From the time I was around ten years old and my aunt invited me to try my first diet (eating only grapes - we lasted around six hours!), until just a few years ago, I was obsessed with food and the way I looked. Even though most of that time I actually looked pretty darn good, I would never have believed you if you'd told me so.
I've heard people of all shapes complain about their looks, weight, and their love-hate relationship with food. It doesn't seem to matter how "perfect" someone looks on the outside - the way we feel about our bodies and ourselves often has nothing to do with reality.
Many of us yo-yo between healthy eating and out-of-control eating. We'll try some new weight loss fad, or promise ourselves that we're going to stick to a new food regime, but our enthusiasm disappears after a few days and we find ourselves right back in old habits.
We fail because we don't understand what's really going on inside of us. We don't understand our relationship to food, our ideas about weight loss, and why we can't succeed with this goal. Most diet programs don't properly address our behaviors and beliefs around food, and they also aren't designed to be sustained for life.
From the age of ten through twenty, I dieted obsessively. At its worst, I counted calories all day and panicked if I couldn't find a restaurant option that was "low fat". Finally, a boyfriend told me that he'd break up with me if I didn't get some help. He gave me the card of the dietitian that his sister had been seeing. I went to see the dietitian, and he broke up with me anyway! He was sent into my life, just to give me that card.
The dietitian informed me that given the amount I was exercising (long daily workouts) and the minimal calories I was eating, I was suppressing my metabolism - making it more likely that I would gain weight, not lose it. She made me a bet that I'll never forget:
"I want you to leave my office today, and eat whatever you want, whenever you want, but follow one rule. If you follow this, I bet you that you will be able to maintain a healthy weight and body. This is the rule: only eat when you're truly hungry, and stop when you're full".
Today, I weigh slightly less than I did back then, almost twenty years ago. Every now and then I "forget" - or more accurately, ignore - her rule (for example, on vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico), and my weight starts to creep up. Whenever I notice that, I start following the rule again, and go for a bit longer walks. That's it, works like a charm.
It also helps so much to remind myself that eating too much rich food, particularly white-flour-based foods, cheese, ice cream, chocolate and other desserts, makes my face puffy, ages me more quickly, makes me sluggish and irritable, and makes my skin break out.
I still get tempted, a lot, and have found that it helps so much to just stop, and consult my tummy. Is there really room for more? Am I truly still hungry? Often, the honest answer is no. I'm not hungry, and simply want to greedily push my body over into the "totally stuffed" mode. This recognizing of the true already-full state of my stomach helps me put on the brakes. Don't get me wrong, I still fail sometimes, and when I do the way I look and feel after reminds me why the rule is such a great one!
Another essential tool is to deliberately become aware of your reasons for wanting to eat. I used to use food compulsively to make myself feel good. Why not? It felt fantastic whenever I was sitting down with a fork, in front of a giant piece of chocolate cake. The problem was what came after, when the cake was gone. Guilt, shame, regret, sluggishness, health problems - the list goes on.
There's a funny thing about addictive, yummy foods, which is very similar to what alcoholics and drug addicts experience. When I crave something, my brain and body trick me by saying "come on, just this once". Like this: "Why don't you get into your car and drive to the grocery store and buy yourself a big tub of rocky road ice cream? Come on, let's go - we'll do it JUST THIS ONCE and then get back to our plans for healthy eating."
That's the lie: just this once. When you indulge yourself with foods that you crave, your body and mind will crave them again, sooner and more forcefully than ever, often right the next day. Or, later that same day! The more junk food, or comfort food, you give your body, the more your body emotionally and physically wants it and will ask you for it again. This is very different from hunger.
Pay attention to the difference between the feeling of cravings (from boredom, stress, sadness, habit, comfort, etc.) and hunger. There's a huge difference.
To make cravings go away, interrupt them and shut them down by recognizing them as self-sabotaging feelings and impulses that don't serve you at all. Do something else instead (call a friend, go for a walk, do something on your to-do list), and the craving will pass. Wait until you're truly hungry to eat something. The cravings will get less and less, and when you do fail and indulge them (we all do), you will see how truly "empty" that promise of feeling good after turns out to be.
In my book, Live a Life You Love (www.livealifeyoulovebook.com) , I share more about how I've personally struggled with and conquered compulsive eating and other habits that didn't serve me, sharing tips about how I turned my own health and life around - and how you can, too. You don't have to be a slave to your appetite!