I have high cognitive dietary restraint, and it sucks
March 15, 2017 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Cognitive dietary restraint is the "perceived ongoing effort to limit dietary intake to manage body weight"... and that's me. I'm never on a diet, but I'm also always trying to not get fat. I know I'm not fat, but I'm several pounds above my baseline weight, and I constantly feel potentially lumpy/awkward/ugly/like I am taking up too much space unless I am physically hungry and my clothes aren't too tight. I don't know how to get rid of this feeling and eat/enjoy food like a normal person.

I don't think that anybody watching me eat would notice-- this is just one of those things that happens in my head. Like, everything I eat is somehow this weighty decision and some days I have arbitrary-ish rules and other days I don't, and some days I get stressed about having to eat with people or eating too late in the day or whatever and it's all really silly. I'm not malnourished and I'm normal-weight, and I don't have frank body dysmorphia-- I just always feel worried that I might be on the verge of having a food baby because I just generally don't trust my body.

I've had periods of time (usually when I am happier) where I don't have this, and my weight seems to naturally go back down to my baseline weight, but when I'm unhappy and weirdly controlling about food, my weight won't move even though I feel like I semi-consciously try to eat less. (I don't weigh myself, I just know based on how my clothing fits).

For example, one time I was working abroad and was paid in cash, in a currency that I simply had to use right there and then (it was useless to change it otherwise, so I basically had money that I could use in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion, and this discouraged me from being cheap). I ate lunch with colleagues every day, had a solid, complete meal at the cafeteria, and didn't think about dietary restrictions at all, or the price of the food. The portion sizes were basically given to me and I always cleaned my plate without a second thought. I didn't feel hungry but I also didn't feel bloated and I also think I was mostly happy during those months. My weight normalized (I lost about five pounds). I also remember that in college, I was on a mandatory unlimited meal plan and ate most if not all of my meals with friends, and I ate (actually, significantly more than I do now) without restrictions. Then I started grad school and lived alone and wasn't on meal plan, and while I'm fine with cooking and stuff, I just ... could never really figure out how to feed myself. I couldn't gauge whether I was hungry or thirsty or full and I kept picking my food apart and deliberately throwing food away to keep myself from getting to it and... I don't know. It's not an full eating disorder but it's just like this ... background stress I've had for a while now. I hate to sound dramatic, but I don't feel like I own my own body and I feel detached from knowing what I need/want/deserve; detached from the present, and it plays out in these eating attitudes.

Can you point me in ... some direction... or ... give me some resources... or even just some encouragement, if you've ever dealt with this? I've heard of intuitive eating, and I know I need to adopt this to some degree but I feel like this is also tied to so many different aspects of my life and personality that it's hard to know where to begin. As I go about my daily activities, I always feel like I am depriving myself to some degree in some realm, be it money/buying things I want (or need), dressing myself in a way that I am comfortable and proud of, using resources, asking for help from someone else, etc. ... and I guess all the "ick" manifests in the form of exhausting eating habits? I'm not depressed, but probably not entirely happy, and I think grad school is stressful and lonely.

I feel so worn down by this feeling of waking up every day feeling lumpy and vaguely worried that I've potentially eaten too much. It never really goes away and I just feel so, so sick and lonely with this constantly in the back of my mind. I feel embarrassed (especially because the whole society loves women-who-eat-everything-and-never-get-fat trope; high cognitive dietary restraint is basically the totally not-fun opposite of that), but just mostly sad about this. Cognitive dietary restraint is associated with menstrual irregularities and higher cortisol levels, as well as reduced peak bone density, and I already know that I have two of the former. This is really affecting my quality of life.

I wonder if the solution is to just finish grad school (which will be soon) and maybe this will resolve? Maybe once I move in with my significant other instead of being in a different time zone from him? I'm in therapy (psychodynamic) and it seems like it's at least not hurting (although we have not specifically talked about food), but I'm also going to be moving away soon after I finish grad school, which worries me because I might have to start all over again with a new therapist.

Somewhat related previous askme: here
posted by fernweh to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You're describing a pattern of kinda-intrusive kinda-obsessive thought that is certainly toeing around the edges of disordered eating (but also attached to non-food things so maybe the mechanism is more important than the object) that I don't believe has never been measurably successfully treated with Freudian methodologies, so maybe you should take advantage of your upcoming changes to find a CBT-based therapist, maybe one with specific experience with not just anxiety but intrusive/obsessive/compulsive spectra and eating disorders.

And you also need a physical with bloodwork. Make that part of your "getting a new gyn" process when you move.

It's not to say stress can't cause this, and grad school is stressful. But so is life, frequently, so if you're having a disordered response to high stress you should probably address it so you've got tools for dealing with the next hard thing. And you also need to rule out the sort of physical ailments that can screw with your neurobiology.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:36 PM on March 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've been there - for me it has been because of stress and also feeling like other things in life are out of my control. I too am totally embarrassed about feeling this way for the reasons you mentioned. You asked for encouragement - I used to feel like this most of the time and now rarely/never. So that's good!

Things that helped for me:
1. Doing athletic activities that require me to fuel my body. Not just "working out" but more goal-oriented, fun exercise like bike commuting or skiing. I didn't consider myself athletic so this was not something I ever thought I would do. But I notice it makes me feel grateful for my body and makes me eat more naturally and intuitively.
2. Getting more involved with food and ingredients. For example, trying to recreate something really amazing I tasted in another country. Buying a new vegetable and learning how to prepare it. Thinking about food as an experience. Having a standard set of breakfasts I look forward to every morning and enjoy with a good book & coffee.
3. Enjoying food with my significant other / living with him. You also noted that some of your healthier times involved eating with others. Though I realize this part of my life also coincides with my life stabilizing in general, so that may be part of the explanation.
4. Getting rid of clothes that are vaguely uncomfortable unless I'm on the skinny end of my normal. There were just some clothes that always gave me that irrational chubby feeling. Gone.
5. Pursuing things that take up more brainspace and challenge me. I want the rest of my life to be fun and engaging so I don't even have the bandwidth to think about things like this. Volunteering. Learning a new skill. Reading a book for fun.
posted by beyond_pink at 12:44 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi there! You are describing me all through college, and thereafter whenever I started getting a bit fearful or anxious about my life. Right down to the feeling like my body is a separate thing that I don't own, and depriving myself in other arenas as well.

Like you, when I'm very content and otherwise occupied it goes away (though I may or may not actually experience weight changes - I don't always lose weight when I'm eating what I please, though that may also be a factor of age.) It also went away when I spiraled down from mild anxiety/depression to a seriously full-blown depressive episode, when I simply had no energy to devote to it. Obviously I encourage you to pursue the former path rather than the latter! And I encourage you to pursue this in therapy. But working toward contentment and flow state is a thing you can concretely do even before grad school ends/therapy progresses.

Seconding exercise. It is wonderful for reminding me of my ownership over my body, generating a sense of flow, and showing my irrational brain that my body does in fact respond to, like, inputs. It also works off excess anxiety up to a point.

Seconding also going through your clothes and removing those that contribute to your anxiety. If you need your clothes to feel a little loose, then buy clothes that fit a little loosely! Heck, I have been known to buy the same jeans in two sizes so that I have a slightly looser pair for days when I just do not want to deal with that feeling of constriction, whether it's grounded in reality or pms bloat or purely a construct of my brain that day.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2017

I don't have a global answer, but something that popped out for me is that on two occasions when you were happy eating, you were eating socially under circumstances where you weren't thinking about the cost of the food (meal plan, weird-currency budget). That seems like two things -- if there were a way to get back to that cost-unconstrained feeling, that might help, and deliberately arranging to eat socially somehow might help too.

You're in grad school -- could you buy a meal plan, or is that just unavailable?
posted by LizardBreath at 1:01 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wait a minute, that isn't how we are supposed to feel?

I joke of course. I've thought about this a lot. I think we are absolutely inundated by FOOD MESSAGES - low carb / paleo / raw / intermittent fasting - of how we should eat to be virtuous and good. On the internet, on TV, in pop culture. And on top of that there is so much choice! If you go to the grocery store for coffee you can buy just black coffee, or almond milk and stevia, or cream and sugar, or sugar free creamer or fat free creamer in powder or liquid in 15 flavors, or coconut milk creamer etc etc etc. And that's just coffee! Its decision fatigue heavily steeped in Judgement - if I eat THIS, what kind of person am I?

So I think the times in the past you've been able to avoid these thoughts are when you're options were drastically slashed. Lunch in the cafeteria with friends - what time to eat was removed from the equation, how fast to eat, and what to eat was a much shorter list.

I definitely feel you. When I was in my 20s I had no car and got all my groceries from a Co-op within walking distance and it was so much simpler. These days I eat the same thing every single day because the monotony is better than driving myself crazy with choices. Is there a little local market you like? Could you pledge to get all your food from there for say, 6 months?
posted by pintapicasso at 3:20 PM on March 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Whoa, I never heard of cognitive dietary restraint, but that really encapsulates years of experiences I've had. I'm losing about 50lbs of weight I put on due to college and traumatic experiences, and trying to build better habits. I've lost about 25lbs of it so far.

- Keep up the therapy, that's good
- Have you considered doing mealprep? The /r/MealPrepSunday has been really helpful for me, and it's helped solidify a routine in my life where I know that I can prepare good, nourishing, loving food for myself that helps remove anxiety from the rest of my week. Having pre-portioned food that you can control and make healthy recipes for can cut down significantly on the decision fatigue and having to make any decisions.
- A lot of this sounds like overwhelming anxiety that requires re-directing your attention and focus to other things. Are there underlying issues and stress that you are working through? Are you being kind to yourself during it?
- This is where my class and location privilege comes in, but I go to one grocery store within walking distance, and only buy what I know I can eat for the week, and just eat all of that for the week. I've been eating a lot of low glycemic bread and making toasted open face sandwiches with lots of vegetables and some high quality fats (avocado, goat cheese), because I'm pre-diabetic. It was after reading The Pre-Diabetes Book that I stopped calorie counting and decided to focus on eating fulfilling foods that I knew wouldn't screw up my blood sugar, and that also made it easier for me to eat smaller portions and have less decision fatigue. If I am tired and don't want to eat, I simply go out to eat.
posted by yueliang at 3:45 PM on March 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I had a long period of this after the most active phase of an on-again off-again eating disorder which is now mostly resolved. It was a real headfucker - after all, I was still thinking about food constantly and still fairly seriously restricting what I would eat, but without any of the giddy, seductive rapid weight loss that had come with even harsher restriction previously. Probably also because that initial phase had completely shafted my metabolism and my body was clinging on to anything I put in it. It felt lousy and I spent a couple of years in that state.

I always felt too fat (even at my lowest weight) to properly engage with formal eating disorder treatment/resources, so I had to feel my way around recovery-related stuff kinda clumsily and on my own. Honestly the only thing that really stuck was learning intuitive eating really slowly. I read through the resources on Ellyn Satter's site, including the ones around how to feed children; didn't do anything with it at first, just thought about it.

Thought about how it didn't feel possible to apply those principles to myself because [bunch of bullshit fundamentally rooted in self-worth issues]. Thought consciously rather than subconsciously about how fucked up my family's attitude to food and bodies was; how much they failed me compared to the kind, nurturing theories I was reading about feeding children from within the intuitive eating community. Thought about what I hated about my current behavioural state (fixating on food all the the time, often feeling hungry/deprived, fear that I'd never be able to eat "normally", whatever that means). Thought about what I was afraid of (changes to my body, the idea that I would just eat uncontrollably until I died if I let myself eat whatever I want). Just sat with it and thought. Again, this was probably over a period of several years, with some periods where I gradually relaxed some of the dietary restraint and some periods of eating disorder relapse. It was uneven for a long time.

The great thing I found about intuitive eating, though, is that it's forgiving. More forgiving than my body is if I'm starving and denying it, certainly. I didn't do it perfectly from the beginning and that was okay. I tried and failed and tried again. I ate a load of stuff I didn't actually really want to just because I was allowed to at last, and the being allowed to felt magical, but a lot of the brownies and desserts weren't actually very good just made me feel like shit. There are so many foods that people who habitually deny themselves (and that is a lot of people; maybe half of the women in my workplace at least) think of as inherently desirable which just are not that desirable when you're actually allowed to eat whatever you like whenever you like. I can tell the difference now between some cake I am actually going to enjoy and some cake which is just dried-out crap with terrible frosting that I want to eat because it's there and I might never let myself eat cake again.

I can leave food! This is a thing that I was never able to do before, either because my parents were starving me or because I was starving myself. I can eat some of a thing and think "eh, I'm done with this". Or "I know I'm going to feel gross if I eat the rest of it and I would rather not eat it than feel gross; I can come back to this type of food any time I like, I don't have to finish it now just because I've allowed myself to start it". Gross as in my body doesn't feel good because I filled it with sugar, not gross as in poor body image gross. I eat food because I want to and because I think it will make me feel good, not because the food has moral value in society or because I perceive it as forbidden and want to sneak around my own rules. I've found I tend to gravitate to high protein, high fat & whole grains now that the entire spectrum of foods is available to me - and I definitely don't strongly crave the foods I saw as particularly high value (dessert, salty snacks) when I was restricting.

It took a lot of years and a lot of failures (over-restricting and over-indulging) along the way to get to this point. I have still not mastered it 100%, but I'm so much better at knowing whether I actually want to eat something or not. And my weight has basically been totally stable since I started doing this, which was not the case at all when I was drifting between restricting/high restraint/occasional binges on "forbidden" stuff. My body image is still not amazing, but freeing up space from fixating on food all the time has shoved those issues into a place where they don't dominate my life nearly as much as they used to. I do an okay job of feeding my body and we have an uneasy-but-low-conflict truce these days.

That was a lot of rambling about myself, but I think it might be valuable for you to think about some of the following things. Just think about them; you don't even have to commit to doing anything about them if you don't want to:

Where did your ideas about your body and the way you eat come from? Are there any people who have influenced you in one direction or another, and what were those influences like? What would you like to get done if you had more time & energy because you weren't spending as much time fixating on food and body stuff? If you read more about intuitive eating, what resonates and what feels scary? What are you most afraid of if you let yourself eat intuitively, and can you imagine getting yourself in a place where you can have that conversation with yourself and maybe think "yeah, that does sound frightening, but I want to try it anyway"? What would you eat for [next meal] if anything was on the table? (and see if the answer to that one changes over time) etc.
posted by terretu at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

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