One of the questions I get asked over and over is how to have a natural, responsive, loving, relaxed relationship with food while also honoring your need for structure.
Women who ask me this question have typically spent some time in a weigh and measure program – weighing, measuring and writing down everything they eat. While this structure creates safety and helps stop a pattern of bingeing or food addiction, it also gets tiring over time. It can also easily lead to food obsession – even though you may be externally free from overeating, you don’t feel internally free. (You may be filled with worry, fear, anxiety or control on the inside.) You may even start to resist this structure as it feels punitive.
That was my experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, these same women find that an “eat whatever you want” or intuitive eating approach doesn’t work either. They end up eating too much sugar, starchy carbs, and processed foods, which then excacerbates the very bingeing patterns they’re trying to heal. That was my experience, too! When I gave myself total free rein, I ended up right back in sugar addiction.
What to do? The answer lies in balance, and paradox. You want to combine a loving, responsive relationship with food with the structures that enable you to honor your intentions to feed your body with love.
It’s good parenting. A good parent combines unconditional love with loving limits. We do the same for ourselves with food.
Being compassionate with yourself, unconditionally loving yourself, loving food, and acceptance does not mean that you throw all boundaries or “rules” out the window. It’s how you go about implementing them in your life that’s the difference between support and suffering. Are your choices coming from love, wisdom and care? That’s support. Are they coming from fear, rigidity, a desire to control, or aversion? That’s suffering.
Here’s how to do it, an idea that originally applied to parenting, from Sharifa Oppenheimer, author of Heaven on Earth: Imagine your food container as a clay pot. On the outside of the pot are the rules, structures, and boundaries that make you feel safe. Inside the pot there’s a lot of room – freedom – to grow, breathe, move, adapt, and respond.
This is how I do it – the outside of my pot looks like this:
1. Eating breakfast within an hour of waking.
2. Eating regularly – every few hours.
3. Balancing my meals with a mixture of protein, fat, and unrefined carbs.
4. Doing my best to minimize or abstain from sugar, my trigger foods (these are foods that I’m allergic to, like gluten) and other refined foods (for me, this includes white flour and dried fruit.) I overeat and binge on these foods every single time. Removing these foods from my diet alleviates the up and down that I experience on every level – emotionally, physically and spiritually – when I eat them.
These structures and rhythms, the outside of my pot, keep my blood sugar stable, help me feel grounded, safe and secure. They lower the cortisol (stress response) that’s one of the biggest contributing factors to overeating.
The inside of my pot, the intuitive eating component, looks like this:
1. Letting myself choose from a wide variety of foods when I eat. Asking myself, what do I want to eat?
2. Letting myself choose among many different options for the fat, protein and unrefined carbs component of my meals.
3. Relishing and enjoying my food, savoring it, letting myself eat foods that I like. Food is not my enemy.
4. Adapting to the different needs, seasons, and more that effect how I eat. Listening to the rhythms of life that ask for different ways of nourishing myself. Listening to what my body (not my mind – two totally different things!) is needing.
How these two components work together is like this:
Right now I’m dealing with fatigue, burn out and stressful life circumstances. When I listen to my body (the intuitive eating component), this is what it tells me: I need rest. I need grounding. My response: eating lots of dense, grounding foods – winter veggies, root veggies, nuts, fat, and animal protein. They nourish me body, mind and spirit.
I’m also reaching out for support (lining up friends to talk to when I’m wanting to overeat, for example) so that my food container – my structures – are as strong as possible. When I’m under stress, the simple carbs and sugars call my name. I know this, so I’ve tightened my structure, so to speak, to support myself. I’ve also made eating regularly a priority, a non negotiable. This is not a time to be more “flowy” with when I eat.
At other times in my life, when life is more flowy and less stressful, I need less grounding foods. I may respond with eating more lighter foods. My structures may soften a bit.
It’s a beautiful dance, an ebb and flow, a responsiveness (vs. reactivity) that says: How am I feeling right now? And what do I need? Given what is, what do I need to do to care for myself?
And then believing, really feeling at the deepest level, that I am a precious, precious soul who deserves that loving kindness…..who can then act on those promptings to care for my body with kindness, wisdom and tenderness.