I like to think of our relationship with food as having three tiers. Is this a little bit presumptuous of me, and unacademic, and on the fly? Try enormously. But I’ve been thinking about and interacting with these issues for some time, and I find that thinking about food in this way helps me to get at both my own mental state and the state of other people I talk to on a daily basis.
On the first level is the immediate vicinity: where is the food, and where am I, and how are we interacting? The second level is more abstract: what is my relationship with food like in general? How does food fit into my life? Why do I eat? The final level is Meta. Super Meta. What is my life like? Am I happy? Am I stressed? We normally don’t think about such big themes in our lives in terms of food, but for a disordered eater, this is the most important level of all. Food health falls under the umbrella of holistic health, so if we can get the big picture problems under control, the rest can more easily fall in line.
What follows is a description of each level, plus useful strategies I’ve uncovered and tested for handling disordered (mostly binge) relationships for each.
1. On the lowest level of the hierarchy, it’s you and the food in front of you. What kind of food is it? How much is there? Do you know if the food in front of you is a ‘trigger’ food, and if it is just going to leave you wanting more? Are you going to eat all of it? Are you going to go back to the fridge when you’re done? And most importantly, what do you do to forestall grazing, overeating, or even a binge? Here are some ideas:
Get busy. Keep both your hands and your mind engaged. Do whatever you can to get your mind off of it. Video games are oddly effective, as is playing an instrument, or doing housework. Often, I used to exercise. If I had the “good momentum” from exercise behind me, it could keep me off of food for even longer. Leave the house– go to the library, a Starbucks, or run errands. Drive. Meditate. Go for a walk. Make a cup of tea. Chew a stick, or even a whole pack, of gum (make sure you don’t eat when you’re done!). Try and make sure that only foods that need to be cooked before being eaten, such as steak, or even frozen foods, are in your house. Ease of access is really demonic for bingeing. Take a shower. Dance around in your underwear. Make a list of everything that is beautiful about you. Put both internal and external characteristics on that list. Insist on loving yourself. Make out with your significant other. If you don’t have a significant other, find an understanding friend. You probably have one or two or six hundred of them hanging around.
And if you can’t stop the binge, choose your foods more carefully. If you absolutely MUST have a sweet, or you MUST have that one food you’re just dying for, try to have a little bit of it and then move on to something less treacherous for your health. Then, over time (because we don’t punish, but instead congratulate, ourselves for making baby steps) try going for slightly less bad sweets. For example, eat ice cream instead of cake. An even better way to do this is to decrease the sweetness over time. Reach for fruit instead of ice cream next. And then maybe sweet potatoes. And then veggies. When I want to binge now, know what I eat? Cabbage. That’s right. I’ll eat a whole head of cabbage at once. It gives me the satisfaction (read: serotonin) I crave from continually eating without the calories or the blood sugar problems. Turning to a food like this is also a good call if I’ve already started a binge. Just throw a few pounds of vegetable matter in my stomach and see if it can handle anything else.
This brings us to the second level in the hierarchy. What is your relationship with food? Are you obsessive? Compulsive? Super controlled? Chances are that if you’re a disordered eater, you’re fairly obsessive, and you think about food and what you’re putting in your body a lot. You may think that this is good for you because it helps you increase your mindfulness and your health, but it’s possible that you’re wrong. Being in control of our food, and constantly thinking about what we’re going to be eating next, and what we could be eating next, creates feelings of deprivation. This turns mindfulness into obsessiveness, and then into addiction.
This is why “cheat days” for dieters often don’t work out very well. They spend so much time planning cheat days that their minds just get stuck on those few, hyper-desirable, built-up foods. Psychology has shown again and again that most of the pleasure and pain in our lives comes not from immediate moments but from anticipation. So we build up foods in our minds way more than they ever deserve to be.
What’s more, if you’re thinking about what you’re eating next, you’re making yourself feel deprived. Feeling deprived makes you ache for food. Aching for food makes you ignore satiety signals. You might in fact not be deprived at all. You might even know logically that you aren’t deprived, but you still feel that way. (It’s awful, isn’t it?) I believe this is because you just think about it too much. Is there a way you can get food off your mind, as well as your plate? Try letting yourself have foods you like to binge on in small quantities, and then moving on to different foods. Try to de-demonize foods. Do I think fruit is kind of the devil? Sure. But if I relax that feeling into something more like: “fruit isn’t all that good for appetite management, but it won’t put a spear through my heart” then I can have a piece of apple when my roommate offers me one without fear, without loathing, and hopefully without too much emotional baggage in general. Be mindful of what effects certain foods have on you, but also acknowledge that you can transcend those demons. Eventually. Baby steps are the name of the game.
Aside from these few mental strategies, we can make tangible changes in our lives to help re-balance our relationships with food, too. For example, don’t buy carbohydrates! That’s a good one. Make sure to never shop when hungry, too. Or perhaps make a shopping list before going out, give yourself a time limit in the store (or go shopping when you’re in a hurry), and come home with only those foods on the list. Maybe you can ask your significant other to do the shopping for a while. Or you could try eating out more, if that would help. Limit the kinds of foods in your house that can be eaten without cooking, such as nuts, fruits, and dairy. Talk to your friends and family about your “problems” and get them to understand that they can support you by having certain foods banned in the house, etc. If you live in a house where people insist on having unhealthy foods, try partitioning off parts of the pantry for “you” and for “them.” And then don’t look in those parts, ever! They become easier to ignore over time. Trust. Another good trick is to buy foods frozen. Even if you try to eat them out of the bag, your fingers might get too cold. Perhaps that one belongs in Level 1. Frozen foods are a go go.
Another good strategy I find, particularly for grazing, is to not eat breakfast. This gives me a bit of “momentum” with which I can start my day feeling good. I don’t want to ever ruin that by eating poorly or too much for the rest of the day. A lot of people experience the same boost with exercise. Whichever works for you. But it’s a good one, trust me.
There are, of course, plenty of other ways to have negative relationships with food, including mindlessness, severe restriction, purging, super selectivity, and a range of others. More on those perhaps another time. In the meantime, how does food fit into your life, and are there steps you can take in your brain and in your life to make it even better?
The final level in the hierarchy is mental health. If emotions drive you to food, how can you mitigate those emotions? Some of my family relationships stressed me out, for example, so I moved out of the house. At school, workloads were enormous. So I dropped a class. Are you depressed, worried, nostalgic for the past, or hurting in any way that can be medicated with food? You can even be a “happy” binge eater and binge when you’re elated because you’ve forgotten to keep track of what you eat. Or maybe alcohol drives you to food. Or a certain time of life–”in June I binge because it reminds me of the funeral”–or a certain event–”I always eat after I talk to my mom”–or a certain place–”I always have to stop at Dairy Queen when I drive by because work sucks”–get way from those triggers as fast as you can! Fix it. Fix your life. Fix your heart. Find peace. Make time to breathe. These are Macro issues–Macro with a capital M–and of course they take a long, long time to fix. But they are about holistic health, and we need that for our bodies as well as our souls.
So that’s my hierarchy. What’s most fascinating to me is that my strategies and my situations on each level are always changing. These days, because of particulars on each level of the hierarchy–I hardly have a problem at all. But I know, I do know, that if my life changed back to how it was a month ago or a year ago, I’d be looking the same old demons in the eye and expecting Buffy and Angel to back me up again. BUT: Having worked on these issues for so long, with myself before and now with others, I have experience. I’m better armed. I’m more aware. This is awesome, and it’s helped me enormously. Hopefully it can help you, too, no matter what your current relationship with food is like.Tweet