WHAT you eat in the form of food and diet plans has been the main focus of weight loss in our diet culture. The Amazon book warehouse has 64,000 current books on Health, Fitness and Dieting. Most of these books discuss WHAT you eat -- the food itself. Each book is chock full of the nutritional objectives the author believes to be the newest or best way to combine foods so you can sculpt the shape of your body.
The fact is, there are many ways to feed your amazing body. Our diet culture would have you believe that there is some magical, perfect combination of foods waiting for you to find by obsessing over food minutia such as calories, carbs, or points. But there isn't. Sixty years of diet culture has only shown us that there no "one and done" answer. All we have really learned from our diet culture is how to stop listening to our own body and mind around eating in order to listen to the newest diet craze.
You can buck our culture's obsession with food minutia by cultivating your own emotional eating intelligence -- an awareness of how your body image and emotions may affect your eating behavior. You can do this by shifting your focus from WHAT you eat and explore the reasons WHY you eat. Ultimately you want to focus on how you WANT to eat, your EATING INTENTIONS. This is how you WANT TO LIVE with your body and eating behavior.
Why you eat . . .
You eat for many reasons. You can eat to satisfy physical hunger or eat when you are not physically hungry at all. You can eat for principle such as kindness to living creatures and become a vegetarian. Or you can eat for weight loss and spend your day counting calories or carbs. These are the tangible reasons WHY you choose the food that you do -- often without thinking about it.
There are also the less tangible reasons WHY you eat when you do and choose the foods you do. Food is used all the time for emotional reasons -- to make you feel something. We use food for pleasure, celebration, and to nurture others. One of the most universal non-nutritive, emotional uses of food is to soothe negative feelings; this is where the concept of comfort food comes in. Because eating is pleasurable, food actually works to make you feel better emotionally after a rough day.
One hundred percent of people eat emotionally on some days.
Using food to make you feel good is fine, no judgment applied, until it is happening in a way to throw you out of balance in other areas of your life. Maybe it is happening so much that you become unhappy with the way your body is moving or feeling.
The amount of emotional eating in someone’s life varies between people. This can happen once in a while for some people or can be happening a good part of each day for others -– depending on how much pleasure, soothing or coping a person is needing. A person can be aware when this is happening, but most of us are pretty unaware when they are eating emotionally.
Understanding WHY you are eating . . .
We are trying to cultivate emotional eating intelligence, which is becoming aware of why you are eating and why you choose the particular food that you do. This is important so you can make sure you are eating the way you WANT to eat. The way you WANT to eat is your eating intention.
When I started to keep track of WHY I was eating, I started to see patterns and places where I could do more balancing to serve me better. I used my MyBodyMySelf Post-its which had me record what I ate to do research on myself. I realized one of the main reasons I was eating was for weight loss every day. I was still adhering to diet culture's message that there was something wrong with my body because it didn't weigh a certain number on the scale. My meals were light. By doing this research on myself, I realized what was actually happening was NOT what I would choose for myself if I thought about it. I didn’t want to eat for weight loss.
The problem with light meals was that I was not getting satiated, and then I was also snacking because I was unsatisfied. I was choosing snack foods for pleasure. My research on myself showed I was actually eating quite a bit for pleasure. Why was this happening so much? Maybe I was needing more pleasure in my day? Maybe I could try to consciously add other pleasurable things to my day, if I was looking to fill a pleasure deficit in my life?
I also realized I was doing some emotional eating. When I saw I was reaching for a cookie when I wasn’t hungry, I decided that I needed to address that. I didn’t want to eat emotionally so much. And, I wanted to decide whether or not eating emotionally served me at that moment or whether I would be better served to address that emotion. So, I started to examine WHY I was reaching for that cookie and began processing some emotions.
You can do what I did and by taking matters into your own hands. You can cultivate your own emotional eating intelligence by figuring out WHY you currently eat, how you WANT to eat in theory, and how you could put that into practice by creating your owneating intentions.
My eating intentions
I’d like to share my eating intentions with you as an example of what you might do if you thought about it. I now have an intention each time I head to the fridge, for a meal or snack. This gives me an intention for how I WANT to eat with a ton of freedom to eat what food I want.
Your job, once armed with your eating intentions, is to keep this structure in mind when you are face to face with a cookie. (We discuss the importance of awareness in the moment you are eating in Mindful Eating: Staying Awake at the Plate.) Note that your eating intentions are just guidelines, not rules. Rules make you feel guilty when not followed – and we certainly want to take the guilt out of eating.
I try to eat and choose my food around these intentions:
1. Hunger/satiety – I eat when I am hungry, and I try not to eat when I am not hungry. I choose food that will keep me satisfied until my next meal or snack.
2. Awareness of how food works with MY body and MY mind -- These are the lessons learned from 'food and me' over time. I have become very aware how my body responds to food. Chili goes down great, but comes back to bite in an hour or so. Raw garlic is not my friend. And I know from years of experience with food, that eating more than a couple cookies in a sitting can cause my pants to become tight. I don't want to buy new pants when I love the ones I have.
And, as far as my mind, I know that forgoing bread (and wine) makes me feel deprived. I really enjoy bread. So, I make sure that I eat bread and enjoy it, so I don't feel deprived. I know deprivation would sabotage any eating intentions I have. I know this because it has happened to me each time I have gone on any food restricting plan for the last 35 years.
3. Health – I want to make sure I am nourishing my body as best as I can. I notice that I feel better physically when I eat healthy. Here is where I pay attention to the scientific research on food. Here is where the nutritionist's advice fits in by giving healthy suggestions and recipes. But, since there is so much information on food and science out there, I need to be critical of what I hear. It needs to make sense to ME.
For example, most nutritionists today advise us to reduce the amount of sugar in our eating. So, the crucial question becomes what happens for me when I reduce sugar? I need test the advice out on how my body and mind react, and only then decide how to proceed. I was once told by a nutritionist to never have a margarita because there is too much sugar in the mix. NEVER is a very long time, and I love a good margarita! 'Never having a margarita' just creates deprivation for me, especially as I watch my brother enjoy them (he likes a good margarita, too!). And outlawing them (the NEVER part) makes me feel guilty when I 'fall off the wagon.' 'Falling off the wagon' can cause me to spiral into loosing track of my eating intentions. Nope, I'd rather actually have the sugar and simply be mindful of the amount.
4. Pleasure -- I want to build fun food into my day, I am a bit of a foodie, a decent cook, and I enjoy food. But, I don’t want to do this more than would serve me well. Given that I want to have a couple treats a day. I ask myself before I eat one I ask, is this my treat(s) for the day? Some days I have more and other days less, and it is important to me that I enjoy these treats.
Figuring out how you WANT to eat . . .
You’ll have your own eating priorities. You might want to eat for principle or religious reasons. You might want to cut down on caffeine or sugar. You might not feel deprived by avoiding bread, like I do, but might feel deprived by not having a glass of wine at the end of the day. The balancing you do within your eating intention guidelines at each meal, gives you freedom to eat what you want but account for your choices every day. People who don't go on diets and might do this intuitively. However, most people who've spend many years dieting and trying to listen to others' advice around how to eat may need this re-training to find their own intution and eating intentions.
- Harriet Brown, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do about It, 2015.
- Karen Koenig, The Food and Feelings Workbook, Chapter 4: The Seven Most Difficult Feelings for Disordered Eaters, 2007.
- Evelyn Tribole, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, 2012 (2nd edition).
"You are a grown woman, you can eat whatever the F*%k you want." --Isabel Foxen Duke, author of the blog "Stop feeling crazy around food"