Will I ever be able to eat like a normal person?
Beryl* has had an eating disorder ever since she can remember. As a child she was a little chubby and her parents, who had both struggled with their own weight, worried that she would become obese. They therefore kept a strict watch on her food intake, and as a result Beryl almost always felt hungry, even after she had just eaten. To make things worse, she had a younger brother who was thin and could eat anything he wanted.
“Mom would offer him a second and even a third helping of potatoes,” Beryl said sadly. “But I got just a half of a portion.”
Not surprisingly, Beryl began to sneak into the kitchen late at night, while the rest of the family was sleeping, to binge on all of the foods she had not been allowed to eat during the day. Her parents began to lock the kitchen cabinets and even the refrigerator, and complained that it wasn’t fair to them or to her brother, who needed access to the snack food. Beryl’s brother came to her defense, saying that it would be better to let her eat what she wanted and maybe then she wouldn’t feel the need to sneak all of the food. Their parents weren’t trying to be mean. They just did not want Beryl to suffer with her weight as they had. But unfortunately Beryl suffered anyway.
As a psychotherapist who has been working with people with eating disorders for three decades, however, I can say one thing for absolute certain: there is no single, simple solution to the issue of bringing up a child with healthy eating habits. I have heard other people complain about exactly the opposite problem – their parents did not restrict their food enough. But the reality is that growing up without an eating disorder these days is not simple.
And therefore, there is no easy answer to the question Beryl asked me one day: “Will I ever be able to eat like a normal person?”
To even consider this question, we have to also ask how a normal person eats. Is it normal to worry about our weight all the time? In many contemporary cultures, the answer may very well be yes. Is it normal to consider all fats, sweets and processed foods “bad”? Again, at least in parts of the world today, the answer is yes, even though the evidence is that this belief is not accurate.
When my son was little he would eat only foods in shades of white and orange (pizza, chicken nuggets, pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches, supplemented by an occasional banana or a few slices of apple). Friends, colleagues and even my pediatrician reassured that this was “normal” eating for many young children.
Interestingly, this way of eating can also be a healthy way to control weight, so long as you get all of the nutrients you need. According to diet and fitness expert Dr. Melina Jampolis, http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/expert.q.a/06/12/diet.repeating.foods.jampolis/index.html “research shows that having less variety in your diet, especially when it comes to high fat and sugary foods, can help with weight loss and weight maintenance.”
But here’s another thing. What’s normal at one stage in life may be less normal at another. Today, at over six feet tall, my son is not only healthy, but also an excellent cook who loves to experiment with all sorts of interesting and unusual ingredients.
But what Beryl really wanted to know was whether she could hope to ever eat enough to satisfy her hunger without worrying that every bite was making her fat. And further, could she actually lose some weight by eating that way?
The answer is a mixed one. On the one hand, Beryl is in the process of retraining her mind and her body so that she can eat mindfully, healthily and in a way that will slowly help her begin to lose weight. That takes work and in many ways it is not as satisfying as a strict diet in which the pounds fall away and the fat visibly disappears. But of course, as we all know, recent research has shown that most people re-gain weight after dieting. And being on that yo-yo cycle of alternating over-eating and restricting means that we are never free from worrying about what we’re eating and what we weigh.
And yet, here’s a painful truth about trying to lose weight. It’s all about procrastination. Even when we’re on a diet, we’re often putting something off – whether it’s feeling good (“I’ll be so much happier when I’ve lost these ten pounds”) or enjoying ourselves (“I’ll do x y or z when I’m at my perfect weight”). (If you like, check out my post on procrastination on my Psychology Today blog http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-couch/201202/procrastinate-or-not-do-you-have-choice)
We often procrastinate about doing things we don’t like that will actually lead to things we do like. When it comes to dieting, procrastination is a major problem. But here's a different way to frame this process: In order to lose weight and maintain the weight loss, you don't have to diet. In fact, you just have to start eating “normally” right now. What does that mean? Translate "eating normally" to eating mindfully, consciously, healthily and interestingly!!! And not just today or tomorrow, but every day.
Susan Albers writes about this in her book Eating Mindfully: How to end mindless eating and enjoy a balanced relationship with food, and in her blog, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings.
The problem is that eating mindfully may not be as much fun as eating mindlessly. And in this day and age, it almost certainly is not at all normal to eat in a way that you can maintain every day for the rest of your life. But it is a way of eating that doesn't involve worrying about everything you put in your mouth every second of every day.
In fact, eating normally – that is, mindfully, and in a way that you can maintain forever – doesn’t mean eating the same amount or the same thing every day. It also means eating foods you love every day – maybe in smaller portions than you really want, but it can help to know that you can have more tomorrow; and more the day after; and more after that as well.
And some days it’s okay to splurge – oh yes, that bad word, even to binge! – but then the work is to go back to “normal” eating. Over time, as your body begins to settle into a rhythm and your metabolism adjusts to a more stable eating regimen, you will find that you can handle an occasional splurge. Because then even a splurge will be mindful – and that’s what I call “normal.”
*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy