Escape by eating

Evening is when I eat the most.

I’ve gone for a few years skipping breakfast and lunch nearly every day. But dinner time is more of a challenge for me.

Last night I had a beer, a couple of plums, a small portion of risotto, an ice cream in a cone, and a large serve of watermelon.

I knew I was eating more than I needed when I had the risotto and the ice cream. Cravings hit later in the evening when the kids were in bed.

Again, the context of cravings is important. It’s late at night but there’s nothing much to do. I want to relax and losing myself in the sensations of eating is a good distraction.

But it doesn’t leave me feeling good in the longer term. If I don’t need the food to keep going, then I’m overeating. Since I’m overweight according to my BMI, this overeating is going to contribute to being overweight.

I’m not going to beat myself up for overeating. This process is not about losing weight as quickly as possible, it’s about having a healthy and mindful relationship with eating.

So even if I choose to eat for the pleasure of it, I’m now more aware than before of the dynamic taking place within me. I’m aware that cravings aren’t real hunger, and that they point to the presence of negative emotions, and to a lack of alternative sources of pleasure and fulfilment.

Although I overate, it’s not a loss, because I further tuned myself to my underlying motivations and physical signals.

Tonight when the cravings come again I will be more aware and preemptive of them. I might look for something more productive and engaging to do. And I might even gain some more insight into the negative emotions I’m trying to escape by eating.

Do what works for you

I want to quickly clarify that it’s never been my intention to skip breakfast and lunch. I’ve just never liked eating breakfast, and when I started my diet years ago I discovered that if I eat lunch I don’t need dinner.

If I was more active this would definitely change. Move more, you need more. My approach is just what has evolved to suit me, my circumstances and my physical needs. I’m sharing it as an indicator of where I’m at, not as a guideline to follow.

The power of refusing food

The most powerful moment in my diet is when I refuse food that I would normally have eaten, because I’ve checked in with my body and observed that I can keep going without it.

These moments are exciting because they show that the recalibration is happening. They are empowering because they demonstrate real change in behaviour, in accordance with my new understanding of how my body works and what food is for.

It feels really good to not eat food I would previously have eaten without a second thought, and there’s even a sense of curiosity about when I will need more food to keep me going, and how much or how little that will take.

Saying no in these moments also makes it easier to see through cravings when they hit. It gets clearer and clearer that cravings are not about hunger, because I’ve been listening to my body’s signals and I know I can keep going without more food right now.

Dealing with cravings

It’s daunting to imagine eating for sustenance rather than entertainment or escape.

And even when you’re committed to this approach, it’s another story when cravings hit.

Cravings can feel like a visceral need to eat something. They can be hard to resist. So let’s look at them from a different angle.

First, if you’re feeling a craving to eat, congratulate yourself because this means the diet is working. You’re able to distinguish between genuine hunger and craving for food.

Second, don’t beat yourself up for feeling cravings. Even if you succumb to them, don’t beat yourself up. Because you’ve spent months or years or even decades using food to entertain yourself or escape. Accept that it will take time to change your behaviour.

Third, recognise that the unpleasant feeling of craving is an emotion you’ve been escaping by eating. It’s not just a craving for food after all, it’s a highly contextual impulse to distract yourself from what you are feeling.

So look at the context. For me it used to be after work. Sitting down to eat with a glass of wine, tasty food I could eat a lot of in large servings.

What happened when I tried to stop eating so much in this context? I was immediately struck by unpleasant feelings that came from hating my work and feeling like it was pointless.

I used food to help me forget about the work day, but also to distract me from feelings of emptiness at home.

After all, if I wasn’t eating then what else was I going to do? What was there to look forward to apart from the pleasure and distraction of eating?

What I interpreted as a craving that was satisfied by food was actually negative thoughts and feelings about my life that were easily buried by the immersive experience of food.

This is why many people snack when they are bored. They are trying to block out the negative feelings of: not enough sources of happiness and pleasure in life, not enough to look forward to, negative beliefs about life’s meaning and purpose, loneliness, lack of stimulation and so on.

So don’t beat yourself up. Appreciate how the cravings confirm the work you are doing to better understand your own relationship with food. And give some thought to the broader context of the craving, and to the breadth and richness of experience that might be lacking in your life.