Recently I was chatting with my sister about how October is a terrible time of year to have a baby. Not only are they born right at the start of cold and flu season, but your (my) eating habits get all messed up.
Both times that I gave birth, I went through a period of really intense eating in the weeks afterwards, and I know I’m not alone in this. Part of it is (I think) the breastfeeding hunger, part of it is sleep deprivation (tired and hungry feel similar to your brain), and part of it is this emotional reaction to having endured a trauma. Plus, your body is a mess (I mean, you are leaking from everywhere, it’s a literal mess), so what do the extra calories matter anyways?
In the early weeks after giving birth I’d find myself constantly bringing home bags of candy from the store, or suddenly starving, I’d shovel chocolate-covered almonds into my face like they were going out of style. I’d snack with wild abandon at night, and think nothing of picking up pastries, eating batch after batch of cookies, and eating portions of dessert that would rival those of my endurance-athlete husband.
Both times, I found this intense eating lasted somewhere between 4-6 weeks, and then began to taper off. Except that when you have a baby in the middle of October, that taper starts to happen riiiiiiight when the holiday season starts. So then you’re bombarded with cookies and chocolates and special treats that you only get once a year, but, hey, it’s Christmas, right?
And suddenly it’s the middle of February and you find that although you’re quite in the absence of that frantic newborn trauma-surviving hunger, you’ve created a habit of mindlessly stuffing your face with snack foods and sweet stuff every single night, even when you don’t really want it.
October babies, I tell ya. They throw you for a loop.
Lately I’ve been trying to find my way back home, in terms of my eating habits, while also practicing what I preach in terms of intuitive eating. I wanted to share with you a mindful eating exercise I’ve been working with in order to get my eating back into my comfort zone.
1. Give yourself permission to eat what you’re craving
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that it’s ok to eat treats. (Please note that “treat” is defined in different ways by different people, and that’s totally okay.)
As a society we’re obsessed with food rules and eating “clean” and trying trendy new diets (I’m looking at you, keto), so there can be a lot of guilt or negative feelings associated with craving foods that are labelled as bad or treats or whatever you want to call them.
We know, though, that deprivation doesn’t work. The evidence is super clear on this. And for most people, existing in a state of deprivation for any amount of time tends to have a rebound effect. It ends up being a cycle of deprivation –> overconsumption –> deprivation –> more over consumption. Time to break the cycle!
So, while I considered giving up chocolate for some amount of time, I ultimately decided to give myself permission to have the foods I’m craving and to try and understand the cravings better along the way.
It may seem uncomfortable to say, “I feel like I’m out of control with eating [a particular food] but I’m going to give myself permission to eat it anyways.” And, indeed, it is uncomfortable. But I find that sitting with the discomfort and getting to the root of it is ultimately better than putting myself into a deprivation cycle.
2. Try to figure out where the habit is coming from
Mindlessly stuffing treats into my face is fairly out of character for me at this juncture in my life, so I’ve spent some time considering where this habit has come from. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
I’m very sleep deprived.
This has less to do with my baby and more to do with the fact that I’m working (or attempting to work) as much as possible in the margins. Most nights I stay up until midnight working, and am inevitably woken a couple of times in the night and then am up for the day by 6:30ish, so I figure I’m averaging about 5 hours of sleep on a good night.
Being tired makes it difficult to make good choices in a couple of different ways. First, as I mentioned previously, tired and hungry feel the same to your brain, so when you’re tired, you often end up eating when you don’t need to, or more than you need to.
I also attribute tiredness to making poor choices. Not in that I reach for pizza when I’m tired and pizza is “bad” while salad is “good”, but in that I’m too tired to properly consult with myself and figure out what I really want and need, and instead reach for the easiest and most efficient option. Or, I lean in on quick calories like crackers and sweets.
I’ve created a habit.
We are creatures of habit if nothing else, and after weeks on end of eating something sweet in the evening, it’s just become a thing I do. Sometimes I’m aware that I don’t actually want the treat or that I won’t enjoy it, but I have it anyways, almost out of muscle memory.
I’m a *bit* stressed.
The months since my younger son was born have been incredibly stressful. Adding a second child to the family has been hard in it’s own way, but we’ve also dealt with a series of illnesses from our older son, water damage in our apartment, having no bathroom for months on end, etc.
It’s also been financially stressful to be on maternity leave, and I’ve continued to try and work part time, which has created some periods of stress. Sleep deprivation and recovering from pregnancy and childbirth are also physiological sources of stress.
Because I’ve been under stress, my instinct is to do something nice for myself, and eating something sweet every day is an easy and inexpensive way to do that. I realized that this – I want to treat myself – is actually the biggest source of my evening sweet habit, so in essence it’s emotional eating.
3. Learn where your satisfaction lies
I find that with sweet treats (and many other foods) there’s a fine line between eating the perfect amount to feel satisfied, and eating too much and feeling unwell.
When I eat too much of something sweet, I feel it in my forehead. It’s like the sugar has gone to my brain and my frontal lobe is burning. A guy I used to date described his feeling of having eaten too much as similar to having a sore throat. Maybe it feels different to you, but if you look for it, you’ll be able to identify that your feeling of having over done it.
With other, bulkier foods, overdoing it may mean physical discomfort like an upset stomach, bloating, gas, etc. Or, you may experience emotional discomfort such as guilt, regret, or anxiety.
I, happily, banished food guilt quite some time ago, but I do experience regret from time to time – like, oh crap, I took that too far and wasted the stomach space on something I didn’t really want.
Here’s the thing: It’s ok to eat beyond the point of satisfaction from time to time. Not only is it ok, it’s totally normal! Think about special occasions like Christmas, your birthday, pizza night, where you know you’ll eat until you’re uncomfortably full, and are totally ok with it (or are trying to be). You better believe that I ate more than my fair share of my 40th birthday cake, and you better believe that my frontal lobe was burning like a mo-fo when I was done!
However, if you’re eating beyond the point of satisfaction on a regular basis – like I have been – it’s time to get down with a mindful eating exercise.
A Mindful Eating Exercise
Ok, so the background of this mindful eating exercise does take some time to get into, but how do you put it into practice on a daily basis? Here’s what I do:
Sit with the discomfort. I literally close my eyes and picture myself sitting in a room with three cushions on the floor. I’m sitting on one cushion, my discomfort is sitting on another cushion, and my craving is sitting on the third.
Check in with the discomfort. Why is this craving making me uncomfortable? Is it because I’m experiencing food guilt? Am I categorizing foods as things that are good or bad, or things that I *should* or *shouldn’t* eat? Do I feel external pressure to eat or not eat the thing I’m craving?
I try to pin point the source of the discomfort, and then I give my discomfort a hug, look it straight in the eye, and let it know that I’m good. It can go now. Yes, I’m aware that talking to and hugging my discomfort is a weird thing to do, but it works.
Then, I check in with the craving to figure out what exactly I’m craving and where it’s coming from. Am I hungry / tired / bored / excited / lonely / sad / happy / or something else? Am I craving chocolate specifically, or just a sweet taste in my mouth? Am I eating out of routine or habit when I’m not actually hungry?
For example, I find that when I finish eating lunch during the day I always want something sweet. I’m obviously not hungry, since I just finished eating, so where is this craving coming from?
I’ve pinpointed that what’s actually happening is a desire for a sort of post-meal palate cleanser in the form of something sweet. I don’t actually want or need a big dessert, but I want *something* to close the meal. Through checking in with my craving I’ve discovered that I can literally eat one square of dark chocolate or even pop a stick of gum into my mouth, and it will satisfy that craving.
My evening chocolate craving, on the other hand, comes from a desire to treat myself, so I know that a piece of gum isn’t going to satisfy that craving. I also know that treating myself doesn’t have to mean a fancy dessert or a plate of cookies. Sometimes one square of dark chocolate will do the trick. Sometimes a nice mug of sweet tea will hit the spot.
But sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s okay.
So, if you’ve checked in and realize that you do indeed want some chocolate [or insert appropriate treat here] how do you find your satisfaction?
Stay with me here… you invite it to sit on the cushion that was vacated by your discomfort.
What I mean by that is, you have to sit with it. Check in. Go bite by bite.
If I’m craving chocolate, I’ll sit down with one square at a time, rather than bringing over several squares. After I finish one, I’ve created a moment to check in and evaluate whether nor not I’m feeling satisfied. If not, I’ll go grab another. If I go past my point of satisfaction, I make a note of that for next time.
One thing I’ve noted is that when I’m enjoying something new for the first time I tend to go past my point of satisfaction. But when I enjoy that same treat in subsequent times, I find that I need a lot less to feel satisfied. Part of that is probably to do with the joy of discovery coupled with new taste sensations.
Here’s how you do a mindful eating exercise:
- Give yourself permission to eat the foods you crave.
- Sit with your discomfort.
- Identify where the craving is coming from.
- Check in with your satisfaction.