Last week a colleague* complained to me that her mouth was sore from having eaten an entire bag of sour candies the evening prior. “This needs to stop,” she told me, “It’s out of control. It’s like this every evening these days.”
I listened to her empathetically. I’ve been there; but not for a very long time.
If you go into my closet, on the left hand side, wedged between the wall and a box of trinkets, you’d find a selection of chocolate bars with a few missing squares. Some of them have been there for months.
One, for sure, has been there since May. Another has crossed the atlantic with me twice, and remains unopened. I’m just not ready for it yet.
I keep my chocolate in my closet, or in my underwear drawer, or stuffed into a box of photography props, because I want it to be there when I’m in the mood for a square, and these are the locations that seem to be relatively “husband proof”. What I’ve realized, other than that there is a need to hide my chocolate, is that more often than not I’m completely satisfied with only one or two squares.
Somehow, over time, I have developed an easy relationship with food. Someone who is at times completely satisfied with a single square of dark chocolate, and other times realizes she’s not in the mood for chocolate after all.
I decided to conduct a little experiment to determine whether it was just chocolate that had lost its power over me, which I called the Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie Experiment. Would a single warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie suffice? Would I realise that I wasn’t even in the mood for a cookie?
Um, no. And no.
The answer to how many warm from the oven chocolate chip cookies is enough depends on the size of the cookie, how perfectly underbaked the cookies are, and how much stomach space I have available, but I can confirm that it lies somewhere between four and six. What exactly “enough” cookies looks like has to do with feeling full, but not uncomfortable; feeling satisfied, but not guilty.
This is, perhaps, the most important part: not feeling guilty. I have become someone who is able to check in with herself and assess whether or not she wants a treat to begin with, eat the treat mindfully and ask whether she wants more or not, and, most critically, who can eat an extra cookie (or several extra cookies) or an extra slice of cake or an extra scoop of ice cream, and not feel shitty about it.
Too many of you feel shitty about it.
Related: A Mindful Eating Exercise.
There are two sides of the coin here. One one hand, we have out of control and mindless eating. If you are eating an entire bag of candy to the point that your mouth hurts, and feeling bad about it - either mentally or experiencing physical symptoms from over eating - then you are very likely not checking in with your self.
On the other hand we have the issue of guilt, as if you have failed, or are weak, or lack discipline if you indulge in a treat.
Let me tell you something important: occasional overindulgence is part of the human experience.
Food is so many things. It is fuel, yes, but it is also comfort. It is celebratory. It is social. It is natural, and even necessary to overindulge from time to time. It’s when overindulgence becomes the norm that we have a problem.
So, how did I achieve a healthy relationship with food?
1) A combination of structure and indulgence
I am a Weight Watchers “success” story. I did the program, counted the points, lost some weight, and have maintained that loss for well over a decade. That’s a very oversimplified version of the story, but that’s what we have time for today.
Doing Weight Watchers taught me about portion control, which was something I hadn’t thought much about prior, and it also taught me about spending my “points” wisely.
I learned that I could blow all of my points on cake and end up being hungry, or I could use my points moderately, and be satiated. I no longer count points - or calories for that matter - but the lessons I learned doing that program have stayed with me.
At the same time, I started to get intentional with my indulgences. The whole time I did Weight Watchers I never counted points on weekends, something that probably slowed my weight loss efforts, but, something that, I believe, made my lifestyle changes sustainable.
To be completely honest, I do think there was a period of time in which the routine got the better of me. I found it stressful if someone invited me out for dinner on a Wednesday night because Wednesday night was salad night, and I distinctly remember one holiday Monday when I came home from a study group and burst into tears when my sweet boyfriend (now my husband) presented me with a plate of freshly baked cookies.
He had made them to cheer me up since I was in a dark, dark place otherwise known as organic chemistry. The tears were because my rigidness around my food routine didn’t allow for cookies on a Monday.
That is, I think, the closest to disordered eating that I’ve ever experienced, and, clearly, I was not yet at peace with food - or my body - the way I am now.
In general, though, I had a food routine that worked well for me. It was planned, and there were indulgences. There was balance, there was moderation.
I ate foods I loved, and I learned how to nourish my body in a way that felt good to me. I ate whatever I wanted, and as much as I wanted, come the weekend. As time went by I found that I wanted to indulge less, but I enjoyed what I was having more and more.
2) I treat myself to really good stuff
This, too, I think is a key component of having achieved a healthy relationship with food.
I eat treats when I want to, and I ensure that the treats I do eat are mostly good stuff. No crappy low-quality ice cream for me.
Only home-made, ice cream parlour bought, or, in a pinch, the really high end grocery store stuff. When I make homemade ice cream it’s glorious; egg yolks, heavy cream, real sugar-sweetened gloriousness.
I think often about a former client of mine who struggled with eating entire sleeves of store-bought biscuits and then feeling awful, both physically and emotionally. If I ate an entire sleeve of store-bought biscuits I’d probably feel crappy too, so my policy these days is to eat the damn biscuits if I’m in the mood, but only if I’ve made them myself.
I think there is something meditative, and downright therapeutic about creaming the butter and sugar together, mixing in the eggs, chopping up good quality chocolate and stirring it in, smelling the cookies as they bake, and biting into a fresh, warm cookie.
I’m willing to bet if you went to the trouble of making your own you’d find you ate a lot less of them in the end; opening a package and shoving cookies into your mouth is one thing, but making your own from scratch is an entirely different situation.
And if you’re not a baker, maybe that mindfulness comes from walking to your favourite bakery for a slice of cake. Or going into a chocolate shop and putting together a box of really great chocolates.
The good stuff is totally worth it! And because the good stuff is often richer and more decadent than low quality treats, chances are pretty good you’ll feel satisfied with a lot less.
3) I gained 10 lbs
When I did Weight Watchers I dropped down to my goal weight in about six months. And then I kept dropping.
I took up running and trained for my first half-marathon. I started bike commuting instead of driving. And I was very, very stressed as a result of my undergraduate degree. All of that resulted in a very skinny Nutrition Lady.
I didn’t feel unwell at that point, other than, in retrospect, the aforementioned issues around controlling my food routine. I thought I looked great and I bought a whole bunch of new clothes to celebrate my thin body.
And then I spent the next decade struggling to maintain or trying to get back to that size.
One day it dawned on me that I had spent all this time trying to get back to a size from a point in my life when I wasn’t all that healthy. I was highly anxious, I was dealing with a huge amount of stress in my relationship, I was partying an unhealthy amount and then not eating when I felt unwell as a result of it, and I was exercising more than was good for my body.
So, I tossed out those clothes, gained 10 pounds, and reset back to my original goal weight, which was, after all, a very healthy size for me to be.
How do I know this? Because it’s not stressful to maintain. It doesn’t take effort to maintain. If I eat a few cookies on a Monday it isn’t going to cause me any anxiety. When a friend suggests getting dessert I say yes if I’m in the mood for dessert, after having checked in with myself about it.
How about you?
If you’re struggling to achieve a healthy relationship relationship with food, perhaps it’s time to check in with yourself.
If you find yourself mindlessly eating an entire bag of candy on a nightly basis, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself why. Would replacing the bag of candy with a mug of warm tea suffice?
Or why not replace it with really good chocolate that you actually love, and have less of it? Or, go through the meditation of baking yourself a treat from scratch, something you’d really enjoy, and be mindful in the process.
Lastly, let me say this. If you’re feeling like you have a lack of discipline / willpower around food, I urge you to change your way of thinking. Willpower is an outdated and frankly nonsense concept that does more damage than good.
Thinking of yourself (or someone else) as “weak” or “naughty” if you “give in” to having a treat, or smugly feeling strong and powerful if you don’t is bogus, and, frankly, a bit disordered.
Perhaps, instead of working on your willpower, what you need to work on is your curiosity. Ask yourself what you actually want, how much you want, and why. I think if you dig deep, the answers might surprise you.
Looking for more resources? Check out Health At Every Size for peer reviewed studies using the HAES philosophy, mindfulness, and more.
*It’s worth noting that this colleague is thin and fit, so when a group of us were discussing her out of control candy habit, the discussion was lighthearted and fun. Had she been a larger person the discussion would have been one of concern, with whispers of her lack of self control. Isn’t that nuts?
Originally published October 20, 2017. Edited and updated October 25, 2019.