Feeling “In Control” Around Our Favorite Foods

There have been times in my life when I felt out of control with food seemingly all the time. Any time I would have something around that I found delicious, once I started eating it, I would go on autopilot, never seeming to feel satisfied until I was sick.

I’m not doing that hardly ever anymore, and I have delicious foods in my home nearly all the time.

I regularly leave food on my plate and throw out or box up the extras.

I can go out with friends or family and not leave the meal feeling nauseous from overeating.

I can grab a handful of chocolate-covered almonds and put some back before they’re finished because I feel satisfied.

I think a prior version of myself would find all of this nearly magical, and when I think on it, even today it feels amazing.

We each have unique physiologies and psychologies, and the process for developing more comfort around highly palatable, delicious favorite foods won’t look the same for each of us. But from what I’ve gathered from the evidence-based sources I love, there are some common themes, and most of them have proved to be useful and important for me.

one. We can practice letting go of food moralizing, thinking of foods as “good” and “bad,” “healthful” or “unhealthy.” This includes letting go of the endless mental math that can sound like, “if I eat this now, I can’t/shouldn’t eat that later.” Research has shown that food moralizing increases the desirability of the forbidden/off limits foods. And based on what I’ve heard from endless interviews with folks trying to unlearn diet culture, it’s a doozy. Can you come to terms with the reality that sugar isn’t poison, isn’t literally addictive, and doesn’t make you fat? (Or substitute in carbs, fat, nightshades or whatever the bug-a-boo of the moment is for sugar.) The challenge for me has been getting really, truly ok with eating desserts as often as I want them. And I know that I can create healthful, balanced meals that include sweets that leave me feeling energetic, happy, and bring me pleasure.

two. We can learn to make eating decisions based on our values and how we want to feel, perform, and live our lives, not based on what outcome we hope it will have on our physiques. If the only reason you’re avoiding eating something is because you are afraid it will “make you fat,” then I would love to challenge you to consider if that’s really in alignment with what matters most to you and how you want to live your life. I would hope we are in agreement that fatphobia, bodyweight stigma and anti-fat bias are problematic forces in our communities, and that can include how we are judging ourselves, our own bodies and actions. You are deserving of the same love, compassion, and acceptance you want to give to others. I don’t have a problem with physique goals, but I believe they are healthier and lead to healthier long-term outcomes when they come from a balanced place of whole health–setting our goals within the larger context of the kinds of lives we want to live, how we want to share and connect with our friends and loved ones, and ensure that we’re taking care of our mental health alongside the physical.

three. We can consistently get enough sleep. Getting genuinely sufficient sleep makes a huge difference on our appetites. Lots of research shows that we are hungrier when we’re sleep deprived. There’s also ample evidence to suggest that we eat more the more hours we’re awake. I know when I’m tired, I get more headaches and low moods, and both of these lead me to want to reach for foods to perk me up. My guess is that sufficient, restful sleep is one of the most underrated tools we have to help us feel more in control over our emotions and the resulting impulsive food choices.

four. We can make sure we’re eating balanced meals and eating enough overall. Balanced meals include all three macronutrients–carbohydrates, fats, and protein–in enough supply to be satisfying, and sufficient fiber, usually in the form of fruits and/or veggies. Apparently, women are especially likely to undereat protein. I know that was true for me years ago, and I also had to work on intentionally increasing my produce consumption. Now, if I’m missing those two pieces at a meal or snack, I find myself feeling “snacky” and unsatisfied a lot sooner than if my plate had been more balanced in the first place. Likewise, no amount of mindfulness or other strategies will be sufficient to control unwanted overeating if we’re chronically undereating the rest of the time. The ladies at Balance 365 call this the “binge and restrict cycle,” but it boils down to the biological fact that at some point, if we restrict (i.e., diet) for too long, our bodies will eventually fight back, and it can last for a very long time. The Minnesota Starvation Study demonstrated years of impact on the men who participated in months of caloric restriction. Our bodies don’t want to starve. Over time, if we learn to respect our appetites, trust can be rebuilt, and appetites can settle into the healthy, reasonable level unique to each of us.

five. Ensure we have other sources of joy, pleasure, relaxation, entertainment and rest in our lives. If the only time we stop to enjoy our day, take time for ourselves, reward ourselves or relax, it involves food, removing the food removes our main source of joy. On the other hand, if we can build a more robust, diverse set of options, we may find we’re less tempted, less often because we’re happy and satisfied otherwise. For me these days, this includes taking time to slow down throughout my days so that it isn’t only at meals and snacks. I’ve been working on building in pauses throughout my schedule, even short ones like taking 30 seconds to take a few deep breaths before I get out of the car after my commute, seem to help me reset and settle in my body. As a result, I feel less of an impulse to ground myself with food.

Some of these can seem very simple, but don’t mistake simple for easy. Learning to intellectually recognize a thing is not the same thing as feeling it as true emotionally. Developing new habits of action and thought can take time and self-awareness. Giving ourselves permission to do it in small steps we’re actually able to do consistently can be a difficult practice all on its own.

I also think we need to be mindful of any perfectionistic tendencies that might tell us we need to figure this out “once and for all” and expect ourselves never to slip ever again, never to have unhelpful, unpreferred thoughts and actions. That isn’t how our brains work, and learning to accept that there will be some natural ebb and flow to our habits can be very reassuring and actually help us from dropping everything when things get harder.

Over the last few years, with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, my own personal health and mental health challenges, and other barriers, emotional eating has proven itself to be a “slippery” habit that I have had to repeatedly recommit to focusing on. Early in the pandemic, I was back in a habit space where if there was some delicious baking in the house, I was eating it.(1) I would bake something wonderful, and it would be gone in a few days. As I became aware of the habit (we can’t intentionally change what we don’t observe), each of the above strategies has come into play. My go-to thought when I was eating a cinnamon roll, cupcake, whatever, was the unhelpful thought, “I shouldn’t be eating this.” For me, the solution was to intentionally build sweets and baked good back into my daily routine. It’s taken a few years, but that thought almost never pops up anymore, and when it does, I can recognize it for what it is–an old, habitual thought that isn’t actually true and doesn’t serve me well. Eating dessert nearly every day, having it planned in advance and something I know I can look forward to, took the shine off of those foods. I still enjoy them, but they don’t trigger that scarcity mindset that can sound like, “I better eat this now because it won’t be there later.” I’ve also continued to dial in really listening to myself when I ask the question, “What do I need right now?” Sometimes the answer is dessert. Sometimes it’s to snuggle with my cat or go to bed early. The more consistently I build in these moments to pause and meet my needs of the moment, the less drawn to treat foods I have felt. I still love them, but I want to really enjoy them, not just eat them because I don’t know how else to comfort or entertain myself.

One of the more nefarious myths of diet culture is that if we feel out of control around food, it’s either the fault of the food or a fault of our character. Bad foods and the bad people who eat them. Food is just food. And I want to live a life that includes all the wonderful foods that I enjoy. I want to feel free and comfortable in all kinds of eating environments. I want to feel kind and loving towards myself and my body, regardless of what eating choices I’ve made. Learning to embody the five practices above is lifelong, ongoing work, but I’m a lot farther along than I used to be. If you want to feel more “in control” around your favorite foods, I hope you can find some wisdom here to set you closer to that reality, too.

(1) I know that for others it would be the savory/salty foods–pizza, chips, etc., but for me, it’s always been the sweets. Feel free to sub in “pizza” for “cinnamon rolls” as appropriate to connect with your experience.

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