Staring at the fridge shouldn't be my hobby...
November 11, 2014 11:12 PM   Subscribe

I am lonely and busy-but-not-busy-enough such that basically, food has become a hobby of mine. This is bad because it makes me have semi-disordered eating habits. I need to keep myself busy enough or modify my behavior somehow so that I don't have all this extra energy to spend on thinking about food.

I'm at a point in my life where I feel like I don't have all that much to look forward to on a day-to-day basis. I live alone. I am in a graduate program, so aside from studying my brains out, working out, and reading for fun, I don't have much mental energy for hobbies. Food is a very... easy "hobby" to have.

When I come home from school, I am pretty tired (not necessarily hungry, although sometimes I am), so all I want to do is stare at the fridge and eat. I only keep healthy foods on hand, so that's not the issue. The issue is simply that I snack, on and off, whenever I'm home. Living alone means I can do all sorts of weird things with my food, like dissect it, or throw away half, chew and spit, think about the calories in it, think about the nutrients in it, and so on. This makes me feel guilty-- I don't want to graze for hours on end, and I don't want to waste food or pick it apart. I want to trust my body.

The constant snacking means that I've somewhat lost sense of what a normal portion size is or become desensitized to portion sizes (because I eat so many snack-ish foods, I don't even have normal meals anymore on some days and end up eating, for instance, a whole stalk of celery with almond butter and hard-boiled eggs as a meal). Also, thinking too much about food makes me feel bad about eating it; I start to play food-related mind games with myself, and when I think too much about food, I start to not trust my body, and then I get this nagging feeling that I'm only one meal away from becoming obese (even though I'm at a healthy weight), or I feel ugly when I'm not hungry... basically, all bad signs of semi-disordered eating, even though I don't think I have an eating disorder-- I just suck at feeding myself and am generally stressed in other areas of my life for the time being.

I LONG to be able to simply eat a small breakfast (fruit+yogurt, or maybe two hardboiled eggs and a banana), pack a bagged lunch, head out the door, eat said bagged lunch, and then come home to eat a normal dinner (hopefully not alone, but that isn't a possibility for me in the near future), and get on with the rest of my life. I notice that this happens only when I'm very, very busy and have almost no free time on my hands to preoccupy myself with food, or when I am traveling or visiting friends and eating becomes a social activity instead. I find it gloriously liberating when I am too busy to be preoccupied with food. How can I take my mind off food or modify my behavior so that I can just contentedly eat two or three discrete meals a day, not snack all the time, and not repeatedly open and close the fridge when I'm studying at home?

Again, I by default prefer healthy foods and I eat a good mix of protein/fat/carbs, so it isn't an issue of eating nutritious food or high-protein or high-fat foods to stay sated. This is really just a matter of being able to rid myself of the preoccupation (or the opportunity to be preoccupied) with food, so I don't want to hear answers that involve things like intermittent fasting or Whole30. I don't want plans with any name attached to it (Paleo, Whole30, Atkins, healthier-than-thou, brand-new-you plans all stress me out-- I am not worried about what I'm eating, I just don't want to be held captive by what I'm eating).

One possible solution could be to stay out of the house more and practice eating normal-sized meals by buying dinner at the cafeteria every day for a few days (or weeks, or however long it takes to form a habit)-- I'd be willing to invest the money if it meant developing better habits / getting rid of the snacking/grazing habit, but I also don't want to get hooked on cafeteria food because that's expensive and less healthy than food I could prepare myself. The second issue with staying out of the house to study is that I prefer studying in pajama pants, haha, and libraries are cold, even when I bring extra sweaters, and I don't like bumping into my classmates when studying. I strongly prefer studying at home.

I have also thought about not keeping snack-y foods at home, but I think all this snacking has given me a bit of a fear of eating a full, normal-sized meal... if that makes sense at all, so I'm not sure where to begin (which is why starting to eat a cafeteria dinner to reacclimate myself to normal meals might be a good idea? Unless I'm overlooking something). Plus, I feel like if I didn't keep snack-y foods at home, I'd just end up eating non-snack foods in a stupid way (like, I might eat four slices of bread, and then eat two slices of cheese, and then decide to eat a head of broccoli, in that order...).

Please help me!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to ask the same question someone asked of me when I was worried about my own eating habits - are you generally healthy overall? Meaning, have you noticed that the way you eat now is affecting your physical health? Or are you just worried because of a mental/societal habit?

If you're generally healthy despite the "grazing" habit, then...maybe it's okay to leave this alone for a little while longer, especially while you're still studying. There's actually nothing necessarily bad about this kind of "grazing" - in fact, sometimes it's recommended to people who have a hard time putting on weight. So long as your diet is balanced, and your energy levels are okay and you're not frequently getting sick, then...why mess with success?

Once your studies settle down and the classes are over and you're resuming a more normal schedule, then maybe you can re-tackle this. But for now, you may be okay just leaving this alone as you have enough to worry about as it is.

Of course, if you're NOT eating all that healthy and you've noticed a physical impact in your health, then it's time to do something about it. But i"m not getting that sense from your question - it sounds more like you feel like you SHOULD be eating in a certain way, and there isn't necessarily a "should" about it.

I think you're actually fine for now. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:30 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well personally I think some of the things you described call for the help of a Therapist if you can afford one. The chew and spit etc parts seem borderline eating disorder to me.

But if that's not the case you can try some things like Prayer before meals. Even if you're agnostic or athiest just look up some athiest 'prayers'. I lost 2 dress sizes without even trying to lose weight when I took up praying before meals and a buddhist monk I know had a similar experience. As I mentioned in a previous post I think the reason behind that is because sincere prayer before meals forces you to become more present with your body and the meal which automatically leads to eatings slower, breathing slower while eating, enjoying the meal more, and eating less because you become more in tune with what your body needs without over doing it.

You could also set times of day to eat. My schedule is more or less as follows:7am:wake up and yoga 9am: breakfast, 12pm: snack, 3 pm: Lunch, 5:30 or 6pm: Snack, 8:30pm: Dinner. If I stay up late I might have a snack after dinner. Each block of time is dedicated to tasks I want to do since I have a flexible work schedule. For example the first block is between breakfast and snack #1- I'll usually use this block for studying and reading materials which may or may not pertain to work. Block #2 between Snack and Lunch is devoted to getting done all the various things I want to get done for the day. Block #3 between Lunch and Snack 2 I may use to learn something fun and new. Block #4 between Snack and Dinner is used to go for a swim or work or run errands. Block #5 between Dinner and Bedtime is just used to prepare for the next morning and wind down. So in a way I 'revolve' my day around my meals, but my meals are not the main focus of the day. Rather the blocks in between them are. And of course I pray before each meal as well. This may or may not be a help to you, but I can only speak for myself. I didn't start this routine to lose weight, but that's exactly what ended up happening. I think maybe because it forced me to pay more attention to the actual food I was consuming and how I was consuming it rather than paying attention to the "cravings" and emotional attachment to sugar... which I believe is probably what we are REALLY paying attention to when we overeat. Not so much the food itself. I believe that a lot of what people call an addiction to food is actually an addiction to their own cravings.
posted by rancher at 11:43 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you make going out for walks your hobby? It doesn't take mental energy and will give you new things to see and think about.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:10 AM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, regular meet ups with friends. The key is "regular" - once a week - so you don't waste energy on calling and arranging stuff every time.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:12 AM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've recommended her here so many times I feel like people must think I'm shilling for her - but do check out the writings of the Fat Nutritionist. I know you're not fat and not worried about your weight, but she helps people to eat 'normally'. When I read about how you wish you could have this healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner and not be held captive by food and constantly preoccupied by it it really, really made me think that you would find her writings helpful.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:10 AM on November 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

When you come home exhausted every day would it be possible for you to take a nap?
Or even just lie down and listen to soothing music for half an hour.
It sounds like you're wound up pretty tight, and I know graduate school can do that.
What field are you in? In most fields the kind of obsessing you describe as having with food is similar to the kind of attention and analysis you have to put into your studies and research.

One of my escape valves in grad school was to read murder mysteries, it was like letting someone else do the obsessing and research and, bonus, everything got resolved in the end.
posted by mareli at 3:46 AM on November 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

First, good on you for recognizing a problem and wanting to change. I think many of us are in a similar situation. Food "addiction" is a real problem. The amount of strategy and willpower needed to overcome it makes me wonder how anyone addicted to hard drugs can ever quit.

Anyway, I think you're on the right path with keeping snacky foods out of the house. If you don't buy it, you won't eat it.

Now, if you're anything like me, when you don't have sweets in the house, you're going to make sweets. I have literally made brownies from scratch (and since I didn't have cocoa powder, I used Swiss Miss) in order to satisfy a sweet tooth. However, instead of eating the entire batch, I cut it up, wrapped it up in a box, and took them to my friends.

My point here is to see if you can't manage to finagle your food addiction into something else. Instead of snacking, cook something. And if you're worried about gorging on whatever you cooked, invite some friends over. If your friends are busy, see if any of your neighbors want it. If you don't have neighbors, check with your local cancer ward to see if they have a program where you can cook a meal for a family or something. It doesn't have to be a long-standing commitment, either.

As others have mentioned, though, you should probably talk to a therapist, or see your doctor. This kind of behavior is pretty common among people who have depression (myself included). Not saying that's you, but it's kind of a red flag.

Best of luck! :)
posted by joebakes at 5:26 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think all of the above is good advice but I notice that you describe the behavior not as happening when you're sitting around at home doing absolutely nothing, but when you're trying to study at home. It sounds like you're using getting up and going to the fridge to break up the monotony of studying, which I totally, totally get, but it also suggests to me that you're not using your study time efficiently.

Are you familiar with the Pomodoro technique? I like to use Tomato Timer -- it helps me stay energized and on task, and then to take breaks that are actually restorative, rather than running back and forth to the fridge to eat spoonfuls of peanut butter because chemistry is boring (happened to someone I know... not me... a friend).
posted by telegraph at 5:49 AM on November 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

If I were your therapist, I would be extremely concerned not about what you're eating but about the level of anxiety and fear that any thoughts about food seem to be causing you.

As a random person on the internet, I would strongly urge you to consult someone at your school's counseling center, or an outside therapist. A lot of people channel their anxiety and sense of helplessness or lack of control into controlling or getting anxious about their eating, and changing one's eating patterns rarely changes the underlying anxiety.
posted by jaguar at 6:36 AM on November 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

I wonder if it would decrease your anxiety to decide, first thing in the morning or the night before, what's a reasonable menu for that day, and it can be made up of whatever makes you happy, whether that's three squares or a series of mini-meals sprinkled through the day. Set these aside in a Tupperware tub in the refrigerator. Then at any point during the day all you need to decide is whether you want to get into your day's allowance.

I have no idea whether this would work and hope I'm not suggesting something that would aggravate or bring on an eating disorder. It seems like you're struggling with having no limits on what or when to eat, and this might provide those parameters. (Don't go trying to set a record each day for how small a ration you can give yourself!)
posted by lakeroon at 8:04 AM on November 12, 2014

I'm with jaguar. It sounds like you're having some unpleasant anxiety issues around food--and you already recognize the disordered behaviour--so it sounds like talking to someone professional to tease apart those things might be a good idea.

With that said, would strict (and budget-conscious!) meal planning help? This is a 'shop once, eat all week' plan that needs to you put in some work at the beginning of the week, and then you have meals basically ready for dinner every night. The recipes are predicated on serving 4-6 people, so you can scale them down and/or have a bunch of things ready for healthy breakfasts and lunches. And/or, maybe you could organize a weekly potlucky thing with friends to convene at your place and dine together. (Yes, I know, that doesn't address study time issues). This link, from the same supermarket, provides a template for planning out your meals for the week. Bonus points: this helps you plan shopping, and it includes a snack every day, so you won't have to cut out your grazing behaviour completely (which is hard and doomed to failure), just modify it (much more likely to succeed).

What I'm suggesting is that planning ahead of time may well help you start to avoid the disordered issues you're already seeing--but I really strongly urge that you visit a professional as well.

For portioning, here is the Canada Food Guide on the subject, here's a bit of info on figuring out stuff like chili and whatnot, and here's a convenient and easy way to measure portions using your hands and/or common objects.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:40 AM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I should have added: I want to be clear that I'm not saying you're broken, or 'abnormal' or whatever. Your relationship with food is causing you distress and interfering with your ability to live the way you would like, which is why I think you should see someone professional.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:44 AM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is sort of extreme, but what about getting roommates? I lived with roommates for almost all of my time in graduate school, and I loved the social aspect of it. In your case, it might also help you with some of the 'secrecy' you seem to have around eating -- in that, you only have these unusal/stressful habits when you're eating away from others where they cannot see you.

I also cannot recommend enough making studying an "away from home" activity. I became so much happier and more productive when I made my home a study-free zone. Studying/work for school could happen at my office, at the library, at a cafe, at a friend's house, etc. but once I got home, I was there to relax and be done with my workday. Obviously, everyone works differently! But, you might give this a try for a couple of weeks just to see if it works for you. If you don't want to run into classmates at the library, how about going to a different one? For example, my university had all sorts of 'branch' libraries like an Asian Studies library and an Life Sciences library in addition to the main branch. Could you try going to a branch that has nothing to do with your area of study (i.e. if you're in school for Biology, try studying at the Anthropology library). Or, perhaps check out the public libraries and see if one of them could be a good option?

Finally, I agree with the folks above that seeing a counselor is probably a good idea. I actually think the grazing/snack-y method of eating can be totally fine and healthy IF it's making you happy. But it sounds like you have a lot of emotional issues around eating, and it can't hurt to check in with a pro about them. On the plus side, many universities will have some free appointments at the counseling center, so check out that option. Mine also had free group therapy for eating/food issues (it didn't have to be an "officially diagnosed" eating disorder either).
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:33 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, what works is a sort of "shop once, eat all week" type plan. I plan my meals (and desserts, and snacks) for the week all at once, shop, and then when I have a craving to go off "diet" (in the non-weight loss sense) (and as long as I know I am actually eating enough, I don't deprive myself), I drink water or tea or carbonated water (La Croix, mostly) or eat something healthy like unsweetened coconut flakes.

For me, eating Paleo/Whole30 actually helps a lot because 1) it eliminates carb cravings, which are a huge part of my eat-snack-graze-binge cycle, and 2) it limits my diet sufficiently that I know I'm not going to eat certain things, so it makes meal planning easier and healthier, and I don't feel the urge to eat things that are going to make me gorge. That's just me; if you can handle carbs (since you seem to be able to want to eat freely) then more power to you. But at least 2) might be helpful from a psychological perspective.

When I'm not on low-carb I tend to make myself discrete little meals that I enjoy preparing-- like a sandwich, or sardines on crackers. It's a little ritual and it's enjoyable and I feel full at the end, so why eat more?
posted by stoneandstar at 8:19 PM on December 2, 2014

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