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Make your food issues work for you

Posted Jun 07 2011 12:00am
Hold on a minute, you say. I’m sick and tired of my food issues. I wish I could be like other people and just eat whatever I want without thinking about it.

Sure, you could aspire to eat mindlessly. Or you could thank your lucky stars you’re not like other people and don’t eat unconsciously, the way so many people do.

Often, when I start coaching a new client, I’ll ask them to keep a food journal for a week or two. For some, this is an incredible eye-opener. They had no idea what they were eating, or how much they were eating, until they started writing it all down. “I can’t believe I consumed a whole meal standing up in the kitchen before I ever sat down to dinner!” is a typical comment.

For other people, though, a food journal is totally unnecessary. There’s no need to awaken them to what they’re eating, because they’re already hyper-aware of every bite they put into their mouths. They know how many calories each morsel contains. How many fat grams. How many carbs. They could probably recite for me everything they ate in the last three days without needing to log a single thing on paper or in a diet app.

These are the same folks who tell me they wish they could stop thinking about food so much and get on with their lives.

Are you one of these people? If so, I have good news and bad news. And then I have good news again.

Here’s the first dose of good news. Thinking about food a lot doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Just the opposite. It means your body is functioning exactly the way it’s supposed to. Dwelling constantly on food is a natural, biological response to malnourishment. In studies of populations who endured historic periods of famine, people’s thoughts inevitably become dominated by food. They cut pictures of food from magazines. They collect recipes. They talk endlessly about their favorite meals.

When you’re not getting enough to eat, your body arranges to bring food to the forefront of your consciousness. This is a survival mechanism. (Remember, your body interprets nutritional deficiency no differently than it does actual starvation. If you’re not getting the essential dietary building blocks you need to be healthy, you’re going to experience food cravings.) So, if you find yourself dwelling excessively on what you want to eat but aren’t allowed to, what you did eat but wish you hadn’t, and how you’re going to do better tomorrow, consider this a valuable message that something is wrong with the diet you’ve imposed upon yourself.

When you let go of your attempts at dieting and begin to eat according to your body’s needs, your brain relaxes its iron grip on the topic of food. No, it won’t happen overnight, but eventually, you’ll discover, miraculously, you have the ability to focus on something besides your next meal. What a relief!

Now for the bad news. Once you’ve lost your diet innocence, it's hard to get it back. What I mean by this: most people who’ve recovered from disordered eating (myself included) will admit that even though we’ve made peace with food and our bodies, there will always be a small part of us that pays unusually close attention to what we eat.

We don’t count calories anymore, nor do we lie awake racked with guilt over an extra slice of pizza. But we do notice that slice of pizza. We don’t just shovel it into our mouths automatically, like other people do.

And therein lies the really good news. Because I don’t see this awareness as a curse. I think of it as a gift.

In today's food landscape, who can afford to simply eat what’s in front of them without considering what’s in it? If you ask me, most Americans could use a little more food obsession. We should all be reading labels, educating ourselves about nutrition, and rejecting processed junk, instead of pretending what we’re eating has nothing to do with our health problems. I take it back - obsession is the wrong word. It’s more like self-preservation.

So if you’ve been worrying that your thoughts revolve too much around food, you might be right. It may be time to work on that. You may not think so now, but with time and patience, you can re-learn natural, angst-free eating habits that don’t involve analyzing every bite to death.

But don’t ever wish away that little bit of extra awareness of what you’re eating. It’s not a bad thing. These days, when it comes your diet, ignorance is definitely not bliss.
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