For those who struggle with food and eating, the new year often brings the resolution to do better this time around: Lose weight, get fit, eat more healthfully. You might tell yourself that you must be more disciplined, that you just need to take control. That you’ve got to ‘just do it.’
But isn’t that what you said last year, and the year before, and the year before that? Maybe somewhere inside yourself you know, after all of these months and years of hope and defeat, it’s not that simple for you. So, what can you do to help yourself treat your body well?
You can give up on the control wars.
It is not your lack of discipline that gets in the way of your diet goals. What gets in the way is that trying to fight or control food and eating means getting involved in a conflict with two powerful and determined opponents – food and yourself.
When you try to control or eliminate your real needs or desires for food, you are fighting a losing battle. You end up exhausted and stuck in a cycle of feeling like you are finally getting somewhere, and then ending up farther than ever from your health goals. It is a continually escalating war that ultimately leaves you weak and frustrated.
Giving up the control wars does not mean giving up your health goals. Actually, it is the opposite: It gives you the chance to embark on a path that can take you to a place of stable and sustainable health and wellbeing.
So, this year, how about some resolutions that can actually get you going in the right direction?
Commit to a respectful and honest relationship with food.
When we look honestly at food, we see that it is powerful, tricky, and confusing. Food soothes, nourishes, calms and excited. It creates safe bubble space. It helps us to sleep. It is intensely pleasurable. It lets us rebel and say ‘I do what I want.’ It keeps our minds occupied, numbs us from pain, gets us from one moment to the next when we feel like we can’t go on, and protects us from loneliness.
But it has power to disappoint and harm us as well. It only works temporarily. It can make us feel ill, change our shape, and set us spinning in vicious circles of hunger, sickness, pain, depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and isolation.
The more we learn about diet and weight and brains and bodies, the more we see how little we know. So, be honest about what food can and cannot provide for you. Be appreciative of its pleasures. Be clear about its trickster nature, and how it can hypnotize you into ignoring future consequences. Respect its power.
Commit to a respectful and honest relationship with yourself.
Creating a healthy relationship with yourself is essential for long-term wellness. It requires you to be honest and respectful of all of your different and sometimes conflicting desires.
For example, your desire to eat fewer carbohydrates might conflict with your desire to feel carbs’ calming effects, which help get you through the daily grind. Your desire to follow a structured diet plan might conflict with your desire to feel free and excited about living. Your desire to eat less sugar might conflict with your desire for the pleasure of your favorite sweets.
Listen to the mixed messages that your mind, body and heart give you. Respect all of those needs, even if you find them annoying or problematic. Work out fair compromises between your desires. Talk with the various parts as if they were different people inside of you, each with his or her own agenda. Allow everyone to be heard and honored. Do your best to meet everyone’s needs.
Set boundaries clearly and kindly. Not all of your desires are going to get their way all the time. Just as if you were trying to resolve a conflict between your children, learn to say ’no’ or ‘not right now’ in a respectful way and then follow through on that limit. For example, ‘Part of me wants a cookie right now, but another part of me wants to feed my body with nutrition first. So, I am going to eat my meal before the cookie. I am choosing to honor my need for nutrition at this moment, although I hear the anger coming from the part of me that wants the cookie now. To that part I am offering my apology, and a reminder that it will get the cookie soon.’ It may sound goofy, but it can be very effective.
Commit to building other relationships.
Food seems like a great best friend at first. It is always there when we need it. It keeps our secrets. It satisfies our needs quickly. It feels like a safe relationship.
But when we put all of our eggs in its basket, we have no alternative to using food to meet our needs. So when food’s fickle nature makes it increasingly unable to meet our needs, and when we are no longer able to ignore some of the consequences of our eating habits, we are in trouble. We have nowhere else to turn.
That is why it is important to try to make some new best friends – either in the form of other people or in the form of hobbies, activities, or self-care techniques. We need a variety of tools and outlets to honor all of our many needs and desires. Beyond using food, we need ways to calm down, feel excited about life, feel safe, and feel connected and valuable.
That is not easy. No one and certainly no hobby or self-care technique is going to be as good or as quick as food is to fulfill our needs. We just need to keep reminding ourselves that our long-term health depends on having other (even highly imperfect) avenues for connection and satisfaction.
Sometimes we turn to food as a best friend because painful or traumatic experiences with other people have left us feeling unsafe or untrusting. In that case, the path to building new relationships will require a commitment to start working through those issues.
Commit to getting support.
Are you ready to take this new path? Have you crossed your threshold of frustration and rage about this issue one too many times?
Whenever you are ready, there is help. The world is filled with people who want to sell you on the idea that success with food and eating is about control. Fortunately, there are also many people who understand that sustainable health comes from ending the control wars and embarking on a path toward healthy relationships with food and self. There are a wide range of books and clinicians and support groups that can help you on this path.
Transforming lifelong control wars into healthy relationships is not simple or easy. It can be scary and confusing. With proper support, however, the work you put into it will pay off. You will finally be on the right track.