I recently heard of a study in which a group of French people and a group of Americans were asked what the words “chocolate cake” evoked in them. For the French, chocolate cake meant *celebration*! For the Americans it meant guilt. It made me sad to hear this – thinking of so many of us who are unable to simply embrace the celebration and deliciousness of a chocolate cake (or whatever) without the guilt.
Shockingly, I for one, can do that.
Years ago, I wrote Savor – as a look at how far I’ve come from my years of shame-riddled binge eating and dieting.
Now, for those of you who haven’t read Savor, I will tell you this: in my dark years from 13 to 28, I was someone who could tell you exactly how many calories were in a corn versus flour tortilla, a small apple, an 8 oz. glass of skim milk. And pretty much everything else. But I was also someone who – when I was off the wagon – would whip up a batch “snails” (pie dough filled with cinnamon, butter, and brown sugar), and eat them all before anyone else got home, which generally meant they were rushed hot out of the oven and into my mouth, searing the skin on the inside of my cheek and tongue.
I’ve eaten cake and pie – even other people’s leftovers from my waitressing days – right out of the trash. I’ve poured Comet on cheesecake I’ve thrown away to keep myself from going in after it. I’ve made myself throw up and then I’ve gone after more. I’ve taken food that did not belong to me from people I lived with. Those were some incredibly bleak days, er, years, I’ll tell you what.
None of my friends knew what was going on. I hid it all quite well.
In short, I know of which I speak when I talk about the exhausting battle and the shame and the seemingly never-ending cycle of self-deprivation and self-loathing.
And now – well, now I am truly on the other side.
As I sat down to write this, I thought of all the formerly forbidden foods in the house that I truly could not give a shit about now. There are s’more makings, at least one kind of ice cream, a tub of organic chocolate chip cookie dough, two – I think – jars of salted caramel, and I think a bar of dark chocolate. Oh, and cookies – at least two kinds of Newman’s cookies. Maybe more. (Most of this is for the kids’ dessert. Unlike the home I grew up in, I all but insist the kids have dessert each night – if they’ve eaten a good dinner – so that there is nothing forbidden/terribly alluring about it.)
It’s been nearly 17 years since my last binge. And so I want to tell you how I got here. It’s all really pretty simple, so I’ll keep it simple. And it is basically a distillation of Geneen Roth’s work.
It is all pretty much an exercise in paying attention – to yourself, your feelings, your body and its needs – and of kindness. And in stripping away any idea of yourself as “good” or “bad” based on what you put in your mouth – or of foods as being “good” or “bad.” (Poor chocolate cake. It gets such a bad rap.) And of thinking of food as a way to nourish yourself – to nourish your body. And of food as a celebration of life.
Now, first things first. If you’re going to do this, no more mean or negative self-talk. You know what I’m talking about right? Here are some examples: “God, you look like a pig.” “Jesus, look at those thighs!” “You know this is isn’t gonna work, and you’re just gonna get fatter, right?” “You’re an idiot.” “God, are you stupid.” “This is the stupidest thing you’ve come up with so far.” “You’re disgusting.”
First, recognize that, well, if it’s something you would NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS SAY TO SOMEONE ELSE, you don’t get to say it to yourself. You just don’t. I forbid you. You have to be ferociously on your own side. Even if you have to fake it at first. It will happen for real, I promise. And now this goes for all aspects of your life. So when that shitty little voice starts to speak up about how you are never going to get that dream job, or promotion, you have to defend yourself, as you would defend anyone else. You say, “You know, that’s not helpful. Don’t you say that to me.” I know this sounds crazy – but I swear to god it works. (In the last 17 years I can think of only one occasion when I let those old ugly voices in. It was so jarring that I wrote about it here. And I wrote about bouncing back from it here.)
Second, no more self-deprivation. No diets. Like, never again. All those sugar-free, gluten-free, whatever-free diets? They’re an exercise in self-deprivation. Self-deprivation is harmful. It requires you to put foods (and yourself) into buckets of what’s “good” and “bad.” This is so important that I’m going to say it again: No More Self-Deprivation. You want a life of abundance, not deprivation. (Duh.)
Third, you have to strip away the allure of the foods you love but don’t allow yourself to eat. How do you do this? By allowing yourself unfettered access to them on the condition that you actually notice you’re eating them. That you actually enjoy them.
This is very different than what people might call “just giving up and eating whatever the fuck you want.”
The difference? The paying attention part.
When I started down this road, I used to carry Reese’s peanut butter cups and mini Snickers bars with me everywhere. I had bags of them in my home and carried them with me in my purse. I could have them whenever I wanted – on ONE condition: I had to stop and savor and enjoy the experience. This is a big deal, so I’ll say it again: eat whatever the thing is that you covet but do it in a way that you can actually savor and enjoy it. Sit down. Pay attention. Breathe. Taste it. Experience what it is to eat it. When you allow yourself the pleasure of the thing – guess what? – it winds up being a much more satisfying experience. And … when it’s a satisfying experience, you need less of it. I promise. After the first few rounds of cookies and milk (or whatever), it gets … old. Truly. I couldn’t tell you the last time I thought of or wanted a Reese’s or a Snickers. Even come Halloween – I can totally take it or leave it. Whether I have a candy bar or not now depends on whether I’m in the mood. Which brings me to …
Fourth – and perhaps the most important point of all: pay attention to what is going on with you. What do you want? What does your body want? Get quiet. Get curious. Do you want something fresh? Fruity? Is it meat? Is it pasta? Is it the macaroni and cheese that reminds you of childhood, when you didn’t have to think about anyone but yourself? (Is it not food at all, but instead someone to love? A partner? A best friend? Is it to make the sadness or loneliness go away? If it’s not actually food that is the need that you’re eating to satisfy, that’s really important to notice. Name what it actually is. And maybe take some steps toward allowing yourself to acknowledge what it is you really want, and to acknowledge it without shame. There is no shame in being lonely. There is no shame in wanting to feel loved and accepted. Those feelings are universal. Still, we feel we can’t talk about them. But if you find your hunger often isn’t really about food, I highly recommend Geneen Roth’s book “When Food Is Love.”) When you’re hungry, spend the time to ask yourself what your body wants. And then get it or make it and eat it. And while you’re eating it, ENJOY it! Again, notice how the food tastes and savor it. Is it delicious? It should be delicious! If it’s not, give yourself permission to not bother finishing it. And notice when your body is getting full. Maybe your body is full before the food is gone? So maybe you stop. But maybe the food tastes so good that you push on anyway and finish your plate? That’s okay. The point is, when you decide you’re “done” it should be a conscious decision.
Fifth, learn how to nourish your body. When you come at food from the perspective of taking care of yourself, of making sure your body gets enough – enough vitamins and nourishment – it completely changes your perspective. In learning about how to nourish myself, I wanted to know how people who lived long healthy lives ate, and drew on these two resources: The Jungle Effect: Healthiest Diets from Around The World by Dr. Daphne Miller and Dr. Terry Wahls TEDx talk about Minding Your Mitochondria. Both are incredibly inspiring and informative, and Daphne Miller’s book even has recipes.
Sixth, let it go. Whatever you ate yesterday or for breakfast – it really doesn’t matter anymore. Chronic dieters/bingers are prone to “all or nothing” thinking. But life exists in the middle. Life is Wednesday to Sunday. For example, the cake in the photo above was about the most delicious goddamn cake I’ve ever eaten. It is a lemon meringue cake from the recipe book of Tartine bakery in San Francisco. (As part of your new exquisite experiment, I encourage you to make it – and love every bite of it!) I made the cake for someone’s birthday while in the middle of my Get Fit! program. As hard as I am working in my fitness program, did that mean that I was not going to eat some of that cake? HELL NO! I enjoyed the shit out of it! And then I went back to whatever I was doing. And this is important: I did not consciously work out any more than I would have normally because I’d eaten the cake. I ate it and then life moved on. It is, after all, just cake. I can have it anytime. (Well, anytime I have 5 extra hours to make it again.) But you get my point. For me now, cake just is. Cake is for celebration. And come to think of it life is for celebration. Not guilt. (Fuck guilt. Hmm, perhaps this will be your new mantra?)
So if you’re stuck on the other side, slip away and join me instead. Like you, I, too, will be ferociously on your side. So let me know how your journey goes.