It's not what I eat, but rather how I eat it.
July 9, 2014 6:40 AM   Subscribe

I've just returned from an awesome, super-fun vacation during which I didn't give as much thought to the food I ate. I noticed that while the specific foods I ate were less "healthy," my eating patterns were far healthier, almost as if being less concerned about how "healthy" something was granted me a freedom that translated into a better sense of wellbeing. This trip provided me a window into "how things could be" with respect to eating patterns. I would like to take what I can from that to improve my habits. Details inside.

Me: early twenties female medical student at a healthy weight. I work out for 30-60 minutes almost every day. I eat plenty of vegetables, nuts, and fish, avoid sugar, and don't drink alcohol or caffeine. I have a therapist, I volunteer, read, journal, draw, talk to my friends and parents. I smile a lot, and my sleep and energy are good.

Being diligent about my health has enabled me to better deal with other difficulties in my life, and I am glad I was proactive. However, I feel like one takeaway point from my trip was the possibility that being more... relaxed... about eating would be better for me. After all, I can understand that eating habits in particular represent a sliver of my life that I feel I have the ability to more directly control, and that has the potential to spiral out of hand when it becomes a coping mechanism.

The habits that I would like to change are:
  1. I think I eat with a restrictive mindset-- almost a wish or intent to restrict-- even though I ultimately don't and eat a normal amount and variety of food every day. (I don't count calories specifically, but can easily ballpark things. I have not cut out any food groups, but there are certain foods that I feel I "should not" eat, like cookies or muffins. During the trip I cast all that aside to try new food and to also be polite if someone offered me food.)
  2. This is another control thing: I have this "need" to eat until I am very full or finish the entire bag. I have tried putting out individual servings of food instead of eating straight from the bag, but it doesn't always work, especially when I am stressed. I spend long hours studying at home (I prefer to study at home, so studying elsewhere is something I would do only very reluctantly if you were to suggest it) which means easy fridge access. Most foods I enjoy are not calorically dense (for example, it'll be like half a bag of carrots or half a watermelon) and my caloric intake by the end of the day is always in a normal range, so this doesn't have much consequence on my weight or anything, but it's not psychologically good for me.
  3. When I am stressed, I will simply throw away food or pick it apart and then throw it away. Sometimes I hoard food from free-food events, only to dissect it and then throw it away.
During the trip, these patterns and symptoms disappeared entirely, and it felt amazing. Liberating. I am not entirely sure what it was-- perhaps the lower stress environment? Perhaps it was the fact that I had things beyond food and medical trivia to occupy my mind with? Perhaps it was the fact that I walked for 9+ hours each day during this trip, so I felt like I could eat whatever and not worry too much, and that made everything better? I wouldn't call my school an unhealthy environment per se, but it certainly isn't low-pressure. Everyone's positive and friendly, but the fact is, they are also so doggedly driven and hardworking that even while relaxing, they invariably end up talking about school-related things. I engage myself with outside hobbies and activities, but it's hard to make a clear separation from work and play when I have class for anywhere from four to nine hours a day and have to study outside of class to keep up with the material.

Things that have somewhat helped me in the past are:
  • Thinking about how food nourishes me, and about the effort it took to produce and prepare the food.
  • Spending more time outside is helpful to me, although the winters are very, very long and bitterly cold where I am, so it's not exactly an option for about half the year.
  • Food is a social event-- at least, this was how it was when I was living at home with my family. Now that I'm on my own, I eat when my (irregular-ish) schedule permits. I used to think that eating with people would make things more stressful because in my family it can be considered rude to not clear your plate, but now I would strongly prefer happily clearing my plate at mealtime and not compulsively snacking at other times.
  • I like the "breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper" pattern of eating. This doesn't work great with school, because I am occupied during the times that I would prefer to eat.
What has worked for you? Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to look into intuitive eating.
posted by littlegreen at 6:54 AM on July 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

Yes to littlegreen. My favourite resource for intuitive eating is the Ellyn Satter Institute. Have a look around, it may speak to you.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:08 AM on July 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

search about intuitive eating since there are many good comments about how that 'works' which in a nutshell is about getting back in touch with the true bodily sensation of hunger, and the sensation of being satiated, and then living in respect with that.

Getting rigid into "good food" vs "bad food" is a kind of purity mindset that can make you feel good about yourself ("I'm a good eater!") or bad about yourself ("I had some fruit juice"). It can be a compensation for self-esteem. Read up about orthorexia (the extreme need to eat what is perceived as 'healthy') and youtube has a good 20/20 doc about it. When you see it from the outside you see the unhealthy patterns pretty clearly.

Go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and eat until you are 80% full. Then leave. Your mind may revolt: but I paid $9.99! I must have all. I. can. eat. but a scarcity mindset may fuel your 'eat till I'm absolutely full' habit. You restrict so much in other areas (what to eat) that you go whole hog in other areas (how much to eat).

You can always go back to the all you can eat buffet tomorrow. There is enough food here where we live, blessedly.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:08 AM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

What you've described here sounds very, very familiar to me, including the buying and picking at food then throwing three-fourths of it away. My experience was:

Cut out all sugar from my diet last year for several months and felt fantastic...but then my fruit intake kept creeping up to the point where I was eating, like, five pomegranates a day (which is not unhealthy but is a ton of pomegranate--not to mention super-expensive).

Then I had a stressful moment in an airport where I bought and inhaled like a pound of candy, and it was all downhill after that. I spent the winter feeling miserable and bloated, trying and failing to get back on the no-sugar wagon. I was reading all kinds of healthy eating blogs and starting each day with the conviction that "This is the day that I resume healthy eating!" only to fail by midafternoon. I also have some health issues that were impacted by this sudden detour into food obsession.

Finally, I forget when, I just decided fuck it! I'm going to eat whatever. Almost immediately my drive to stuff myself faded. I've slowly lost the weight I gained during the binge-y months.

If I find myself starting to sink back into obsessive thinking about good foods/bad foods, the trick that has worked best is to redirect my attention to something having absolutely nothing to do with food--like reading long Metafilter threads about politics. I know I read this on Metafilter somewhere but cannot find it, but I remember someone saying that "Whatever you feed, grows," or something along those lines.

So honestly, I know pretty well what to eat to be healthy (I think we all do), and I just try not to think about it too much. I try not to go hungry for too long, because then I really will overeat, and try to eat lots of vegetables, but if I have a day or even several days of bad eating don't beat myself up and just get right back to what I was doing before.

(I am glad I gave up sugar for the time I did because it taught me that eating sugar has a swift and dramatic impact on my body. If I eat a bunch of sugar and then do not immediately exercise to burn it off, I will pay the price by feeling like crap.)

Good luck to you!
posted by whistle pig at 9:17 AM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Learn to identify what being hungry feels like. Don't mix it up with desire stimulated by aromas or situations.
Eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you are no longer hungry.

Eat as much as you want of low glycemic foods until you are satiated.

I am a physician who combined this eating approach with smart anaerobic exercise and hormonal balancing to lose 65lbs. My waist went from 48" to 34"
posted by lbarek at 2:05 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm 53 and I just started this thing called intermittent fasting. And I love it! I have never been able to look at food and tell how many calories it is. And I am very short - 5.2 - and I don't need many calories. Anyway, my new plan is I have a "window" of eating - 6 hours - and then I fast for 18 hours. I believe that the fasting is helping lower the inflammation in my body (my joints feel better). I am over weight and I think I am losing weight (although I have only been doing this for two months). I've lost two inches. I don't weigh myself. I feel really, really great. It is the perfect thing for my blood sugar. I don't eat junk in my window - but I think the fasting is good for my blood sugar. I'm not having light headiness. In fact, because of my life situation - I am a full time caregiver for a stroke victim, and this eating plan works really well with that - I eat a huge breakfast and then a big lunch but stop eating at 2pm. IT DOES NOT INTERFERE with my work! Before, when I tried any kind of diet it was SO hard because I have to be alert ALL the time and I have to do a lot of physical work that would be really hard if I didn't eat breakfast or had a small breakfast. I don't have to count calories which I can't do anyway, and I am not eating dinner - which is good because I ate too much anyway. The fasting part is a breeze for me. I am not hungry and if I do think about food, I think, I can eat again in just a few hours. I sleep better. It has simplified my life. I don't have to think about food or preparing meals or planning menus for 18 hours every day! that is a huge relief!
posted by cda at 2:16 PM on July 9, 2014

I'm working on similar issues with a dietitian who is a fan of Ellyn Satter. I'm trying to lose weight but come from a background of meticulous counting (Weight Watchers) and am a perfectionist, which turns out to be a tough combination when it comes to avoiding weird food issues.

The first thing she got me to do was to always follow the "healthy plate" guidelines. This means half my plate gets veggies, and they go on first. Then a quarter of the plate's protein, and a quarter's a carb of some sort. Nothing's off limits, but I try to as often as possible choose carbs that are close to what I'd find in nature. So sweet potatoes, for example, are very good; whole wheat bread is okay; white bread, not so great, but it's gonna happen now and then. She also strongly encouraged me to eat 6 times a day (3 meals, 3 snacks), and always be sure to have healthy snacks on hand. This comes in the form of a big bucket of veggies in the fridge that are ready to eat (i.e. I chop them up as soon as I get them home) and a container of snacks at work. (I'll still bring stuff from home, depending on what I'm in the mood for, but if I don't get that together there's always an option in there).

I've found doing the snacking thing has made a big difference for me in making better choices at meal times and not overeating. I always ate breakfast but I'd never snack in the morning, and then at lunch I'd end up getting the footlong sub instead of the 6-inch or whatever. I'm much better at making better choices now.

The other thing I've always struggled with is eating too fast. To curb that, I'm doing a few things--eating with my off-hand; taking a tiny sip of water after each bite; and taking a break when I'm around 75% done my meal to see how I really feel. Eating slower has been hugely beneficial in that I've discovered I am often full at about 75%. I even left french fries on my plate when we went out to eat on the weekend!

I talked to her about approaching things like going for ice cream, which my wife and I do now and then, and she said go ahead, just order a smaller size and again, eat it slower. I haven't tested this yet with ice cream.

Anyway, what this stuff has done for me is made me far more aware of my own body's signals for hunger and fullness, which has really always been the missing piece. I'd go out for a meal with somebody and be astonished--ASTONISHED--if they left food on their plate. How could they do that? But then I did it myself and was completely fine. I used to always get these sandwiches at a local cafe. I got one last week and had it with a bunch of raw veggies. About halfway through I stopped myself and realized I was really, really full and tossed the rest of it. This was incredible to me. There was a lot of anxiety at first but it was pretty irrational. ("What if I don't eat this now, and I'm hungry again in an hour? Oh yeah. I can eat something else.") I just had to internalize that I can do it, and these little tricks are helping me do that.

It's still a work in progress and I still do have a lot of hang-ups over good food / bad food. But things are getting better and I feel better about my whole relationship with food than I ever did with any particular diet plan that had me restrict anything.
posted by synecdoche at 5:50 PM on July 9, 2014

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