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!

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