Saturday, November 30, 2013
I'd like to think that the answer to that question is "yes", but anyone who's struggled with emotional eating can attest to the fact that it's a complicated issue to overcome.
For years and years, food was my go-to source of comfort--sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in not-so-positive ways. I fondly remember sampling my mom's homemade Christmas chocolates and cookies, which she spent the entire month of December making. Our house was literally transformed into a bake shop with every kind of sweet confection you can possibly imagine. I've still got my favorites, a few of which I now make for myself on another continent a few thousand miles away from where I grew up. I've also got lovely memories of Sunday dinners and long weekends at my grandparents' house, where I'd be my grandmother's little helper in the kitchen and assist her with her stews, roasts and cakes. Thankfully, my grandfather was the health nut in the family and he instilled a love of fruit, vegetables and whole grains in me at an early age. But in spite of his mostly virtuous eating habits and 6:00 am daily runs, he also had a major sweet tooth, especially for all things chocolate, and we shared many a chocolate bar together. He was my first role model for living a balanced lifestyle and although he passed away just before I turned 13, he left a strong impression on me and I still think of him often.
On the flip side, I also began to turn to food as a source of negative comfort at quite an early age. I suffered from many of the usual childhood traumas, some minor and some not-so-minor, and food was my rock, the thing that always made me feel good no matter what. My mom made a pretty strong effort to feed me a balanced diet, but I often balked at my homemade fare when most of the other kids were buying those awful school lunches. Hanging out at friends' houses with Doritos, sour cream and onion potato chips, french fries and packaged cookies and cakes was like a dream and I quickly found ways to sneak unhealthy food. I also began to develop the early stages of binge eating, where I'd gorge myself on whatever I could find in the house and learned how to cook the unhealthy foods I craved for myself.
As I got older, I refined those negative habits and, not surprisingly, was constantly battling with my weight. From the time I went on my first diet at eight until just a few years ago, my weight soared from one extreme to another. At my lowest, I carried just 108 pounds on my 5'7" frame and was so thin that I stopped getting my period until I gained about 15 pounds back. At my highest, I was over 260 pounds and was a walking health-scare time bomb. Through college and my early working years, I continued to use food as a source of comfort and these were the years when I really ballooned. Although I had often been overweight, I crossed the line into obesity in my early-20s, mostly due to emotional eating as a result of college and work-related stress and relationship woes. Although I managed to take off 115 pounds in my mid-20s, I still had a lot of negative habits to undo and didn't go about losing the weight in an entirely healthy way. I was so accustomed to my binge/restrict cycle that I felt like that was how my life was destined to be. As I now know, most of us can only live with high levels of restriction for so long and we either end up bingeing or throwing in the towel altogether and regaining everything we had worked so hard to lose.
When my weight had climbed back up to about 240 pounds in early 2010, I knew that something had to change. There were tons of diet plans out there that would help me lose weight, but that wasn't my biggest problem. I needed to develop a lifestyle that would not only allow me to shed the pounds, but that also addressed the underlying issues behind my overeating and binge/restrict cycle. For the first time ever, I didn't set out to lose a massive amount of weight in a short period of time. I hoped that by taking things more slowly, I could retrain myself to function in the real world with all of the food-related challenges it presented. I haven't always been perfect in this department and I still find being out of my comfort zone to be a challenge, but I know that I can eat out once or twice a week under normal circumstances and not have to worry about gaining weight.
The harder problem to tackle has been the binge/emotional eating. In part, by being less restrictive over the long haul, I've managed to dramatically reduce my incidences of binge eating. I generally don't feel deprived so there's less of a compulsion to overeat. But then there's the emotional hunger, which I've found actually has very little to do with physical satiety, and can take hold of you like little else. In the past, I didn't even realize that this was the source of much of my overeating, so naturally, I couldn't even begin to try to combat it. Weight management was supposed to be all about calories in vs. calories out and self control, right? To an extent, yes, but try telling that to a person who's on the verge of eating a whole jar of peanut butter when they're not even hungry.
So, how have I been able to tackle the emotional eating? Slowly, and not without my slips. A first important step was learning to distinguish between real, physical hunger and the emotional variety--and here's where being less restrictive has been key. I believe that if you're following a super-low calorie diet, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger. By generally being more satisfied with my meals, I can tell myself that the sensation I'm feeling for more food is not true hunger and I'm often able to ride out my urges. How? Often by distracting myself. I get out of the kitchen and away from the fridge and table. I come on SparkPeople, I chat with friends and family, I watch a movie, I get moving and out of the house--I do something, anything to get my mind off food. And as much as I try not to be overly dependent on exercise to keep my weight in check, it does help. The endorphin release from a good workout and the sense of peace and relaxation I get from a yoga class or stretching session does me a world of good and seems to give me extra motivation to make healthier choices.
Practice, in my case, has also made perfect (well, almost). Instead of throwing up my hands and giving up each time I've slipped--and I've sometimes slipped badly--I've picked up the pieces and moved on. Gradually, over time, my slips have become fewer and farther between and much less intense. I don't expect perfection from myself any more and I know now that we don't have to be perfect to be successful. We just have to be consistent about getting ourselves back on track and back to our usual healthy habits. I was also fortunate enough to have quite a long stretch in my life with relatively low stress where I was able to really focus on developing and ingraining my healthy habits. That way, when difficult times came, and they eventually did, I was in a much better place to stay the course and not relapse into emotional eating.
As some of you may know, I've experienced some personal turmoil the past few months which came immediately after my summer holidays where I had put on a few pounds. I'm convinced that if I had been in that situation just a few years ago, it would have marked the beginning of the end for me and I would have embarked on yet another downward spiral. But something's been different. Not only have I not regained the weight, I've actually lost almost all of my extra summertime pounds. Under more ideal circumstances, I probably would have had them all off by early October, but I consider it a huge triumph that I've fought tooth in nail against a potential backslide. Until yesterday when I took a much-needed break, I had a 92-day streak of logging in here at SparkPeople--my longest ever! Those 92 days included many where the last things I wanted to be doing were worrying about food prep and exercise and healthy living, but I stayed connected and didn't give up even though I was often far from perfect and had many more slips than normal. I had some pretty bad moments during that 92-day stretch and was filled with more self doubt than I had experienced for quite some time. But, as time has gone by, things have slowly started to calm down and I'm finding my healthy habits are easier to stick to again. My urge to overeat at night is slowly dissipating, I'm more consistently making better choices. I'm finding it easier to comply with my goals. My overall resolve is becoming stronger and I'm beginning to feel more confident again. And I've learned that it's okay not to set lofty goals for ourselves during these times. Just staying the course and remaining connected to our support systems is enough. I feel as though I've ridden out the storm and that there will be smooth sailing ahead, at least for a while.
If you're still with me and have actually read all of this, thanks. If you've been riding out the storm with me the past few months, through my ups and downs and mini tantrums, please know that your support has been life saving for me. And if you're currently going through a rough patch and are feeling hopeless, please don't give up. I know it may sound trite, but this journey really isn't about how well we can do under perfect circumstances, but how well we're able to hang on with all our might when times are tough. I'm feeling like a super hero today and not because I reached a weight goal or ran a marathon, but because I know I've got true grit. And that, perhaps more than anything, gives me the confidence to believe that I actually have, however imperfectly, won the battle against emotional eating.