Over the course of my dietitian career I’ve met with hundreds of individuals, many of who came to see me because they wanted to lose weight. Many of them had tried multiple diets, only to ‘fail’ again and again. Can you relate? The problem with diets is they’re generally not sustainable: typically they involve you making drastic changes to your eating habits that leave you feeling deprived, hungry, and/or generally miserable. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I’m not a fan of diets. So instead I work with individuals to help them make changes that are sustainable [Drs. Yoni Freedhoff & Arya Sharma wrote in their book “Best Weight” that your ‘best weight’ is the weight you can achieve and maintain while still enjoying your life (paraphrased)]. I spend a fair bit of time talking through the ‘what’ of healthy eating (what to eat, when, how much, etc), but I also talk about the ‘why‘ of healthy eating, which I truly believe is the missing link for so many people trying to change their eating habits, whether to lose weight, manage a health condition, or to simply feel better.
It’s all too easy to overlook the ‘why’ of eating:
- Why do I eat the way I do?
- Why do I gravitate to ice cream or wine when I’m stressed?
- Why am I not making healthy eating a priority?
- Why do I sabotage myself by constantly bringing junk food into my home?
If we never dig into these questions we’re unlikely (in my opinion) to actually sustain our new & improved eating habits. This is because we’re not actually getting to the root of the issue (just like if you just mow over the weeds in your yard and never take the time to do the hard work of pulling out their roots — they’ll just keep coming back again and again).
We eat for LOTS of reasons: hunger, happiness, anger, anxiety, stress, frustration, boredom, tiredness, thirst, celebration,…. the list goes on and on. Therefore, it’s necessary to ask ourselves “Why do I want to eat right now? Am I truly hungry or is there something else going on?”. Let’s play out a scenario… Your doctor recently told you that you have prediabetes. Your mom and grandma both have type 2 diabetes and the idea of developing diabetes freaks you out. So, you decide to get your act together and start eating better. You stop buying junk food and start packing a healthy lunch every day to bring to work. You swap out your daily vanilla latte for herbal tea. You cut back on the amount of pop you drink and choose water instead. Things are going great: you’re feeling way better physically and mentally, your pants are starting to fit a bit looser, and you feel good knowing you’re improving your health day by day. But then something happens. You have a rough day at work and end up sitting on the couch binge-watching Friends and devouring a giant bowl of ice cream. You feel guilty, mad at yourself, and vow that tomorrow will be better. However, tomorrow brings its own challenges: your kid throws a temper tantrum while you’re trying to get ready for work and before you know it you find yourself with a grande vanilla latte and pastry in hand. Your commute home is more frustrating than usual and you arrive home feeling mentally and physically exhausted, pour yourself a big glass of wine, and order pizza for dinner. The next day you try to “pull up your socks” but have a tough time trying to motivate yourself to get back to how you were previously eating.
Does this sound familiar? I’m sure many of you can relate to this. Bad days at work, temper tantrums, and frustrating rush hour commutes are a part of life, though, so we need to figure out how to handle these situations without our healthy eating efforts constantly falling through the cracks. I’ve found that these five things can be extremely helpful in this:
- Become away of why you eat what you eat. For instance, when you find yourself craving ice cream after a rough day, ask yourself “why am I wanting this?”.
- Ask yourself why you’re reaching for those less healthy or unhealthy foods. Are you craving ice cream because it’ll give you a sense of comfort? Do you crave that vanilla latte and pastry because it makes you feel like you’re getting a little break during your crazy day? Do you feel like you “need” that extra glass of wine any time you’re feeling tired or had a fight with your partner?
- Identify the common themes. I’ve found that for many people there are one or two reasons in particular that derail their efforts, for instance one client of mine recently realized that whenever she’s bored she gravitates to junk food, for another it’s stress- if she feels overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done or has a fight with her partner or kid, she makes a beeline for the pantry. What is the common emotional trigger for you?
- Find non-food ways to deal with those emotions. The truth is, no food and no amount of food will truly ‘fix’ those emotions. A food might make us feel better while we’re eating it, but that feeling doesn’t last. Using the examples above, if boredom is a trigger for you, then whenever you find yourself feeling bored and your mind starts drifting towards junk food, intentionally do something to make yourself not bored (go clean the bathroom, throw in a load of laundry, put your shoes on and go for a quick walk). If stress seems to be a common thread, then make a list of non-food things you can do to better manage that stress: perhaps texting a close friend, getting outside, reading a good book, or seeking out a psychologist for an outside perspective and expert guidance.
- Implement these strategies often so you form a new habit. If feeling stressed is the precursor to making less-than-ideal food choices and you’ve now come up with non-food solutions for managing your stress, begin to implement them – and be consistent. I’ve heard it said that it takes 21 days to form a habit, so keep at it!
Once we do the messy work of dealing with the ‘why’ behind our eating habits implementing our knowledge becomes WAY easier. I’d love to hear your experience with this! Comment below!