02 September 2012

Transform Your Eating Habits

I'm going out on a limb with this week's post, publicizing a highly personal struggle about which I feel very vulnerable. And, I trust that you, my loyal readers will forgive and support me.

"What Girls Do When They're Upset"
Back in the late 90s, when my fiancé Kevin and I broke up a few months before our wedding, a mutual (male) friend stopped by with a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I appreciated his kindness, and I never forgot that moment, because I remember truly being perplexed at why he brought me ice cream. "I thought that's what girls did when they were upset," he said innocently. "They ate whole pints of ice cream."

How times have changed. It's 10 years later and I'm finally married (to a different Kevin). I have a house in the suburbs and a high-tech job. On the side I love to exercise (I recently started running), I dance West Coast Swing, and I'm starting to teach yoga and meditation. I collect healthy recipes like they were going out of style, and although I love to eat out, I also cook a lot myself. I also post about health and wellness topics on this blog every week. I do all these activities to counteract stress, which is rampant in my job and in society at large. Maintaining optimal health and wellness in the face of life's daily challenges is very important to me.

And, I have developed a problem with food. I've come up with (and have heard from others) all sorts of theories about why I've struggled with compulsive eating for almost a year now, binging and overeating (sometimes daily for weeks at a time) before getting a handle on it again. "It started when you first tried that Yoga Journal detox." "I was so sad when my best friend in the world moved across country and stopped talking to me, I felt abandoned." "You're being too restrictive with your food and so your body is craving what it can't have." "I'm feeling creatively unfulfilled." And on it goes.

I've gotten fed up with the theorizing. The fact is, it doesn't really matter why it started or what it is I'm really upset about. I'm tired of digging into my past and dissecting my present. I know I have a problem, and I need to fix it or risk further damaging my body and mind.

One Strategy for Halting Compulsive Eating
Although there are many tools available, I like to establish my own strategies to tackle problems, try them out to see if they work, and revise them as necessary (or, completely replace them if they fail completely)! After all, I'm unique, and what works for someone else may or may not work for me. Here I offer up what seems to be helping me stay on track, with the intention that someone else might benefit from trying something like it, or get an idea for something else that might be equally effective.

Ironically, one of my first blog posts was about eating mindfully. Yet I find that in my maxed out, crazy busy life, this is SO HARD. I start multitasking, taking the iPad or a magazine to the table with me at breakfast and dinner. Or, I'm in a situation (i.e. in a lunch meeting at work) where I just can't focus on nourishing myself because I need to facilitate or contribute to the conversation. Or, I forget and shovel my lunch into my mouth, preoccupied with work as I sit (or stand) at my desk.

Here's what I'm trying these days that seems to be working:

  • In the evening, I write a "Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures" email, which I send to myself and a supportive person in my life.

    This email is simple. I look at my schedule (work and personal) for the day. I identify any interaction I feel might become a trigger for me to eat unnecessarily. I identify the emotion(s) the situation may stir in me. I brainstorm some ideas for things I could do (besides eat) that would create that oh-so-needed pause before habit takes over and I'm riding that "binge and feel terrible" roller coaster again.

    Here's are two examples from an email I sent myself and my friend:

    10 am meeting w/ Bob (trigger) -- desire to eat from the chocolate candy bowl near his office (emotion), make a b-line for his office and don't even look at the candy! (countermeasure); fear about my ability to influence him about a project / discomfort about a potential difficult conversation if he doesn't agree with me (emotions), need to be curious about his perspective,and accept my current level of influence (countermeasures).

    Decision about putting Ferris down (trigger) -- fear over my ability to handle sadness / anticipated regret over being selfish vs. doing the best thing for him (emotions). Accept that there is no perfect answer and trust myself to make the best decision I can (countermeasures).
  • Before each meal, I complete an online, "Pre-eating Checklist".

    This is a short survey I created with Google docs (and therefore accessible everywhere, including any computer or mobile device). It forces me to ask questions I wanted to think about before any food crosses my lips, including things like "Did you drink a full glass of water first?", "Is it already in your food plan for the day?", and "Did you consult your 'Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures' email first?" The same supportive friend has access to the survey results spreadsheet, which they can look at any time. And, the last question happens to be a very personal and highly motivating one for me.

What I've Learned So Far
Here are some things I've learned while employing this strategy over the past couple weeks:
  • Some people think this is a lot of work. But if you've ever tracked your food in something like MyFitnessPal, counted calories or points, etc., you understand how quick it can be once you've gotten into a routine. And, to me, anything that helps create that slightly larger, mindful pause before I act impulsively is totally worth it. Plus, I'm done caring what other people think, especially if it's working for me!
  • It only works if I actually do it. There was a fatal flaw in my plan initially: I thought most of my binging / overeating was caused by work stress, so I only used these tools during the week. I then found that I returned to binging Saturday night, as a result of some non-work related emotions.
  • I found interesting themes in my emotions. Coincidentally I've been reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0. In it, Bradberry and Greaves say that "all emotions are derivations of five core feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and shame." Since I find this to be true, my emails are now more abbreviated to one of these. And although I hadn't originally considered positive emotions, the situation I described above (on the weekend) was a good example.
  • And in my countermeasures too! Although there were some very specific ideas, many of my countermeasure brainstorms included phrases like, "accept what you can't change", "breathe and surrender", "love yourself as you are right now", etc. In theory I know these things, but in practice, the email (which I reread throughout the day) reminds me of them exactly when I most need to be reminded.
You Can Do It Too
If you struggle with an eating habit you’re not particularly fond of, you probably know that there are many different diets and tools out there to choose from. Some of them are good, some not so good. And that judgment may be different for different people. What works for you may not work for someone else, and vice versa. My advice? Try things, and pay attention to your body, to your mind, and to your emotions. You don’t have to accept diets or diet tools at face value. Tweak them, combine them, and play with them until you find something that works for you. And please do make something up! Personalize it. If your strategy doesn’t work, revise it. Try something else. But don’t ever give up. Your health and wellness is too important.

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