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When Food Is Your Sanctuary: Finding or Building New Ones

When the cake or the crackers are the only thing for "just me"....

Is food your sanctuary? Where is that quiet space in your life, where you can relax, have time for yourself? As I help people sort out what prevents their losing weight, we often come to an unescapable realization: that is, that the cake or the crackers give the only break, the only pleasure, the only thing for "just me".

The pace and overload of modern life squeeze out whatever time for relaxation, reflection, and recreation we may need. To some extent, most of us have to consciously weave these into our distracted lives. In the short term, food satisfies or substitutes. Once eating as relaxation or "me time" becomes a habit, though, real refreshment become even less likely.

Many overeaters, in addition, struggle to put themselves on their own priority lists. They easily do for others what they feel guilty doing for themselves. If relaxing and reflecting weren't already far down the list, such feelings lower them more still, even casting them as "selfish".

So eating offers that short-term fix, a break or a pleasure. It doesn't call for anyone else's permission; it makes no waves. We quickly form strong emotional associations to the relief of these moments free of the bustle, and of the demands on us. For some, the connection to "food as sanctuary" dates from childhood, making it even harder to dissolve. It's not uncommon for new a sanctuary to provide that missing piece, the one that finally makes the difference between another failed diet and a crucial shift in perspective that allows for real change. This can occur in a variety of ways.

Consider, for one, a person like Joe, whose job demanded at least 60 hours each week. On the go, meeting deadlines, keeping customers happy, he never stopped--except over lunches, dinners, and drinks with clients, or with friends after work. These would be large and lavish, and he enjoyed them thoroughly. His escalating weight and blood pressure called for him to do something differently, though. Eating a home-packed lunch? Ordering salad or broiled fish? His efforts never lasted. He'd feel down, grumpy, restless. To manage that blood pressure and waistline, he had to find other ways to slow down, to enjoy himself, to feel connected to others, ways that didn't involve eating and drinking.

Nancy typifies the overeater who takes care of others constantly. A special ed teacher and mother of two, she also looked after her aged mother and uncle. She did all the family cleaning and cooking, allowing her husband to stay involved in several after-work activities. She could usually be counted on to help with her children's school and extracurricular events. Finding time for exercise felt impossible-she couldn't imagine disappointing any of those relying on her. Stopping the daily indulgences in cookies and candy seemed impossible as well. To do so, she had to learn to carve out time for her own self-care and recreation, saying "no" to others sometimes and asking for help. None of that was easy, but it was the only way to lose the extra 40 lbs she carried once and for all.

Gina is one who didn't at first identify her eating as a sanctuary. Her life was pleasant following an early retirement. She liked the pace of it. Her grown children were prospering. Her marriage was still good. She did a lot of things right when it came to keeping weight off, and yet every few days she found herself blowing it all with baked goods. Keeping a journal of these times, she remembered how, as a chubby kid on mandatory diets, she'd found great relief and pleasure stealing away with goodies. Once she made that visceral emotional connection, it started to get easier to wait out those urges.

This is a time of year when few people feel they can pay attention to self-improvement or major habit changes. We tend to be busier than ever, often attending more, not less, to the demands and expectations of others. It may be an excellent time, though, to consider the idea of sanctuary. Where might you find or build some sanctuary now, without food? However small, it can matter: a few good deep breaths, a walk, a cuddle with a kid or pet, some moments to just sit or to read. In every life, there's someplace to start.

Dr. Katz’ workbook, Eat Sanely: Get off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good, is available in paperback, or as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, or ipad: