For years, I’ve had a page-a-day calendar on my desk: flowers, landscapes, shoes. This year I chose a Paris calendar (I hope to make a trip back there in 2021). But I hadn’t counted on pictures of food. Of course, I know that Paris, like most European cities, is famous for food. I’ve been there quite a bit and eaten quite a bit. But I just didn’t make the connection with the calendar until pastries started showing up and breads and cakes and window displays.
Looking at foods I don’t eat anymore is just not a good idea for me. I was never a cookbook reader or someone who watches cooking or baking shows and I’m glad for that. But I don’t need any kind of reminders of what I used to binge on. So now when one of those calendar pages pops up, I move right on to the next day. I don’t need visual triggers teasing my memory.
The answer may surprise you. First, it’s not setting a realistic goal. In fact, it’s not setting a goal of any kind although that can be helpful. Second, it’s not in how you do things although that too is helpful. No, the most powerful way to change a habit is to change our identity around the habit.
This idea comes from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and I love it. If I continue to think of myself as an overeater or someone who can’t stay away from sugar or someone who struggles with food choices, then it will be much harder for me to change my behavior in the long run. Oh, I’ll still be able to diet and lose weight. But my chances of gaining it back, of going back to the old behaviors that put some or most of that weight on me are high.
Three years ago, I gave up sugar and I changed my identity around that. I don’t eat sugar. I tell anyone who asks. But I didn’t change my identity around being an overeater. So even though I haven’t eaten any sugar in years and I have kept off 50 pounds of weight loss, I’ve put 25 back on through overeating. It’s time for me now to change that part of my identity as well.
What food-related identity could you change?
I’ve long known that our conversations help create our reality. What I say, especially about myself, confirms my beliefs, and my beliefs have a powerful influence on my actions.
In his really helpful book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about this in relationship to the habits we want to change. How we speak about those habits is powerful. He gives the example of two smokers trying to quit who are offered a cigarette. One says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” The other says, “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” Clear argues that the person declaring his nonsmoker status has a much stronger chance of changing his behavior than the person who declares the struggle.
How do you talk to others about your relationship with food? “I should stop eating sugar” or “I don’t eat sugar”? “I’m trying to give up dessert” or “I don’t eat dessert”?
Something changed for me when I started telling people that I don’t eat sugar. I affirmed for myself in my conversations what I wanted for myself. That has helped me stay abstinent for three and a half years.
What change in your food conversation could you make?
One of the things that struck me most about Stephen Guise’s very helpful book called Mini Habits for Weight Loss is a critical few paragraphs about shame and weight loss. His point is a simple one. If we feel ashamed of what or how we eat or how much we weigh or what we look like, those negative feelings make it very hard to use food in a healthy way. Instead we use it to punish ourselves for bad behavior or to numb out from those bad feelings. I know that when I’m in shame around my body or food, I can go from zero to f–k it in a nanosecond around food. Guise says that coming from confidence and pride in our efforts can make all the difference in how successful we are at staying on our food plan.
While guilt (feeling bad about something we’ve done to harm another) can be useful (making amends), shame about ourselves is rarely helpful at all. When I’m in shame around food (just had two cookies, got on the scale, had a third helping), the shame doesn’t make me stop. It’s just the opposite. I already feel terrible and I don’t know how to stop feeling terrible, so if I eat more, I won’t feel anything.
Living in a shame and blame culture the way we do, fasting from shame isn’t easy, but it may be one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies.
What might help you give up shame around food and your body?
I am one of the luckiest people I know. Why? Because I have an exercise buddy. About 12 years ago, I convinced my backyard neighbor to start going to the gym with me. I wasn’t coming from a place of I love it and you’ll love it too. Far from it. I was coming from I don’t like it but I want to be healthier and I need support to do that.
I’m so grateful she said yes and since then, with some exceptions for out-of-town travel and the occasional cold virus, we’ve been going 2-4 times a week all these years. We don’t actually work out together. We drive over together, do separate routines on the treadmill and weight machines and stretching mats, and then come home. Recently, we’ve started doing water aerobics one day a week.
Do we love it now? No, not really. But even though we groan abut, we don’t mind going. We feel better afterwards and we are committed to being ambulatory at 90. Have we lost weight doing it? Not much. But we are strong and a lot fitter than we would be without, and we both look better for it. All that’s worth a lot.
How might you find an exercise buddy?
Although many of us want this to be complicated, it’s not. And it’s not low-calorie, or low-fat, or low-carb. It’s not about that obsession with macronutrients that fuels more products out of the food (aka obesity industry). No, the most reliable food plan is natural, whole foods prepared simply. While this may not be what our minds or our mouths currently desire, accustomed as we are to more complicated and hyper-palatable dishes, it’s definitely what our bodies want most. Whole foods, prepared simply.
- Whole fruits, eaten raw.
- Fresh vegetables, eaten raw or lightly steamed or roasted with minimal oil. Frozen vegetables are okay if they’re naked.
- Eggs and clean meats without chemical additives or antibiotics
- Whole grains, processed as little as possible (think shredded wheat vs. frosted flakes or steel cut oats vs. granola). Most flour isn’t a good idea because it doesn’t come by itself, except in whole wheat pasta. Brown rice is better than white.
- Just water. And lots of it. Green tea can be helpful too.
- Nuts and seeds as unprocessed as possible; nut butters are okay if they have nothing but salt added.
- Beans, especially those you cook yourself.
- Clean dairy products (curiously, moderate intake of full-fat dairy products showed less weight gain than low-fat products in two large studies (one of men and one of women).
- No chemicals, preservatives, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, unnecessary oils. Read labels. If it gets long or complicated, you’re looking at a processed food.
Most of us will not over-eat these whole, natural foods because they satisfy our bodies in ways that processed and sugared foods won’t. Of course, an immediate overhaul of your kitchen and cooking habits is probably not feasible. But this is a great direction to move in.
I recently read an interesting article that reported on sleep habits and weight loss in a small study (10 people). Sleeping less than six hours a night caused the participants to gain weight but when they slept seven to nine hours a night, they didn’t gain weight and some even lost weight. An interesting feature of this study is that they used the same 10 people for both groups. They all ate the same thing and for part of the study, they slept less, and for part of the study, they slept more.
In a much larger study (more than 1000 people), most of those who slept under six hours weighed considerably more than those who slept eight hours or more.
Chronic lack of sleep makes us hungrier and we tend to make poorer food choices. If you don’t sleep well or long enough, it may be time to take that sleep study or change your habits to promote more rest.
Yes, you read that right. I’ve been reading studies of how people regain the weight they’ve lost or struggle with losing in the first place and I found some interesting things. They may not make you happy but attending to these could make you slimmer.
- Consume artificial sweeteners. While these chemicals do not contain calories and there is no irrefutable evidence they cause cancer, research is showing they do contribute to weight gain. First, they stimulate the brain to want real sweets (their sweetness isn’t satisfying to the brain), keeping the cravings for sugary foods alive in us. Second, they increase the risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, playing havoc with our ability to lose weight. Letting them go once and for all is the best approach. It can be impossible to lose and keep the weight off if you keep consuming them.
- Eat ultra-processed foods like power bars, cookies, crackers, chips, bottled salad dressings and other sauces, and most foods with a long shelf life. There’s a big difference between how our bodies process and react to whole, natural foods and how they process and react to ultra-processed foods. While these processed foods may start out with real ingredients, most of them are altered beyond recognition. The heated and chemically transformed flour, sugar, fruit, etc., does not have much nutrition that’s available to the body. It does, however, have a lot of calories and chemicals to confuse the body’s metabolism further.
- Consume foods made with high-fructose corn syrup or soybean oil. Neither of these laboratory-made “foods” is good for us. Our bodies don’t like them and they provoke inflammation in us.
Reading labels and not consuming these foods can go a long way to getting us the healthy, slimmer bodies we want.
A friend was telling me recently that she was having cravings for comfort food (mac and cheese, meat loaf, grilled cheese sandwiches). She’d been having a rough few weeks and these foods from her childhood were calling to her. I realized as I listened to her talk that most foods are comfort foods for me. Not just those high-fat kid foods but anything I eat in order to comfort myself.
Food as comfort is not a good idea for me. As I mentioned a few posts back, I have to cultivate other effective soothers for those times when I’m sad or lonely or unhappy or stressed. The more I can remove emotional connections from what I eat, the better off I am. This isn’t easy as many of our memories are associated with food and being fed. I just have to find non-food ways to feel comfortable and while that takes more effort than food does, it’s a better route to what I want.
What is your relationship with comfort foods?
In the course I’m taking on purpose and vocation, we have been examining the role of the ancestors in our lives. In my immediate family, my father welcomed my birth and my mother not so much (she was still grieving the loss of the daughter before me). I can see how this has given me an ambiguous feeling about myself and my place in the world. I can also see how this given me an ambiguous relationship with welcoming and being welcomed.
Yet for real healing around food and body to happen for me, I have to welcome both the problems and the solutions. I have to welcome myself just as I am and at the same time welcome the possibility of how I would like to be. I have to welcome the difficulty, the cravings, honor them, and let them go rather than responding to them.
What in your life needs a deeper welcome?