The formula for breaking free from struggling with food and weight is different for each person. I can’t sum up all the elements that work for most people in one blog post, but I can empower you with information that could be a missing key for you to be able navigate your way off the painful dieting roller coaster.
Juliet (not her real name) came to see me to lose weight. In her mid-forties, she had tried so many diets – yet, here she was, carrying 60 extra pounds.
Uncomfortable in her own skin, she had tried to keep a positive attitude along the way – but she had suffered a great deal. She has felt unattractive and like a failure because she couldn’t achieve her goal.
Juliet and the rest of us have been trained to think that the key to weight loss is to restrict the calories we consume. We believe that we need to have will power to restrain the part of us that wants the freedom to indulge in fattening foods.
For some people, counting calories with will power is an effective formula that truly allows them to drop extra weight. But for a lot of people, following the rules of a diet is actually a recipe for a painful diet/regain cycle. America’s standard approach of dieting and calorie-counting has led more than half of all adults in America to be overweight or obese.
“What if we could integrate the two parts of ourselves – the craving one who wants the freedom to eat whatever he or she wants whether it makes us feel sick or not – and also the part who wants to take good care of ourselves and lose weight?”
With any compulsive behavior (like overeating, drinking, or smoking), once the pattern gets triggered, it develops a life of its own. It can feel like we are no longer in control – as if we have a crazy, craving person inside us that has power over us.
This craving part of us can get us to sabotage our heartfelt goals and priorities. Back when I struggled with terrible binge eating, I would promise myself in the morning that I would be “good” and eat healthy and light today. Then just hours later I would find myself most of the way through a package of Oreos, feeling bloated, scared, and ashamed.
What if we could integrate the two parts of ourselves – the craving one who wants the freedom to eat whatever he or she wants whether it makes us feel sick or not – and also the part who wants to take good care of ourselves and lose weight?
Why do you want to lose weight? Maybe you are motivated by the desire to feel attractive or more confident? Maybe you want to lose weight to have better health or to be able to do activities you used to love?
I think we want to feel attractive, confident, healthy, or be active because the end result we all crave is simply to feel good. Feeling attractive or confident feels good emotionally. The absence of weight-related health issues and being active feels so good physically.
“Feeling good” is a common goal most every person and inner part of us can rally around. On the other hand, “losing weight” comes loaded with all kinds of cultural conditioning, shoulds, and shame.
To get free of the whole struggle around food and weight, Juliet and I decided she could experiment with placing her long-held wish to be trim on the back burner. She started prioritizing her desire to feel good over her desire to be thin. Juliet focused on eating what tastes good and focused on following her body’s signals to eat the amount that will make her feel good for the hours after the meal.
You might say, “But she will go off the rails! What if her craving self wants a whole pint of Cherry Garcia every night?”
But here’s what often actually happens…. When we slow down and give ourselves permission to eat whatever we sense will feel good in our bodies in the moment and also afterward – big shifts happen. We start to eat like trim people who don’t obsess about their weight. We begin to build evidence that we can relax and trust ourselves to not overeat.
“This approach isn’t about control – it’s about maximizing pleasure.”
The craving part of us starts to see that he or she is not going to be made to feel deprived. He or she starts to feel heard and cared for – starting to relax and quiet. The part of us that wants to lose weight and the craving part of us can integrate. There can be a cease fire in the war over being “good” or “bad” with food.
You might be asking, “How do I actually pull this off? The first step is to eat slowly. I don’t think you have to be mindful of every bite. But when you eat slowly two things happen:
- You get to enjoy more minutes of eating tasty food.
- You will be able to pick up on your body’s first signals that you might have had enough.
The second key to be able to follow the priority of eating to feel good is “pausing with permission.”
You know when you are eating a fabulous plate of food and you get the first sensations that you might soon be getting full? But you don’t want to stop because it’s so good? Well, for many people, pushing your plate away and pausing for a couple minutes to wait and see if you still really want to keep eating is empowering. It can keep us in the place of being able to choose whether to eat more – rather than just feeling compelled.
If after the pause, eating still feels good, then go ahead and enjoy. You can give yourself permission to eat whatever will feel good physically. You can continue to take more pauses, which gives you the ability to stop before you become overly full. How you feel in your body is the guideline – not how many calories or ounces.
You know how healthy kids can dive into a cookie jar and then abandon the third cookie part way through because they’ve had enough and another activity looks more fun? I love to help people find that flexible freedom.
You might be thinking, “But I have been so out of control for years – that won’t work for me.”
Personally, the permission to eat what I wanted and pausing and listening for my body’s input – is a huge part of how I got free of the obsession with food or weight. After 13 years of binge-eating disorder, I slowly learned I could trust myself around food. It still amazes me that my issues with food have been gone for 21 years.
I will write more about the other pieces of my journey in other posts.
This approach isn’t about control – it’s about maximizing pleasure. If we try to maximize pleasure, we will naturally stop when we are getting full. Being overly full simply doesn’t feel good.
Back to Juliet…. Week after week, Juliet kept her focus on listening to her body’s signals of hunger and fullness. She ended up eating a pretty balanced diet because that is what felt best. She gave herself permission to eat a treat when she really wanted one.
It used to be that whenever Juliet would eat ice cream, she would eat it really fast with a lot of guilt. With the new approach, when she wants an ice cream cone, she walks to her favorite ice cream store and sits outside in the shade and enjoys that cone slowly and completely. When savored and fully enjoyed, treats can actually help clients lose weight. If our inner craving self knows that he or she can have a rich dessert without guilt, he or she relaxes and doesn’t feel deprived. Knowing that having a treat isn’t a problem, the cravings can start to calm. Our inner self relaxes and doesn’t feel deprived.
Juliet and I discussed whether she wanted to weigh herself or not. She decided to experiment with proceeding without. They numbers on the scale had been a part of the huge struggle over the years.
After three weeks she noticed that her pants felt looser and going up stairs felt a little easier.
Juliet ended up losing 50 pounds by the time we stopped working together. She and I were both thrilled. She lost a lot of weight – and she lost the pre-occupation and shame around food. In our last session she said, “I can’t believe this has happened to me. I have become a trim, healthy person who doesn’t stress about food. I feel free.”
The ironic secret is this: If you prioritize feeling good, you will actually lose weight. This worked for me and for many clients. I love to help people lose weight and get free from the dieting roller coaster. I would be honored to speak with you so that you can see if working with me feels like a good next step.
Judy O’Neill, MSW