For many of the people I’ve mentored, coached and educated over the last two decades (yep, I’m that old), their biggest day-to-day challenge is managing their food intake in a healthy, intelligent and responsible manner. On a practical, emotional and psychological level, it’s also been one of my biggest challenges over the years. If you happen to ‘live’ somewhere on the scale between disordered eating and eating disorder, then today’s post is for you. It might be time to pay attention.
While I don’t have an eating disorder (as such), it’s fair to say that my eating has been disordered from time to time over my journey. Especially when I was a fat teenager. Who became an obsessive skinny teenager. Who became an obsessive bodybuilder in his late teens and early twenties.
Knowing Isn’t Doing
Sure, I might seem mild-mannered, measured and disciplined from the outside but not too far below the surface lives an eating machine that’s capable of caloric suicide and dietary behaviours which belie my alleged intelligence and knowledge. I keep that guy in check most of the time, but we all understand that knowing isn’t doing, so even somebody like me still has to work at being a conscious eater. Being an exercise scientist and coach doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability to make stupid, irrational or irresponsible decisions. Or to eat my own bodyweight in cheesecake.
Many people eat unconsciously. They eat on autopilot. They eat what they don’t need. Every day. And then they (strangely) wonder why they’re fat. And unhealthy. They eat processed crap. They eat socially. They eat because it’s expected. Because it’s there. Because it’s free (wouldn’t want to waste anything). They eat emotionally. Reactively. They reward themselves with food. And their children too. Sometimes they bribe (motivate, manipulate, control) their kids with food. “If you do… (insert task)… I’ll take you to McDonalds for dinner”. Awesome parenting! They fantasise about food. Lie about it. They eat to ease the pain. To give themselves instant physical pleasure. To numb out. To escape. To fit in. To forget.
And then when they’re finished, they hate themselves all over again. Until the next episode. And the cycle continues.
What is Conscious Eating?
“Conscious eating is giving our body the nutrition it needs for optimal health, function and energy. Nothing more or less.”
Simple huh? In theory anyway. If only we lived in the theory – we’d all be freakin’ amazing. So, what’s the most conscious and responsible question you and I can ask in relation to our eating habits?
“Why am I eating this?”
If our answer is not “because I need it” then we’re eating unconsciously. Irresponsibly. Emotionally. When we eat consciously, our body, mind and emotions are all working in harmony.
Drug of Choice
For many people, food has become their drug of choice. Their medication. Their refuge. And don’t think I’m being melodramatic when I use the term drug. Food is indeed mood altering. It can produce high highs and low lows. It can be addictive and destructive. Over time, we might need more of it to produce the same ‘high’ or feeling. It affects our nervous system. And our endocrine system. It (like other drugs) produces biochemical changes. Emotional changes. Psychological changes. It can be both life-enhancing and life-destroying. Sometimes, the distance between ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ is not far at all.
The Psychology of Overeating
Many of us were raised in a situation (environment, mindset, group-think) where eating food that we didn’t physically need (that is, consuming excess calories, salt, sugar, fat) was rationalised, explained, justified and even expected. The fact that we weren’t hungry or actually requiring food was irrelevant. We often ate because that’s what the situation, circumstance or moment dictated. And when we didn’t eat (the food we didn’t need) we were criticised. “Don’t you dare leave anything on your plate.”
No wonder we have issues.
We were trained to celebrate with excessive eating. That is, disordered eating. We were taught to overeat on certain occasions. It was the rule. Still is. Christmas, birthdays, reunions, anniversaries, engagements, New Year and Easter were (are) all legitimate times to abuse our bodies with food. Apparently. We were encouraged to over-ride the ‘full’ signal. To ignore what our body was telling us. To unbutton our pants and keep eating.
Such an intelligent species.
I’m still amazed at how many people become defensive, emotional and even angry (in my presentations), when I suggest that none of us need to overeat on Christmas day (for example). Amazingly, it’s actually possible to have a great day (maybe even a better day) without having to gorge ourselves on food that our body doesn’t need. Apparently, some people can’t celebrate that way. The date (on the calendar) determines the behaviour. The notion of avoiding excess calories seems almost irrational to them. This is simply another easy-to-understand example of the dysfunctional attitudes, beliefs and expectations that so many of us have around food.
Conscious eating is about reconnecting with our body. It’s about stopping the abuse. The lies. The excuses. It’s about slowing down. It’s about paying attention. It’s about honouring and respecting the gift that is our body.
I’m not really an affirmation kinda guy (no shit Sherlock) but when it comes to this issue, I’ll make an exception.
Here’s something you might want to copy and put on your fridge (pantry, forehead) for a month or ten.
I will eat consciously.
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