I come from a long line of gardeners. Both my mom and granddad could plant a broomstick and wake up the next morning to a full bloom of roses. They had The Touch which is even better than a Green Thumb.
As kids, we were all expected to help in the garden. At Granddaddy’s that often meant picking the long row of huckleberry bushes. What didn’t get eaten as we picked usually ended up in a cobbler, still one of my favorite desserts.
In our own childhood suburban back yard, there were tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, figs, and whatever else had looked scrumptious on mom’s early spring visit to the garden center. Our job was to help pick the bounty and my sister was notorious for taking a bite out of a tomato just as if it was an apple. She couldn’t wait for that juicy sun-warmed deliciousness.
As an adult, digging in the dirt became one of my own favorite pastimes, a cheaper-than-therapy antidote to Life as well as a provider of food and flowers.
Though not farmers, our relationship with food began with the simple idea that it was something to be grown, or raised in the case of Aunt Alfie’s chickens. My mom, who was an excellent cook, was way ahead of her time, making our yogurt in a time when the rest of South Carolina didn’t know what yogurt was. Junk food was scarce in my childhood home, a tradition I continued with my own girls. We joke that they didn’t even know what a hot dog was until they were old enough to attend birthday parties for other kids.
Food was fun. Food was tasty. Food was good. Food was love.
Not everyone shares that same relationship as evidenced by the state of health and the rate of obesity. People use food for all sorts of reasons other than nutrition – boredom, frustration, cravings, celebrations, loneliness, self-medication - which can cause even a strong person to over-indulge. While I’m not a purist by a long shot (Root Beer Float on a hot summer day? Why yes, I think I will, thank you.), I am keenly aware that a steady diet of treats and junk is a one-way ticket to chronic health problems with all the emotional distress that accompanies them.
As a nation, we have been conditioned to mindlessly consume processed foods and fast foods, to eat on the run rather at the table with family or friends, and to crave flavors like salt and sweet that were rare treats to our ancestors.
The word “diet,” which originally meant nothing more than the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats, has mutated to mean restricting oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food (often icky or odd foods) in order to lose weight or theoretically address a health issue.
For many folks, the word “diet” equals deprivation, an idea straight from most fad diets which are typically about “don’ts” and “shoulds.” Their focus is on taking away pleasures rather than reframing what gives us pleasure.
“Hunger and love are what move the world,” the poet Friedrich Schiller wrote in “The Philosophers,” a poem Freud later quoted in Civilization and Its Discontents. The line seems to imply that Eros, the romantic love that is both the foundation of life and the impetus for civilization, has become hopelessly entangled with hunger. If that’s true, then it’s also the essence of addiction or love gone astray.
Unhealthy, mindless relationship habits can invade all the nooks and crannies of our lives – food, family, friendship, you name it. The key to breaking free is to become more mindful, more conscious, and to begin connecting our choices consciously to the outcomes we prefer and, possibly more importantly, to the real pleasure and love we seek rather than to the instant gratification that paradoxically leaves us both stuffed and starving.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to shift your momentum towards that preferred outcome.
1. Acknowledge that there is a disconnect between what you desire and what you currently have. In order to rewire your brain, you must first realize that its circuits are a bit fried and need a little repair.
2. Ditch the idea of dieting. Now. You are never going to diet again. Instead, you are going to teach yourself that you are worthy of the really good stuff. Dieting is punitive. You are done with punishment, and looking to learn new and constructive ways to reward yourself and show yourself a little love. Dieting tells you that some foods are bad and some are good. It says you are either doing great or failing miserably. This does not sound pleasant or enjoyable and I am very much in favor of pleasant and enjoyable. With mindful eating, you can eat whatever you want, but an important thing happens - the more you tune into what you eat and how you eat, the more particular you become about your choices. And that makes all the difference.
3. Learn to distinguish between your body being truly hungry and in need of nourishment vs. your taste buds screaming for a tasty treat. Your taste buds are like toddlers – if something pops up, they want it. Now. Your taste buds will insist they are starving just as your child will assure you that he/she will perish on the spot if they are not given the desire of their greedy little heart right this minute. They won’t, of course, and neither will you. Start being the parent in this hunger game.
4. Don’t fall into the “dry drunk” trap. In AA lingo, a dry drunk is someone who stays sober through shear willpower without addressing and changing any of the underlying conditions. If food is your drug of choice, dieting and deprivation will only make your craving for that drug unbearable. Instead, woo your relationship with food using tasty nourishment instead of caving to Pavlovian responses to unknown triggers.
5. Janet Jackson taught us all the value of the 5 second delay. In changing your relationship with food, those 5 seconds can be focused on asking a few good, mindful questions. What’s really going on? Am I stressed? Bored? Watching TV and munching on autopilot? What will eating this really do for me? How will I feel after eating it? Will it be a moment of pseudo-pleasure followed by hours of beating myself up? Will it be a moment of guilt followed by more guilt? Or will it be a moment of savoring followed by hours of satisfaction? How do I want to feel in 10 minutes? In 10 hours? In 10 days? Will eating this bring me closer to that feeling or push me farther away? Give yourself a moment. Practice awareness. Pay attention. Yep, you can make that entire circuit in about 5 seconds flat.
6. Distract yourself. Play with your cat or dog. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Surf the web. Read a book. Whatever it is that jazzes you, do it for a few minutes. It may be that you just need a change, a pause to refresh. Food doesn’t have to be your kneejerk go-to response.
7. For some folks, writing down everything they eat or keeping a journal work really well. For others, that’s just drudgery that destines the new direction to failure. Avoid new practices that feel like punishment. Your goal is to learn to love great new habits, beliefs, and practices. It is NOT to replace old bad habits that drag you down with new habits that also drag you down.
8. Get off autopilot. Stop sneaking around. Some overeaters genuinely don’t realize that they are shoveling it in while others binge in secret then suffer the guilt and shame. Mindful eaters pay attention and make decisions they can live with out in the open. They also understand and accept that they’re human and bound to slip sometimes. When that happens, they forgive themselves and move on. When you fall off the horse, you dust yourself off and get right back up. Such is Life.
9. Become aware of the Overeating Merry-Go-Round. Beating yourself up only makes you feel worse, which leads you to soothe yourself with...overeating. The vicious circle looks like this: overeat, feel bad and guilty, criticize yourself, eat to soothe yourself, repeat. Compassion and forgiveness, on the other hand, stop this cycle by helping you take that 5 second pause to examine the entire sequence rather than just judging it and yourself.
10. Experiment. Instead of focusing on depriving yourself of favorite foods and go-to snacks, become an adventurer. Try new tastes and combinations. Actively seek out new favorites. Make it a game to find the yummy stuff you’ve been missing. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find new treats. (One of my personal favorite recipes is below. You’re welcome.) You do not have to become a rabbit and exist on one lettuce leaf a day.
11. Cook at home. OK, so you’re not a gourmet chef. Big deal. There are tons of simple recipes that taste fabulous. Engaging in the preparation process brings you closer to the experience of food as both pleasure and nourishment. If food were a person, it would want you to spend loving quality time with it.
Ultimately, your food choices are all about giving love to your body so your body will love you in return. We teach a four-step process for connecting with your romantic soulmate based on the principle of The Giver becomes the Receiver©. that applies just as much in this context. To change your relationship with food, and ultimately with your physical self, the four steps go like this:
1. Make a list of exactly what you want in a soulmate relationship with your body. In this case, it’s a list of what you want for yourself physically. Weight, energy level, strength, health.
2. Make a second list of what your body is looking for in a soulmate relationship with you and the fuel you give it. More high quality food? Less food in general? Better exercise and rest to help digest and process that food? Be brutally honest. This isn’t about what you want to give, it’s about what your body wants to receive.
3. Cross reference. Where are the disconnects between the outcome you want, your current choices, and what your body really wants to receive? This becomes your personalized road map drawing you towards your preferred future. No punishment. No guilt. No criticism.
4. Get going. Get creative. Make it fun.
If you want a short cut, this is it. Change your mind, change your relationship. Change your relationship, change your results. You are already beautiful and that gorgeous healthy vibrant body it just waiting on you to set it free.
Strawberry Yogurt Parfait
3/4 cup fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced
½ - 1 teaspoon fresh mint, finely sliced
6 oz. regular or vanilla Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
Stir Strawberries and mint together. Stir yogurt and honey together. Layer in parfait glass or pile strawberries on top of yogurt in a pretty bowl. (Presentation makes you feel special. You are special.)
Garnish with more mint, a tablespoon of granola, or even a tablespoon of dark chocolate nibs.
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