there is no more forbidden. why can't i understand this?
March 23, 2009 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Raised in a super-strict, health-conscious household - I never learned "moderation" with not-so-healthy foods. Can I, as an adult, re-train good eating habits that do not include restriction, and do not include binging?

My father was a biochemist/nutritionist. During my birth, my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. As a result, food and healthy eating was a constant subject in our house, and I had little freedom to come to decisions on my own.

"junk" food was kept in a locked filing cabinet, to which only my father had the key. Our rations would include anywhere from 1-4 cookies a day, depending on our ranking from youngest to oldest (I am the youngest of four). Additionally, prior to my birth and my mom's cancer, food was less of a issue. It's normal for older siblings to pick on the younger ones; in my case, I was picked on because of the change in eating habits that merged birth and sickness. "We could always eat (x, y, and z) before you were born" was something I heard for many years.

Brown rice, tofu, steamed veggies, lean meats, low sodium, no-soda (and so on) was the diet of our household. As a result of this, I actually do sincerely enjoy eating "healthy" foods - they taste great to me. My favorite snack as a kid? Seaweed.

We were allowed to go go trick or treating as kids - but never allowed to keep the candy. Our rooms were searched for storing snacks we might have smuggled from school. This, in addition to keeping cookies under lock and key. Learning to develop a moderate diet, inclusive of everything with no restrictions, but knowing how to moderate foods, was something I don't think I ever developped.

Beginning in middle school when we had a little more freedom, I'd buy snacks at school, and hide them in places my dad would never look.

When I got my license and began earning my own money, this habit magnified - sneaking in the bad foods, hiding them, scarfing them down before I'd be found out.

I feel like I've carried these unhealthy habits into adulthood. I feel like if I get junk, it's not going to stay around. And so I must eat it quickly, in private, before it's found out and condemned. And I hate this condemnation. Even living on my own now, it's hard for me to rectify this ingrained reaction to junk or indulgent food - nothing lasts for long, because nothing ever lasted for long when we were growing up. In my mind I know no one is going to steal my hershey's kisses in the cupboard - but I feel like I've deeply internalized that if I have 3 now, I can't count on them being there tomorrow.

My problem is not that I dislike good-for-you-foods - I love them, actually. But I also feel like I don't know how to moderate my eating, and re-train my mind when it comes to developing good eating habits, where nothing is off limits - and find a balance between restriction and binging.

Can I change the way I think about food?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you investigated Intuitive Eating? They talk a lot about re-training eating habits, especially when it comes to "junk" food.
posted by muddgirl at 8:17 PM on March 23, 2009

While not as extreme, I had a restricted (no sugary junk*, no snack food, wheat germ...BLECH... on everything) diet growing up. College and really the year post college was when I went back and indulged in all those previously forbidden fruit (oh coco-puffs, I am truly cuckoo for youkoo!). But I never felt like I had someone watching or judging over my shoulder when I finally had my snacks all to myself. I might suggest that this was because I was owning my decisions as an adult, which means they are beyond question for my mom and up to me and my tastes. So the questions I asked myself in the grocery store were "what do I want to be tasting right now?" "what is my palette demanding to be sated?" not if it was forbidden or bad. Really the only person who should be having an opinion about what someone's eating is the someone who's eating it.
After a year of being entirely liberated from other's ideas of what I should eat and also learning my own cooking/eating habits absent a dining hall I wasn't buying or eating the junk anymore. It no longer suited my palette. I found out that the junk is really junk mostly, and not worth the calories. My current motto is that calories must be delicious.
If, however, you buy a giant bag of doritos and bring it into my house and leave it open on the table, I will probably have fingers covered in orange flavor dust within five minutes. So, again, as an adult, making my own responsible self-reflective decisions, I don't buy doritios. I can control at the purchase point what I will or will not be testing my will-power with. If healthy food tastes good to you and your palette craves ever more nigiri, then indulge it. If there's a voice, that's your own and not your dad's, that says "you don't really need that, you just want it" don't buy it. And then you won't have the hoarding/binging secret secret forbidden fruit pleasure pain response to having it. If you isolate yourself from what others may think than you'll know better when it's time to stop.
*halloween candy, we were allowed to keep, and I hoarded the fuck out of it. it always lasted until easter or beyond, consumed in reverse order of tastiness. I've lost all taste for candy now.
Sorry that this so long and autobiowankical. Take home message, indulge as an adult, but also evaluate and take the responsibility of those eating decisions as an adult. It's you and your body and your GI tract that are going to tell you what you should or should not eat now, not any external force or ideas.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:56 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was a kid who was raised vegetarian by a mother who thought she was hypoglycemic (she had a diabetic mother and horrible, crippling migraines she thought were controlled by diet). Consequently, no candy, no cupcakes, no meat…

But I binged and learned to give up binging in different stages—I managed to hit my limit with pop when I could drink as much as I wanted, working at a Mexican restaurant. Now I actively don't want it, or only want about six ounces. I cut out more junk food when I got really poor. Now I still manage to think of Doritos as something I just can't really afford (in part because I know I can eat 'em all).

I'll also say that you might be someone well-served by talking to a therapist. The reason why I say that is because while the behavior you're exhibiting is fairly normal. My girlfriend mentions that she grew up in a household where there wasn't that sort of restriction on food, and she has the same problem. But how you describe it, eating hidden, and with a lot of shame, well, those emotions are maybe not something that AskMe is going to be great at helping you with.
posted by klangklangston at 9:31 PM on March 23, 2009

You might want to plug your father's name in PubMed and see if he has first-authored or been the head of lab of any papers published on food a nutrition and health. If he has, then follow the papers that have cited his work to see if it is discredited or used as a reference.

I do not have the feeling that you have an unbiased understanding regarding the spectrum of nutrition.

posted by porpoise at 10:30 PM on March 23, 2009

Binge Eating Disorder is a real issue, it sounds like you are triggered by junk food. The way to control it... stop buying the stuff. If you were an alcoholic, you probably wouldn't be able to keep a bottle of vodka in the house, you'd guzzle it immediately. Don't torture yourself by keeping junk around. That doesn't mean never ever, just don't bring it into your house... and weigh the opportunity... fancy restaurant - yes... office birthday party - no...

It isn't just that you like candy, it's that you have developed an unhealthy relationship to it. I can totally dig where you're coming from, my mother used to hide food, plus I had four older siblings, so if there was something good to eat in the house and I didn't get to it first, it would be gone and I wouldn't get any.

So now, despite the fact that I live alone, I cannot control myself with junk food. And it's not even that I'm undisciplined or lack self-control, in all other aspects of my life, I take care of business. Quit smoking cold turkey... no problem. Only eat two slices of pizza... completely impossible.
posted by paperzach at 12:39 AM on March 24, 2009

Lock it in a filing cabinet and only let it out for your daily ration...
But really it's not that powerful that it needs to be locked away so maybe this isn't actually about food at all.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:11 AM on March 24, 2009

Smaller portions. Keep shrinking your portions by a cookie (or half of one) a day. Be gentle with yourself and don't feel guilty if you accidentally go overboard - the guilt doesn't help. Eventually (it took me a months), you'll get those junk foods down to a relatively healthy minimum. And I second therapy: our perceptions of food often have to do with deeper control issues, and it couldn't hurt to talk it out with a professional. Your diet is extremely important to your body and your life. Knowing the why might help the how.

Good luck!
posted by cachondeo45 at 4:46 AM on March 24, 2009

To some extent this is not about food but about control. My family was health-conscious but there was no food put away under lock and key, which I can only imagine would have given me all sorts of hang-ups.

I really recommend therapy to work through some of these issues. How's your relationship with your family otherwise?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:15 AM on March 24, 2009

Our rooms were searched for storing snacks we might have smuggled from school. This, in addition to keeping cookies under lock and key.

Since nobody else has said this yet, HOLY CRAP. This is nuts. Your father was nuts on this topic.

Parents are not meant to be prison guards.

Of course you have issues around food, because HOLY CRAP.

"Don't buy junk food" is not dealing with this particular problem. (Nor would joining an organization like OA that emphasizes abstinence from certain categories of food.)

I know someone else who grew up in an environment like this, and she thinks of things like "strawberries" as junk food--if you start eliminating entire categories of food as a response to this problem, my guess is that the buggy code your family of origin programmed into you will just send you down a spiral into orthorexia.

Your problem is not that you are addicted to junk food. Your problem is that you were taught from an early age to demonize certain types of food.

Therapy would be a good way to debug this code. If you want to try the self-help method, the Tribole and Resch "Intuitive Eating" books/videos/workshops are the gold standard.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:03 AM on March 24, 2009

Really... no one has suggested therapy yet? For this it think it would fit. You are aware of how your thinking is affecting your behaviour, don't discount getting some help getting strategies on how to get better. I would bet that there lots of people who specialize in food issues.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:08 AM on March 24, 2009

oops. I meant I agree that therapy is a good idea. (must improve reading skills)
posted by Gor-ella at 7:09 AM on March 24, 2009

The problem with addressing food as an addictive substance is that you have to eat to live, so you can't just not have it in the house.

You have to retrain your brain to allow yourself these foods. Once you realize that you are allowed to have them, and that you are not being bad by eating them, the moderation will come by itself. You address this perfectly in the title of your question. Therapy is a good start. In addition, the books listed on this site have been very helpful to me.
posted by chelseagirl at 9:13 AM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that therapy is a good idea too.

But I would also suggest that the best way to start thinking about treats in moderation is to start including them as part of your everyday meals. Decide that you aren't going to snack between meals, but include *portioned* desserts/junk as part of normal meals. Have dessert after dinner with coffee or tea -- the portioning on a dessert-sized bowl or plate is important. Similarly, try including a small treat with your packed lunch each day.

I'd also suggest maybe buying the fancy expensive treats (fancy organic soda, nice chocolates), as you can more easily associate them with moderation, and may also find that you don't need as much to be satisfied.
posted by susanvance at 9:43 AM on March 24, 2009

I don't think keeping the stuff in your house is a good plan. Why make life harder? But, be true to yourself and if it works for you, then congratulations.

One thing that I imagine might work, allowing you to have the stuff without keeping a stockpile of it, is to keep the raw ingredients of your favorite snacks on hand. If you want a cookie, pull out the flour, butter, and sugar and make a cookie. But, once you've made the dough, only bake a couple at a time. The cookies will taste better, be healthier, and it will take a lot of time and effort to have "just one more." Plus, home baked cookies make for great gifts, whereas half-eaten packages of Oreos do not.
posted by paperzach at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2009

I would recommend seeing a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. Not that you necessarily have one, but they will know exactly what kinds of techniques to use in these instances. Some are specially trained in helping people normalize their eating after many years of food restriction.

If you are in the US, you can find a RD by searching here. Under "area of expertise" you can choose eating disorders.

Some good books on this topic are the Overcoming Overeating books, Intuitive Eating, and various books by Ellyn Satter (who writes mostly about child-parent feeding relationships.)

On a personal note, I didn't experience the type of food restrictions you did growing up, but I still have twinges of worrying about my treats disappearing if I don't eat them right away. I think a lot of people feel this way -- so many people say things like "I can't keep it in the house," etc., possibly because lots of these foods were designed specifically to taste so good you wouldn't want to stop eating them. Humans love fat and sugar and salt -- these are highly desirable things to find in concentrated forms in nature if you're a foraging animal. So it's not surprising most of us still have a certain weakness for them.

That said, it is totally understandable that you want to have a more normal and relaxed relationship with your food. And I would suggest that anyone coming from a food background like yours would do well to at least check in on the issue with a professional. A dietitian is uniquely trained to help you with that. Best of luck.
posted by peggynature at 4:55 PM on March 24, 2009

Oh, also, one little trick I learned from a counsellor who often helped people with actual binge-eating problems was to practice eating three cookies (or whatever your special treat is) every single day. Take them out of the package, put them on a plate, sit there and pay attention to them, and give yourself over to eating them.

No more than three. But every. single. day. you. must. eat. those. three. cookies.

Apparently, after a while, your fascination with that food and the urge to binge dies down. I don't know if it would help you to try something like this, but it might be worth a shot.
posted by peggynature at 4:59 PM on March 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

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