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.

Do you need to eat to feel better?

I’ve just made two delicious pizzas for my family, but there’s a problem: I don’t need to eat anything to keep going right now.

So these delicious, hot, wonderful pizzas…I’m not ready to eat them.

I’m not thrilled about this, but if I want to get into the normal BMI range I shouldn’t overeat, and by my definition eating when I can otherwise keep going is overeating.

They smell really good…

But what’s actually so bad about this situation? The food smells good. It probably tastes good. It would be pleasant to eat it.

So what?

Am I so lacking pleasures in life that I would rather ignore my body’s guidance than find something else to do?

Am I trying to hide from feelings of boredom, loneliness or dissatisfaction by gorging on tasty food?

Or do I feel like I’ve been on duty all day and dinner is supposed to be my time to relax!

I think that’s a big part of it. It’s not so much the food but the context. The time of day, the lull in activities, the proximity to bedtime for the kids and me, the promise of winding down.

But there’s something funny about that: if I look forward to the evening “wind down”, I’m implicitly excusing being wound up in the rest of the time.

I don’t like being wound up and tense and on high alert. Having the wind-down time seems like a reprieve…but wouldn’t it be better not to get so tense in the first place?

Maybe taking away the solace and comfortable escape of overeating at dinner time will help me find a way to stay chilled all the time?

I’m going to give it a try, because I respect my approach to diet and the signals my body is giving me. If I don’t need more food to keep going, then I won’t eat more food.

I already feel clearer with this decision and the stress of losing the escapist comfort is fading. I don’t need to eat to feel better.

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.

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.

Revisiting my approach to diet

I’ve gained weight in the past few months, and to me this is a visible indicator that my relationship with food has changed.

My environment has changed, and my inner world has changed too. I’m happier than ever, but I’ve also let go of some hobbies and interests that used to bring me pleasure.

So my overall balance of happiness needs some recalibrating.

This time around it’s immediately clear that my diet changes my perception of eating from “entertainment” to a source of energy for my body.

I can eat whatever I want; but if I’m eating more than I need to keep going in all my other activities, I’m over-eating by definition. That will be reflected in my physical condition.

And of course there’s the question: why am I eating more than I need to keep going?

The answer is always either for the pleasure of it, or to escape unpleasant emotions.

The solution is to find more alternative sources of enjoyment and pleasure in life, and to allow myself to feel the unpleasant emotions rather than escaping into food.

That latter path may require professional support from a psychologist or counsellor.

I sometimes go jogging and I often practice a martial art. Both count as exercise, but they are also sources of pleasure that give me options other than eating to boost my happiness.

I can’t eat while I’m training, and training keeps me occupied and happy. But I haven’t been able to train for a month, and I’ve also let go of the pleasurable problem-solving aspect of training that had kept me mentally stimulated for years.

For me, at this stage in life, pleasure will come from moving towards my goals. That sense of purpose and direction (even if it’s just “enjoy life more”) puts eating into its rightful place as a support and enhancement of more important and pleasurable things in life.

Practicing happiness 06

This series is a way of keeping me focused and honest with myself. Am I really practicing feeling better? Or am I going off on interesting tangents?

Tangents are fine, but the habit of ignoring how I feel is not fine.

Feel better is the bottom line, and it deserves to be my primary focus.

Over time it’s becoming clearer that I’m just not used to feeling better. Used to running off intellectually? Yes. But that hasn’t brought me the lasting happiness I desire.

Perhaps intellectual escape served me for a time. Perhaps it was better than the alternatives. But I have new alternatives now.

Maybe it sounds strange to say I must get serious about feeling better. Yet it’s an easy work and a light burden.

All it takes is practice. And my unwillingness to practice will dissipate in time.

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

Dieting retrospective

In January I wrote a couple of posts on dieting, in an attempt to make clear my own thoughts on losing weight and maintaining a healthy relationship with food.

Dieting Tips part 1 and part 2

Someone left an appreciative comment on part 2, so I thought I should post an update on how my idiosyncratic approach to dieting has fared in the nine months since I wrote those posts.

In short, it has been very successful. I’ve lost nearly 20 kgs, and I’ve found it easy to maintain my current weight.

The most effective part of the diet was to complete the link between how I felt about being overweight, and the eating behaviours that were making me overweight in the first place. It might sound a bit harsh, but if you feel miserable when you look in the mirror, hold onto that misery for the rest of the day and use it to diminish your appetite.

But it helps to do so with the conviction that if you eat less you will definitely lose weight. There are a lot of conflicting messages about obesity, including the idea that some people simply cannot lose weight, or that there are hormonal, genetic, psychological, environmental, and social causes for obesity that make attempts at weight loss futile.

Or how about this one: “I have a friend who eats more than I do, but they never put on weight!” The (weak) implication is that weight is therefore not directly related to food intake.

I countered these conflicting messages with the simple conclusion that regardless of how overweight people might be, if we starved to death we would all lose weight before we die.

We are all products of our biology, culture, family, society, and environment; but we are still free to change our behaviour, provided we can understand where things are going wrong, the cause and effect of our unwanted circumstances.

Before my diet, my motivations for eating were often compounded: I would eat at meal-times because of habit, I would eat snacks because of boredom, I would use the process of eating as a kind of escapism, I would seek the sensory feedback of a full stomach to distract from other negative feelings including dissatisfaction at being overweight.

Now my attitude to food at any given point in time is dominated by wanting to avoid the dissatisfaction of being overweight, and wanting to maintain the benefits of a healthy weight. But other motives have gradually accrued: new habits of not eating for most of the day, the feeling of an empty stomach as the new normal, avoiding the heaviness and distraction of being full of food.

In practical terms, I know that I need very little food to maintain my current weight, and for personal reasons I prefer to eat as little as possible until the end of the day. So in any given day I’ll most likely eat nothing until dinnertime.

I’ll eat more if I have a lot of work to do and need the energy. Sometimes I’ll eat more if there’s a celebration or party. There’s a lot of latitude when you know you can easily not eat for most of the following days.

I usually have one or two espresso coffees with milk, which is a kind of substitution for eating during the morning. I could probably do without them, but coffee and tea aren’t a big deal.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. I avoid eating when I’m not genuinely hungry, and I used my negative emotions about being overweight to help me achieve this new approach. I cut through uncertainty about the causes of being overweight by looking to the bottom line of food intake versus expenditure. And as I lost weight, it became easier to continue than to stop.

One final point: I didn’t chart the progression of weight loss, but subjectively it was very rapid. At the time I wondered whether there was some kind of psycho-physiological system at work – that by diminishing my appetite and strictly controlling my intake I had somehow ‘told’ my body to change how it was storing energy and processing food.

That’s highly speculative. It’s equally possible that the weight loss seemed rapid because I wasn’t keeping track of it, and because I knew that it was really just a symptom or outcome of the processes of escapist eating I have described in the earlier posts. In other words, I wasn’t dieting to lose weight. I was putting a stop to an escapist dynamic of which weight gain was the unwanted side-effect. It may have seemed rapid because my mind was elsewhere.

My diet isn’t perfect. Perhaps I would feel better if I ate breakfast and skipped dinner. Or ate smaller portions throughout the day. I’m guessing that the way I eat at present is the path of least resistance to diminishing overall intake. Perhaps the next challenge should be to vary the routine and see what benefits and limitations the changes bring?

Regardless, it’s good to have the psychological freedom to even consider changing the approach, because I know and understand the mechanism that drove my weight change in the first place.

 

More dieting tips

(Following on from the previous post)

It’s important to make the link between unhappiness and frustration at being overweight, and the pleasure and mindlessness of escapist eating.

Most of us feel bad about being overweight. We don’t like our appearance, or what it says about our relationship with food or how we relate to ourselves.

But we usually only feel bad when we notice our appearance. We quickly forget about it, which in itself implies escapism. Overweight people are rarely constantly unhappy.

Yet the unhappiness and dissatisfaction at being overweight is a powerful motive for change. In fact, we might go so far as to say that most overweight people are insufficiently unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. Most of us feel sudden pangs of embarrassment or dismay, but it passes.

If we were serious about losing weight, improving our appearance, and changing our relationship with food, we would cling to that unhappiness, embarrassment and other negative emotions like a gift. But instead we endure them briefly, feel bad about ourselves, get distracted, and end up losing ourselves in the pleasure of eating once again.

Those negative emotions are always stalking you anyway, why not put them to good use? Bring them to the forefront of your mind. The next time you feel dismayed or ashamed of being overweight; the next time you recognise that rolls of fat are unbecoming; the next time you find yourself frustrated at clothes that no longer fit, take that dissatisfaction and dismay and hold on to them at least as far as your next meal.

Hold on to those negative emotions the next time you approach your food, and refuse the opportunity to escape the negative emotion, to wipe it away with taste, texture, aroma, and the little rituals of eating.

Hold on to your unhappiness the next time you see a piece of cake or a bowl of curry, and ask yourself whether you actually need to eat something now, or if you are just eating for pleasure. You know where eating for pleasure has brought you. Try something different for a while.

Bear in mind there is nothing easy about this. Escapist eating implies a state of mind that does not easily find alternative sources of happiness and pleasure in life. It may imply depression or anxiety, or other disturbances.

But the underlying logic is hard to escape: if you are unhappy about being overweight, yet you continue to eat in excess, then there is something incoherent in your experience and your intentions. Coherence implies a reconciliation of these conflicting aims: either eat appropriately, or stop feeling bad about the physical consequences of excess.

Looking back, it proved helpful to me to dwell more on the unhappiness I felt at my appearance and my weight, and to extend that unhappiness into a critical analysis of my eating habits. Since weight and eating habits are so intimately related, it became clear that something was “going wrong” when I ate. That “going wrong” proved to be escapism.

Why else do people eat when they do not need to eat, and when the consequences of such unnecessary and excessive eating bring them unhappiness?

There’s a cake sitting on the table to my right. It is tasty and looks appetising, and I find myself drawn to eat some of it. But why do I want to eat it? Honestly I am not hungry – I could just as easily not eat it and continue with my work. But I still experience a desire to eat it, as though part of me believes eating it will be a wonderful pleasure.

Perhaps eating the cake would be pleasant. But why am I in such dire need of pleasure right now? Am I unhappy, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated, angry, sad, or afraid? Is my life so unpleasant that I feel the need to eat cake just to lift my base mood, despite knowing that the temporary pleasure of eating it will contribute to future unhappiness of being overweight?

And what is it precisely about the eating of the cake that will bring such pleasure? Is it the sweetness of the sugar, the moist and crunchy textures, the flavour of banana, hazelnut, and cinnamon, the caramelized golden syrup? Or is it just the movement of my jaw, the process of eating, the feeling of something in my stomach?

But I know from past experience that if I eat a piece of cake I might then be tempted to have some leftover curry. And later this evening I will be sorely tempted to cook some pasta, and eat some ice-cream.  It isn’t the cake per se, just that the cake happens to be the nearest and most enticing object of temptation at the present moment.

What all of those eating experiences have in common is that they take me away from the present moment. They offer an escape from whatever I happen to be feeling or not feeling right now, even though the escape is temporary and the consequences are themselves a cause of future unhappiness.

The unhappiness is more real than the escape, and there is more to be gained in facing reality than indulging in fleeting escapist pleasures.  Besides, most of us have already tried escaping, and we know what it brings. Rarely do we bring ourselves to try the experience of unhappiness and see where it leads.

If you try this, or work out your own approach, you will eventually find that you can tell the difference between eating for escape and eating to quell genuine hunger. Many of us have not experienced genuine hunger for years, if ever. We go from meal to meal without our digestive systems ever getting close to empty. We eat till we are overfull, and get “hungry” when we’re able to eat some more.

There are surely a number of ways to lose weight and stop escapist eating. This is the one I’ve found most valuable, because it doesn’t attempt to “cheat” and it forces us into a more honest experience of our own feelings. That being said, I’ve let it slide over the last few months. It’s easy to lapse into eating for the sake of pleasure, and the escapism this entails. At the same time, being aware of and accepting of your negative emotions is inherently challenging.

But imagine what it might be like to stop escaping from the problems and dissatisfactions in your life for once, and refuse the easy, self-destructive escapes that life offers?