Stopping the Food Fight
Eating Habits & Beliefs Seesawing?
In western culture, many of us manage food like we’re riding wildly on a seesaw. No need to find fault with ourselves. There are SO many reasons this happens—and just as many to hop off the ride. Want to find some balance and defuse the “food fight?”
Ask yourself about these common tendencies:
Do you divide foods into “good” and “bad” camps?
Yes, it’s absolutely true that many foods benefit our bodies and minds much more than many other foods. Sugar, for one, has infiltrated just about every manufactured food on the market. Despite its proven health risks, the average American eats 126.4 grams of sugar a day. (The AHA recommended limit is 25g/day for women and 36g/day for men.) And while it’s super important to curb certain foods, often even critical to one’s very survival, doing battle with food by labeling everything either good or bad becomes an obstacle to eating well. In fact, this is a hallmark of fad diets, which are notorious for failing us. (Check out the post 10 Reasons Why Diets Don't Work.) Many experts recommend leaning on intuitive eating, a framework developed in the 1990s by Tribole & Resch that “integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” (The book by these experts, simply titled Intuitive Eating, has long been on my top 10 list of health & wellness titles.) This approach serves us better by steadying the eating process and removing taboos and shame.
Do you eat differently in the morning than in the evening, or during the week than on weekends?
We often hold food hostage as a reward we need to “earn.” However if, like most Americans (including myself), you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, framing food as a reward becomes a slippery slope. First, it can quickly devolve into comfort eating, reversing weight loss or undoing your holding pattern. Second, this tactic relies heavily on willpower, which proves incredibly difficult for most of us. Instead, try eating some favorite foods sometimes and using non-food rewards because this keeps the “seesaw” from flinging you up and down. (My own longtime, go-to reward is a Saturday morning spent with a pile of books & endless tea—on the porch rocker in summer, curled up in bed in winter.)
Do you judge yourself or others for what’s going into your/their body?
Ever feel like you turn back into a rebellious teen when it comes to eating? Harsh cultural voices often pop up in our heads when we eat: ”I shouldn’t be eating this,” “I should eat like that,” “I should look like [fill in the blank],” and “I should NOT look like this or that.” Ever experience a “rebound” effect where you revolt against these internalized rules, criticisms, and restrictions, maybe even sliding into a binge? It’s pretty common. A couple of things that help: Surround yourself with support rather than people who police & size you up. Also practice mindfully noting judgment of your eating & body, as well as your inward critiques of others, because simply seeing these can actually release their grip on behavior.
Do you often do battle with cravings?
Cravings are a wild ride in their own category. They’re really complex and influenced by factors we don’t always see clearly. On a basic level, habit alone can fiercely drive recurring cravings. If you always have dessert after dinner, habit will make sure you ALWAYS have dessert after dinner. Frequently eating sugar (again, contained in thousands of foods) can also keep a craving loop going. Lack of sleep, too, disrupts healthy eating patterns by confusing our hunger hormones. What to do? It takes work, but striving for habit change is crucial. (Another top 10 must-read: James Clear’s Atomic Habits.) Obviously, cutting sugar and increasing sleep will help, too, not just here but in ALL aspects of health.
Do you force yourself to eat or avoid certain foods?
This tendency is similar to labeling foods “good” or “bad,” but it’s more subtle. Yes, sometimes we really just need to pack more green veggies into the day’s diet, but viewing some foods as necessary evils really saps all joy from eating. By the same token, strictly avoiding birthday cake (or only allowing yourself the most wispy sliver) also ignores a very real aspect of food. Sometimes food IS love or celebration or comfort. And that’s okay. From the beginning of tribal life, people rejoiced after the hunt. From the beginning of our own lives, we found comfort when feeding in the arms of a parent. Our brains and bodies steady out when we feed them, leading to a lovely sense of satiety. When we overlook this wiring, we set ourselves up to stay stuck on the seesaw. Balancing both sides of the equation —using food strictly as fuel and acknowledging food as joy —takes practice, perhaps for life, but is so much better than the alternative.
Wishing you a respite from the seesaw and a truce in the food fight. Eat well. Be well.