told my partner, "Mark my words, six months to a year from now she's going to be back up to the same weight and probably even higher." My prediction proved to be accurate. When people on high-protein diets regain weight, which is probable, they've changed their body's composition. They actually have a higher fat percentage and less muscle than before they began.
Years ago, when many of us chose low-fat diets, manufacturers responded with an explosion of low-fat products made tastier with added sugar. This strategy has unwittingly contributed to a host of such health challenges as osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, not to mention tooth decay and obesity. Increased sugar consumption also has caused a surge of Type 2 diabetes in children. Once found only in adults, Type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed in children as young as five due to poor diet and insufficient exercise. Alarmingly, one in every three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
There is also the low-carb craze. Instead of fats, carbohydrates are singled out as the bad guy. We need carbohydrates. Whole-grain carbohydrates are an inexpensive energy source. They are the primary source of blood glucose, a major fuel for all the body's cells and virtually the only source of energy for the brain and red blood cells. Carbs also provide B vitamins that offer us stress relief and are vital to healthy hair, skin, and teeth. Note too, you can also find high quality carbohydrates in fruit, dairy, and vegetables.
Before clutching the next bagel, pause, breathe, and ask yourself: How am I feeling? What do I need? Follow this with a request of yourself. What choices are best for my individual health? What other needs am I trying to satisfy with any of these dieting strategies?
* * *
What makes you think people try to meet other needs by eating and dieting strategies?
Experience. In graduate school, whenever I was confused, frustrated, and overwhelmed while working on a paper, I would look for relief in the refrigerator. Or my house would get really clean. Or I'd surf all the TV channels. Back then, if I'd taken a moment to check in, I'd have heard, "I'm anxious. I want inspiration and creativity — now! I have no idea where to find it." I knew it wasn't in the refrigerator. But it was a way to distract and entertain me — a way to refrigerate my real needs.
A healthcare professional once said that he cherished his nightly ritual of snacking on cookies and milk while reading the newspaper. He more than cherished it. He couldn't do without it. It was sheer relaxation to him. After a few gentle questions, he revealed that his wife's depression medication also dampened her sexual desire. This left him lonely, longing for sexual and emotional intimacy with his beloved.
The moment he said that, something shifted. He suddenly saw his need for connection, saw the cookies and milk as edible substitutes. Now he has choices. He can open up to his wife or not. He can talk to his wife or keep eating the cookies. It's up to him.
Similarly, not long ago my partner's five-year-old granddaughter was so sad, she thought only one thing could help. "Do you have any chocolate?" she asked. I said: "Honey, you seem really upset. Do you want some loving? Would you like a hug?" "Yeah," she said, tears streaming down her face, forgetting all about the chocolate.
Instead of reaching for relief in a bar of chocolate, my partner, Tim, finds comfort in a disciplined diet, especially at times when his life seems out of control. Returning to structure soothes the anxiety welling inside. Never underestimate the unique, creative ways each of us has to satisfy the needs that call for our attention.
One way to discover the needs being met by your food choices is to list the foods you typically think of as comfort foods. When I asked my Eat by Choice food class to make such a list, they wrote: oatmeal, mashed potatoes, pudding, and pumpkin pie, all of which met needs for nurturance, love, and comfort. When I asked for a list of the foods people ate when they felt anxiety, they listed crunchy foods like Cheetos® and potato chips, meeting needs for relief and release. A woman noticed that crunchy foods were begging to be crunched to release the energy of anxiety. The foods were crunched into a soft, smooth texture. In that way, the actual chewing allowed the release and transformation of energy. Interestingly, the comfort foods were already soft and smooth.
When we grow conscious of the needs behind our food choices, we're also conscious of the abundance of choices or strategies we can use to fulfill those needs. Suddenly, the world is larger, and we expand, too. In one shift of awareness, cookies and milk transform from a need-hiding habit to an opportunity to make some far-reaching changes. Through one offer of a hug, the appeal of a sugary snack dissolves. The next few times you think about eating, tune in and ask, "Am I actually hungry?" You might be surprised by the answer.
* * *
As long as I recognize I'm an emotional eater, what's the harm in it? Sometimes I know I'm not hungry, and I eat anyway. I'm an emotional eater.
Awareness is the first step. If you say: "You know what? I want nurturing. And eating twenty-five potato chips is how I'm going to get it," at least you're aware that you're choosing the chips. Have you ever polished off a bag of chips unconsciously, not tasting a bite? You're left with nothing but greasy fingers, potato chip crumbs in your lap, and a vague salty sensation in your mouth. You're numb, but you still yearn for nurturing. You're stuffed and empty at the same time. You're more likely to reach for another bag of chips. As Anne Lamott says in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, "I was a spy in the world of happy eating, always hungry, or stuffed, but never full."
* * *
All I have to do is be aware? That's it?
You don't have to do or be anything. NVC is about choice. Just as with the man with cookies and milk, when you're aware of your needs and what you're choosing this second, then options you'd never dreamed of before become alive to you. What do you want? Do you want a healthy lifestyle? Do you want to feel good and comfortable within? Then what choices are you willing to make every single day to make that happen? You can eat the chips, enjoying every salty crunch, you can call a loving friend, or you can curl up with a book.
* * *
How can I trust myself to make food choices that benefit me now? I've made so many food choices that I regret. What if I make more?
"I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love — and regretted most of them — but never the potatoes that went with them."
NORA EPHRON, in her book Heartburn
You're human. Chances are you'll make another regrettable choice or two in your lifetime. The difference is focus. This needs-based process of communicating internally focuses on being present and conscious with compassion — not being hyper-aware of every "flaw" and heckling or badgering yourself with insults. I like what Elin Rydahl, a practitioner of NVC says: "To give priority to oneself and one's own well-being without a sense of guilt or shame is essential in order to reach the core of lasting change. If I can learn how to respect myself and my needs, can I also give myself the respect of a healthy body?"
If you make a choice you regret today — say, eating more pasta than you planned — Compassionate Communication invites you to say: "That was a choice I made. Thinking back about it, I'm regretful and wish I had chosen to tell my friend why I was upset instead of eating the pasta. I also know I'm human and am grateful to feel regret rather than blame. Tomorrow, I'm going to call her and attempt to resolve our differences. I really would like to make food and portion-size choices that meet my health needs." Then, instead of hounding yourself with your perceived misdeeds or inadequacies, let it go, knowing that you're in the process of discovering your needs moment by moment.
If you've made choices in the past that keep you up at nights, you could say: "You're no good. You'll never change. What makes you think this time will be different?"
Or you could cultivate the practice of self-acceptance: "At this point, I'm doing the best I can to honor my body. I care about my health and well-being and want to make different choices from the ones I made in the past. Looking back, I realize I've made choices in the past based on what I was going through in those moments. Sometimes I regret them because of the way they've impacted my body, health, and spirit. In this moment, however, I have compassion for me and for the reasons I made those choices.
* * *
Real people don't talk like that.
This way of self-talk may sound like a mouthful, but as with any new language, it grows easier and feels more natural the more you speak it. The energy behind the words is more important than the exact wording. That energy of self-acceptance it embodies can be transforming.
Take a moment and ask yourself: "Where do I still need healing around the choices I've made? Are there things I regret? Do I want to give myself some acknowledgment for ways in which I wished I'd made different choices?"
Now empathize with yourself. For example, if you say, "Every time I came home from school upset, I ate a whole bag of jelly beans," you might ask yourself what need you were trying to meet. Were you lonely and seeking love? Did snacking on sugar meet that need for friends, fun, and understanding when your parents weren't at home to talk to about your day?
Let yourself grieve those times when you chose jelly beans over calling a friend or going outside and playing to meet your emotional needs. Now you're a conscious adult who knows that you can listen to your inner world at any moment for another satisfying way to experience love.
Reassure yourself: "I value health. In the past I've made choices to protect and nurture myself without considering the health implications as much as I would have liked. As a human being, I'm glad I'm feeling regretful and can mourn the decisions I've made without blaming myself or telling myself I should have behaved differently."
Blame is a battle cry that rouses your opposing inner forces. Blame is your judge, your critic ... whatever pet name you have for it. It only feeds the demand/resistance cycle. Acceptance and empathy open the pathway to powerful transformation.
This compassionate, empathic way of speaking allows you to stay connected to yourself at even the most fragile moments, moments when you would normally abandon yourself with judgment and shame and mindlessly eat the chips or ice cream.
Say you've put on weight in the past year, and your inner judge is running rampant. "I can't believe how much weight I've gained. Did I have no control over what I was doing? What excuse did I use not to go to the gym and work out?"
With compassion, bring the focus back to your feelings and needs. "I feel upset and frustrated and want reassurance that I'll make choices that are more in alignment with my health this year." Then tune in. Maybe you want some empathy for how hard it has been, with your hectic schedule, to go to the gym on a regular basis.
This self-empathy monologue is the antithesis to the inner critic. Gentleness with self also encourages change that lasts.
* * *
How will talking gently to myself help? How gentle can I be when I'm in the midst of intense food cravings? What if I have to have chocolate, and nothing else matters?
At the moment of real temptation, stop, even just for a second, and tune into your internal dialogue. Perhaps it's a whir of thoughts, such as this:
"I must have something sweet. I'm stressed out! Nothing will satisfy this craving but my favorite chocolate bar. Besides, chocolate relaxes me. But I've been telling everyone I'm on a diet, and eating chocolate doesn't fit into my diet. I'm getting my period, though. My hormones are out of whack. I need chocolate! I know Sylvia says we don't have physiological needs for chocolate, but I'm sure we must."
The first time you do this, you may find yourself biting into a chunk of chocolate before you've finished listening to the first thought. With practice, you'll be able to pause long enough to tune in to your needs and feelings and translate them into compassionate self-talk: "I'm torn! I'm sad and lonely and desperate for relief. There are lots of ways I can get relief. Chocolate is only one. Hiking with a friend might be fun. Maybe I'll open my art supplies and paint for twenty minutes. Which would I enjoy most in this moment, knowing that I also value health and well-being?"
Excerpted from Eat by Choice, Not by Habit by Sylvia Haskvitz, Dan Shenk. Copyright © 2005 PuddleDancer Press. Excerpted by permission of PuddleDancer Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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