Did rethinking dinner help?

Yes.

In the previous post I questioned my habit of eating almost nothing until dinner, and accepted that there was an escapist motivation behind it.

Since then I’ve made a point of eating a bit more food earlier in the day, and taking some of the shine off the evening meal experience.

If dinner is just another mealtime and I’m not making a big deal of it, then I’m disrupting the habit of overeating and emotional dependence on food.

I can eat more in the morning and less at night, or less in the morning and more at night; it doesn’t really matter to me.

And in the end that’s what is really important to me: being able to eat what I genuinely want, when I want, and not out of escapism or compulsion.

The meaning of dinner

A big thank you to those who’ve bought a copy of my book recently. I wasn’t expecting it! I hope you find it helpful!

*Sigh*

I didn’t want to do this, but it’s clear that my attitude to dinnertime is distorting my relationship with food.

It’s evident in my BMI that I’m still continuing to overeat. And if that wasn’t enough, my reluctance to examine my ritual of the evening meal indicates that there’s something going on.

Okay here goes.

As a parent and a husband I’ve poured my creative efforts into cooking delicious meals for my family. And both the preparation and especially the eating are a relief from daily burdens and boredoms.

There’s a kind of magic in setting out to cook. And there’s a delicious escape in sitting down to eat.

Last night I cooked pizza and switched off my brain to eat.

Tonight I’m cooking jiaozi dumplings, and my anticipation of their deliciousness is already taking me to a happier place in my mind.

The thought of depriving myself of that is painful. But using the principles developed in my book, that means I already feel pained and I’m relying on dinner to help me avoid facing it.

When I think of the food I’m going to cook tonight it gives me a sense of direction and purpose that is otherwise lacking. It’s a purpose and meaning firmly under my control, since I source the ingredients and do all the preparation. So it comes with a sense of efficacy too.

Purpose, direction, control, efficacy, and then enjoying the fruits of my labour.

The thought of cooking but not eating, or eating only what I need, brings feelings of resentment and discouragement to the surface.

I’ve imbued my evening meal with an equal and opposite emotional sway. I’ve practiced switching off once fork hits food. And so at dinner time I overeat, eating less throughout the day in anticipation of the nightly feast.

It’s not about the quantities per se, but the fact that I’m eating for reasons that override and distort my natural relationship with food. I’m letting the experience determine how much I eat and that makes it hard to stop when I’ve had enough.

Can I really cook those delicious jiaozi tonight and only eat as few as I need to keep going?

It’s not going to be easy, and I’ll probably not succeed this time around, but at least I’ll be mindful.

Mindful not just of how much I’m eating and why, but also of the negative emotion already there.

Because when I tune out of the negative emotion I’m feeling, I’m actually tuning out of myself and my life. I’m tuning out me, and that is the most disempowering thing I could do.

The answer lies instead in accepting how I feel, acknowledging that it’s okay to feel bad, if that’s how I feel (and I can’t stress this enough: get professional help for dealing with negative emotions and the experiences that caused them).

I’m learning to sit with negative emotions and not run away, not busy myself in efforts to escape them. I just breathe, feel, and remind myself it’s okay to feel this way and it won’t last forever.

As I learn to continue being myself in the midst of negative emotion, the emotional escapism tied to eating (or drinking, or any other compulsive/addictive behaviour) will soften and fade.

My jiaozi are delicious, but that’s not why I’ve been eating too many of them. My family dinners are delicious and rewarding, and in fact they will become more rewarding as I begin to enjoy them for what they are, and not use them as an escape from something else.

Tonight I will pay attention to how I feel as I cook and eat.

Changing your body

In my approach to diet I shift the focus from losing weight to repairing my relationship with food.

But there’s another factor that often goes unmentioned and that is changing our relationship with our bodies.

Part of my original motivation was to experience being lean, and being firmly within the normal BMI range.

I was very open-minded about what that could look and feel like. And I think this open-mindedness is often forgotten.

The way my body looks and feels right now is changeable. It’s not simply about losing fat by eating less, it’s about how I envisage myself in my embodied form.

Being overweight isn’t just about excess fat, it’s an aspect of my lived experience of my body.

Can I really imagine how it would feel for my body to change? Do I know what I’m aiming for? Do I recognise that I’m entering unknown territory that may change how I feel, how I carry myself, how I dress, and how I relate to others?

It’s a big deal. And it’s not just a matter for overweight people. Everyone carries a sense or multiple senses of how they live their embodied form, how others perceive them, and how they perceive themselves.

We are shaped by habits of thought and action that often proceed unconsciously. Most of us have never really imagined ourselves being shorter, taller, leaner, heavier, older or younger. To imagine it is to begin opening our mind to other ways of being.

And what is this diet about if not finding a way of being I enjoy more? I can’t be the same person but thinner. Likewise, I don’t want to live the same life but with less food. I want a change, and that has to start with an openness to possibilities and a conviction that something good awaits.

Diet in a time of Coronavirus

At a time when Australians are hitting the supermarkets to stock up on food and other essentials, I’m appreciating being so acutely aware of how little food I need to survive.

A third of Australian adults are overweight, which means a lot of people in this country overeat, not to mention the food waste from households (and the whole industry and supply-chain).

That translates to a lot of people currently buying more than they usually buy, which is already more than they actually need.

In my approach to diet I’ve become more and more mindful of why I eat, and why I sometimes eat too much.

Once you distinguish between eating for nourishment versus eating for pleasure, escape, comfort, and socialisation, it’s startling how little is needed.

I’m pretty sure a lot of the panic buying is driven by the need for food as an emotional support. People are anxious, and obtaining large quantities of food brings a primal sense of security.

I’ve literally brought home the bacon, and not only is survival now assured, but so is the crispy, delicious, fried and salty sensory overload, should I need it to help me feel better about the unfolding catastrophe around me.

Except I’ve been progressively reducing my use of food for emotional support, and taking some of the emotional complexity and codependence out of eating. I don’t need the food to make me feel better, just to give me enough energy to live.

In a healthy serve of irony, right before the panic buying began I was already thinking about reducing the amount of food I buy and cook for myself and my family.

Food as fuel

I like to imagine food as fuel. Imagine you’re throwing wood or coal into a furnace. You want the fire to keep going at it’s optimal rate…you don’t want to give it too little fuel because then it will die down. But nor do you want to smother it with too much fuel.

It’s not a bad analogy, since cellular respiration (the process of converting chemical energy into cellular energy within our bodies) is technically a combustion reaction, just like burning wood or coal.

But I’m keeping it as a rough analogy, because what I like to imagine is the food I eat being akin to fuel thrown on a fire. Too little and I feel weak and dizzy – the fire dies down. Too much and I feel heavy, full, and bloated – the fire is smothered.

And it’s not just the amount of food, it’s also the type of food. Eating heavily-processed sugars and carbohydrates provide energy but leave me feeling unwell, like throwing accelerants on a fire – the burst of flame from flammable liquids and solids dies down quickly and gives off unpleasant fumes.

So I let my body guide me, and it can have some surprising results. Fruit doesn’t appeal to me as much, and I naturally eat fewer carbohydrates overall.

But occasionally this same intuitive sense of what to eat leads me to fats, oils and salt, or to wholemeal bread, dairy, protein – all in small quantities but presumably fulfilling a need for specific nutrients.

Wholesome is how I would describe these impulses. Certainly different from the needy sensation of craving other kinds of foods, and different even from the feeling of wanting to repeat a wholesome food experience.

What is the appeal of ice-cream?

Ice-cream is a bit of a weakness for me. My wife bought a whole lot of ice-cream half-price along with wafer cones, and I find it hard to justify not eating it.

So let’s deconstruct the appeal of ice-cream and see if we can shift it.

Why does it taste good? Because it contains cream and sugar, both of which trigger very primitive and deeply ingrained biological responses.

In a state of nature, concentrated sugar and fat are hard to come by. Our bodies have evolved to relish these treats on the assumption that they are rare and will provide us much-needed energy.

Take a look at the ingredients and nutritional information for the ice-cream.

You can see that the ice-cream is about 16% fat and 20% sugar, and as you might know from cooking in general, fat and oil are made more palatable by the addition of sugar or salt, and vice-versa. In other words people will eat a lot more sugar and cream combined than separate.

What about all the other stuff in there? If you’ve ever made ice-cream you’ll appreciate that these manufacturers have gone to additional lengths to change the mouthfeel and flavour of this sugar-and-cream-delivery-system.

Maltodextrin and dextrose are just different forms of sugar with different levels of sweetness. If they used only regular sugar the ice-cream would be sickly sweet. Checkout this great site for a breakdown of how and why different sugars are used in ice-cream.

Thickeners, emulsifiers, anti caking agent and vegetable gum are also added to control the texture of the final product. Colours are as important as flavours when it comes to food, and salt is a frequent unexpected ingredient in desserts, as it enhances and balances the flavours…which is to say it helps you eat more of it.

So it’s no accident that this ice-cream tastes good. The manufacturers have gone to a great deal of effort to make this ice-cream taste good and feel good in your mouth.

And if you look at it as a cream and sugar delivery-system, tasting good and feeling good encourages you to eat more.

But if I had to make it myself, it’s far too much effort, relative to the nutritional value. It doesn’t make sense to make this for yourself. And if you made a simpler version of it at home, you wouldn’t want to eat as much because your body would tell you “enough!” much sooner.

This isn’t to say that ice-cream is bad or should never be eaten, but it doesn’t make sense to buy and eat it except for the experience. In other words, foods like ice-cream are highly susceptible to escapist eating. If you were eating to give yourself energy and nutrients, ice-cream would be a very poor choice.

And then there’s the cone.

I won’t bother with an ingredients list for the cones. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be bothered trying to make waffle cones at home on a regular basis, and yet the texture and flavour in combination with the ice-cream are a big part of the appeal for me.

Stop buying cones and I’ll probably stop buying ice-cream too. I can’t stop my wife buying them, but I can use a process like this above to deconstruct the appeal of the food, and bring to the forefront of my mind the unsavoury aspects of such confections.

Food, fat, and finding inner peace

Can you see the excess fat on your body as equivalent to the excess food in your diet?

It’s a direct cause and effect relationship. Eating more than you need translates into more fat on your body.

The excess fat feels like it’s not really a part of you. That’s why we feel bad when we look in the mirror or catch a glimpse of it.

There’s a thematic link between this fat that feels like it’s not a part of us, and the excess food we eat. Because the moment we try to stop eating we feel bad. Even the thought of eating less feels bad.

But why does it feel bad? Not because eating too much is good. Not because we are being deprived of something we need.

It feels bad because we have been using that excess food to keep ourselves occupied…literally full of something, a distraction from our own selves.

Binge eating – like binge viewing and binge drinking – immerses us in something other. The word itself originally meant to soak wood in liquid until it swells. When binge eating our whole body and mind are entranced with the process. That’s what makes it such a potent escape.

We lose ourselves in food, and the byproduct is excess fat that looks and feels like it’s not truly a part of who we are.

But why do we feel bad? What are we trying to escape from? Why are we seeking to lose ourselves in the first place?

The exact reason differs from person to person, because our lives and our stories are unique. But the bad feeling that comes when we stop eating is not about the food, but about ourselves.

Whether it’s fear or anxiety, shame or self-hate, boredom or disappointment, bad memories or an unwanted reality; whether we need professional help to manage it, or just time and acceptance to reconcile it; finding peace with ourselves and our world is the answer.

Don’t try to lose weight

Don’t try to lose weight, try to fix your relationship with food.

That was the central point of my book The Weight-Loss Paradox. In hindsight I think it worked for me precisely because it took my focus away from the vexed issue of weight loss, and onto the real problem of how I use food.

Plenty of people can lose weight by just restricting their intake, with no further thought required. But for many of us eating less is a big challenge.

That’s why we need all our focus to be on fixing the problem – our relationship with food – not on the outcome of weight loss.

Being overweight is not the problem. It’s natural and healthy to be overweight if we consistently overeat. Really take that on board: my body weight is not the problem. I’m not trying to lose weight. I’m trying to bring order and balance to how and when and why I eat.

I’m not trying to lose weight. My weight is merely an indicator of my eating habits. There is nothing wrong with my weight, but there is something wrong with the way I use food.

It’s like drinking too much. There’s something wrong in drinking too much, hangovers and other health problems are just a side-effect and indicator that there is something wrong.

Saying “I’m trying to have fewer hangovers, but it’s just so hard!” sounds weird, but that’s how many of us approach weight-loss.

Being hungover every day is a good reason to do something about your drinking habits. Being overweight is a good reason to examine your eating habits. But in the end the solution must be in finding a renewed, healthier relationship with food and drink; a more balanced and reasonable way of using them.

Weight loss: Time to get serious

So I’ve lost 4-5kg using my approach, and I’m borderline overweight according to my BMI.

At this stage the pleasure of eating still motivates me to eat more than I need to keep going. It’s easy to think “screw it” and eat more for dinner and also have something for dessert.

I’ve been at this point for a couple of weeks and the beauty of doing this mindfully is that I’m increasingly conscious of my decision to overeat.

It’s simply cause and effect: my overeating maintains my current weight.

But as time goes on the pleasure of the food holds less allure, or rather, the displeasure of being overweight becomes more salient.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in the normal weight range? Wouldn’t it be nice to not be carrying excess weight? Wouldn’t it feel good to be lean again?

I’m well-versed in the pleasure of eating, but what about the pleasure of a lean and healthy body? What about looking good? What about wearing whatever I want?

It feels good to be attractive and healthy. It feels good to be lean. And these good feelings are motivators that can counteract the allure of food.

Feeling good about my body can help me make a different decision as I approach mealtime, or when my wife brings home snacks (it’s all her fault!).

Appreciating your body in a healthy and normal weight range is far more powerful than the pleasure of most of the food that most of us eat on a daily basis.

And it is possible to have both: you can be lean and healthy and still enjoy the pleasure of truly delicious food; just not to the extent that it robs you of the pleasure of a lean and healthy body.

Being overweight is hard work

We are always told it’s hard to lose weight. But consider how hard it is to gain and maintain weight.

Sometimes we hear about actors gaining weight for a role, and how difficult they find it.

Think about it: your body consumes energy just by being alive. And the heavier you are, the more energy it consumes.

If you’re overweight you’re already going to a lot of effort, time, and expense obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.

It takes energy to eat! It takes energy to digest. It takes energy to convert excess energy into fat. And it takes energy to carry around that stored energy in your body.

Your body has to work hard to eat, digest, and excrete. Being overweight takes hard work.

And it takes dedication too. You can’t simply eat a lot one day and then gain weight. You have to eat consistently. You need your average intake to be consistently high.

Think about how much time and effort it takes each day to maintain your weight. Wouldn’t it be easier not to? To give your body a break, let it wind down. Give it space to relax and be free from the high-intensity processing of food for a while.

Okay, this one idea isn’t going to change your eating habits, but there’s some truth to it, and it’s worth playing with fresh perspectives to shift your established patterns and habits of thought.

It really does take a lot to become and remain overweight.