Friday, June 25, 2010

Black And White--Great For An Outfit, Not For An Outlook

You don’t understand—I can’t have just one or two pieces. Once I start eating sweets I can’t stop. It’s like the floodgates open and there’s no stopping it. I’m out of control. I’m addicted to junk food and I simply can’t have them around. Maybe it’s a fine approach for others, but I’m different.

It’s all or nothing, black or white, good food, bad food. It seems simple, clear cut, easy to follow.  Strict rules about what is acceptable to eat and what is forbidden. And does this approach to eating and managing your weight work? Absolutely not. And yet you may find yourself clinging to it for safety, hoping that maybe this time you’ll have the willpower to get some control.

No one believes it at first when I tell them that this black and white way of classifying food and eating behavior is what fails them. It begins with an approach to eating that is too rigid, too “diet-y”. Sure, you choose foods that are healthy, and nutritious food choices may have plenty of benefits. Perhaps they are heart healthy, being low in saturated fat. And maybe even high in fiber. But the problem is that you deny yourself on several levels; you deny yourself adequate fuel, in the form of calories, throughout the daytime. And you forbid yourself the satisfaction of eating what you truly yearn for.

Several patterns can result. Your body can rebel and you’ll find yourself waking at night and eating somewhat unconsciously—the only time your body can get what it is forbidden (see Jenna’s Story below). Or you may have a slip from your acceptable way of eating, triggering you to think you blew it and to feel defeated. This could lead to the What the Heck Effect, a term I’ve coined to describe what follows this “slip”. 

You feel that you’ve ruined it and decide in your all or nothing thinking that you may as well keep going. So you don’t stop at a couple of cookies or chocolates, but decide to give up—until tomorrow, or Monday, or January first. Then, you compensate perhaps, deciding to make up for the damage from the day or days before. Which only sets you up for the cycle to continue.

Jenna’s Story

Jenna was the “perfect dieter”. She had a small bowl of high fiber cereal for breakfast, salad for lunch, and a balanced dinner consisting of a small portion of chicken, minimal grains and some vegetables. Friends would typically comment how well she ate, how amazing she was with her will power. It was a bit of a puzzle to them why she struggled with her weight, given how they saw she ate. But when she showed up in my office several months ago quite distressed, she presented a very different portrait.

Jenna struggled with nocturnal binge eating disorder; she would wake multiple times nightly, unconsciously proceed to eat, and return to bed. She often had no memory of what she had consumed, but was left with the evidence—the wrappers and pieces that remained, the chocolate smudges left behind. It disturbed her sleep, contributed to her weight struggle, and left her with feeling a great deal of shame.

The source of Jenna’s problem with night binging? Food restriction, both of total calories and of food type. Jenna lived her waking hours eating in a way that she expected others to see as acceptable. She would never allow herself to eat sweets or ‘junk food’. Foods were categorized as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and she would never allow herself to eat ‘bad’ foods. She exercised aggressively, and set her body up for feeling starved.

The solution? I worked with Jenna to move foods from the forbidden or ‘bad food’ list to being acceptable. It was a challenge, but she realized that sticking with her current approach was failing her. So she accepted the challenge. In addition, I encouraged her to increase her daytime food intake, to better match her need for fuel. This required her to better listen to her hunger, as opposed to masking it with water, coffee and diet beverages. Over the weeks, the frequency of night waking decreased, and when she did wake, she found herself eating more moderately than she had before. She had also begun to be more open about her eating issues with her boyfriend. It helped her feel more comfortable when she explained her approach, the prescription to include ‘risk’ foods, and worked to remove the shame she felt about her eating pattern.

Jenna is now recovered from her night eating disorder, enjoys a range of foods of all types, and has lost weight as a result.

Please visit the next blog post for “how-to’s” on moving toward the grey from the black and white. But in the meanwhile, make a list of the foods you consider “good” or “safe” and those that you feel no dieter ought to be eating. And start to ask yourself what you feel like eating (as opposed to what you should be eating). And if you have your own story to share about moving toward the grey, please share with us!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Zen and the Art of Eating

New York City. Calm and peaceful.  I am challenged to put these two phrases together in one sentence. Yet in the midst of this bustling city lies a refuge, a tranquil place to experience eating, to experience mindful eating. 

Upon entering the peacefully lit space I was instructed to take off my shoes. Ahh, already more comfortable here. My toes immediately said thank you. We were then escorted by a slipper-clad server to our candle lit table. The dark wood was at aisle  level, so we had to slip into our seats, feet now resting below ground level on a soft and comfy floor. The environment was aglow with the flicker of light. The server (who seemed so cozy in his pajama like attire) remained close at hand, but respectfully distant. The courses were beautifully presented both in their appearance, and in the relaxed way they were gracefully placed before us. And, I might add, the food tasted great. Nice texture, interesting and unusual spices and lovely balance to each plate.

Nice, you’re thinking, but what’s this got to do with my weight struggles? As I see it, weight management demands us to be mindful, to use our senses when we take in food—to see it, taste it, feel the texture in our mouths, smell the pleasing aromas, and perhaps even hear it (though that may be a stretch unless your meal is made up of chips). Otherwise, it’s as if you never ate it, it seems not to register.  

When we eat mindfully and enjoy our food, it is true pleasure.  We know what we have eaten. We do not rush to the next food item, unsatisfied from the last. Using your senses and eating mindfully also allows you to slow the pace, which helps you control how much you eat. By eating mindfully, you are giving yourself permission to truly enjoy your food whether it is chocolate cake or cherries.

Now I don’t expect that you are going to dine out in such pleasant settings frequently, but you could certainly start by making your home environment a pleasant place to eat. 

Maybe place some placemats or candles at the table?  (That is, assuming you are at the table and not at the couch dining!) Perhaps it’s time to separate your self from the television, computer or car while eating! Hardly conducive to mindfully eating. And please don’t wait until you are ravenous to begin eating or this will never work! And when you sit down to eat, don't forget to breathe!

By the way, the restaurant referred to is HanGawi pictured in the top photo.

Let me know how it goes and if focusing on eating mindfully changes anything for you!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's Not Willpower You're Missing

You get home from work or school, grab the chips, and while standing, begin to inhale them. One after the next, straight from the bag, barely tasting them. You overeat the snack in spite of the knowledge of what’s an “appropriate” amount to eat. And you don’t even enjoy them. You know better, I certainly know better, and yet we all do it. “Why can’t I control my eating?” you may wonder.  “Why don’t I have the willpower to stay motivated and eat well?” I know I shouldn’t be eating this way! And yet you continue.
The biggest trigger for this scenario? Excessive hunger. For any number of reasons you may under eat during the day.  Perhaps you skipped a snack because you were too busy or thought you could get by without it, maybe save some calories.

You may not even be aware of your hunger because of the volume of beverages you drink--water, coffee, diet soda, which may mask your hunger. Or you are stuck in the mindset that it’s best to deny your body what it needs. Maybe you are busy meeting everyone else’s needs except for your own.You fail to listen to your hunger, your body’s signal that you need fuel, from food. 
And then you’re ravenous. You’re looking for a quick fix to revive yourself, to get your blood sugar back up.  Impulsive, rapid food intake. No thoughts. Just grab the food. And eat.
Been there?  I’m sure.  We all have. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how much nutrition information you have.  It’s too late once you reach this point. We can’t begin to approach eating mindfully, with intent, when we have reached this state. But the tendency I see is to continue the cycle by denying hunger the following day.  Maybe you want to make up for the overeating from the day before. Or you just don’t trust that listening to your body could really work. So you under eat the next day—maybe intentionally, maybe not, and fall into the same trap.  Don’t you see that clinging to the idea that tomorrow you can have more willpower fails you?

If you want to have the willpower to be in control of your eating, you have to honor your body.  And that requires you to listen to, and respect your hunger. 
Allow yourself to eat when you are hungry—but don’t wait until your hunger has gone too far. This also allows you to not eat when you are not hungry -- the over eating that occurs because of emotional triggers, or to self soothe, or simply out of boredom or routine.

Please share your insights about your own experiences working through this issue! Thanks!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Do Dogs And Toddlers Calorie Count?

This is my dog.

And this is a toddler.
Both adorable, no?

Now what, you may be thinking, does this have to do with your blog “Drop It And Eat”? Well, the way I see it, we can learn a lot from observing both dogs and toddlers regarding eating.  So I’ll start with dogs.
When my dog, Mica, rises, he typically makes it clear when he is hungry and needs to eat. He strolls over to his feeling place, looks down at his bowl and glances back up at us, if we are present. If we are not observing him (which is unusual), he gives a whimper, translated as “please feed me—I’m hungry”. And so we do, and the whimpering ceases. We fill his bowl with dog chow, and he proceeds to eat. And then he stops. He doesn’t clean his plate, so to speak.  There is typically food which remains late into the day, when he will graze again, presumably because he is hungry. We never remove his food or deny him nourishment when he gives us the cues that it’s feeding time. And he also gets plenty of exercise. He is and has always been a normal weight for his breed (he’s a whippet), has had no liposuction and has never, to my knowledge, counted his calories. And he frequently is found eating after 8 PM.

There are quite a few similarities between Mica and toddlers I have observed. They make it clear when they need to eat, as well as when they’ve had enough. You know, tossing food off the high chair, playing with the items they have no interest in. We’ve all seen it. And when we look at the growth curves of most young children, it’s clear that they know best. They tend to follow a percentile curve that’s right for them, (those weight charts doctors plot to measure how well kids are gaining and growing), suggesting normal weight gain each year.  It’s generally when we mess with things that this self-regulation fails. When we set inappropriate rules, reward with food (finish your chicken and then you can have the cookies!) or withhold food. But for the most part, when they are offered a balanced diet and have their signals respected they gain appropriately.

So what can we learn from canines and toddlers? We can take a few lessons from their dietary self-regulation and lack of rules driving their eating. And if you weren’t a healthy toddler whose cues were appropriately listened to (or a healthy canine), it’s not too late to start learning to tune in.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Eat After 8 PM. Or Was It 7?

There is no diet rule I have heard stated, and believed, as frequently and as strongly as this one – the time after which you should not, under any conditions, eat. People cling to it like a religion, with such conviction. And the scientific basis for this guideline? None. That’s right. And it’s not because it hasn’t been studied, because it has. Each time the conclusion is the same – it is not about the hour you eat, but about how much you consume relative to your body’s need. Yeah, but what about what Oprah says? She and her trainer say you should not eat after 8:00 PM, never mind hunger, or working late. But doesn’t it turn to fat at night? I’m not burning any calories so it must go right to my thighs, right?

Your body burns calories, its fuel, 24/7. As long as you are breathing, you are burning calories. As long as your heart is beating, calories are used. True, you are not using as many as when you are running or walking or moving. But you still require fuel. Yet you are not eating every moment of the night (even if you struggle with nighttime binge eating, there are stretches of time when you do not take in food). So where are these calories coming from which are keeping you alive? For the most part, we draw from a starch called glycogen, stored in our liver and our muscles. Between meals and when we sleep, we rely on this reserve to maintain our blood sugar and keep us going. Yes, even while we are sleeping we are using calories.

Now let’s look at how much sense this “Don’t eat after 8:00” rule makes. At 7:57 it’s okay to eat, but at 8:01 it turns to fat? And if you worked until late, maybe got stuck in a commute, and arrived home after 8:00 PM, have you missed your opportunity to eat? Why should your body no longer need the nourishment? What are we thinking?

So where did this thinking come from? I can only imagine that it was a well-intentioned attempt to help people limit their food intake. To have a cut off so people wouldn’t continue to eat when they didn’t need to. And I would agree, that if you just had dinner at 7:50 PM, and you are looking to eat again at 8:05, you should reconsider, but not because it is after 8:00! You should delay eating to give your body a chance to assess its need.  
If you are in the habit of eating at night not out of hunger, but for the many other reasons we all reach for food, you should look closely at this pattern. What’s driving this eating? What are you looking for this food to do? Is it your way of relaxing? Or simply something you associate with watching television? And does it work? No doubt, there is a temporary benefit. If that eating didn’t meet a need, you wouldn’t continue to do it. So is there an issue with eating at night? Only if you are eating in a mindless, disconnected way. And when you are eating without regard to hunger. But if you are hungry, please eat, regardless of the hour.  And enjoy every bite.