For over a decade, I struggled hopelessly with food and body image. My story is of eating disorder and alcoholism; but it is just one drop in the bucket. Most people have ongoing struggles with food. According to the Boston Medical Center, approximately 45 million Americans diet each year and spend $33 billion on weight-loss products. Furthermore, statistics suggest that a mere 5% of American females naturally achieves the “ideal” body portrayed by advertising — which means the rest of us are trying to reach a body ideal that fights against our genes.
The ideal body has become a symbol for feeling worthwhile, loved and fitting in. The preoccupation around it, and around what we eat to achieve it, is an accepted one. From our children to the elderly, we are hard-pressed to find anyone who is either satisfied with their body or not currently dieting. Yet we also are suffering from an obesity and binge-eating disorder (BED) epidemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 36% of Americans are obese, and statistics show that BED is more common that anorexia and bulimia. Back when I was binging around the clock, I was attempting to “stuff” my feelings of not measuring up to cultural expectations. I was using food to numb my sense of inadequacy the same way dieters use dieting to feel adequate. Wherever we are on the body spectrum, we struggle for control by placing restrictions on ourselves.
I used to think that if only I could find a magic key, a perfect combination of fad diets, exercise regimes, positive thinking and will power, then I too would be lucky enough to escape the full, Maltese hips that my ancestors passed down to me and could be deemed “ideal.” Finally, I would be relieved from the burden of my body. The expectations of what our bodies could be and the desperation we feel in wanting to attain it, is enough to sever our relationship to our bodies altogether.
New Year’s resolutions based around changing our bodies are the most common resolutions there are. At the end of each year, many of us declare that next year we will be healthier, join a gym, eat less “junk food” and lose [fill in the blank] pounds. But I have rarely heard anyone say: “Next year, I am going to take the time I need to rebuild the relationship between my body and myself.” I understand; it doesn’t quite have the same “quick fix” ring to it that other resolutions have. But are the quick fixes really quick? And do they really fix anything? Statistics show that 95% of all dieters will regain their weight loss within five years.
Nonetheless, I used to personally join the bandwagon of New Year’s resolution hype, year after year. I would find a diet or fast. I made plans to start the moment the New Year’s ball fell, and then proceeded to comfort myself with my plans each time I underwent food comas from Thanksgiving on. Beginning the New Year, I would start my new diet with such gusto and dedication (even though none EVER lasted long-term)! And like before, with each meal of deprivation, the familiar sense of hopelessness and failure crept in until I found myself right back where I started — looking for the next quick-fix diet that would save me from myself.
But nothing changes if nothing changes. I was running in circles to find a magic key that was outside of myself. As in all recovery, the key to finding what worked for my body was within me. It was not in the perfect diet or the right fitness regime. It turns out, it was in my willingness to get reconnected with my body. It was in my willingness to allow my body the time to rebuild its relationship with food based on its own needs…because if I listened to it, it told me all that I needed to know to maintain its health. Our bodies are magical things. They tell us when they are hungry, and when they are full. If we listen, our bodies will even tell us the texture, flavor and temperature of food it wants to eat. It will tell us what it needs when it is sick, and what we need to help us grow a baby. (Well, if you are female, that is.)
When I finally had enough of being in an unhealthy relationship with my body and food, I reached a point where I didn’t care what I “should” look like. I said to myself, “If I’m meant to be larger, so be it.” Scary? Yep, but not as scary as living in body-and-food hell for the rest of my life. First, I tried eating “mindfully” (eat when hungry, stop when full, eat whatever your body wants), but I realized that it was far too difficult to take cues from a body I had worked so hard to ignore. So I had to start at a place a little more basic. In our book, Making Peace with Your Plate: Eating Disorder Recovery, Espra Andrus, LCSW, and I outline our “Nutritional Healing: A 3-Tier Approach.” Each tier acts as a foundation in rebuilding your relationship with your body and food. It helps by providing a structured freedom.
Removing all “good” and “bad” labels from foods and allowing ourselves to eat them three times a day — with guidance on portions — allows us to explore food again, with structure to calm the fear that we will gain ridiculously large amounts of weight. This step has the ability to liberate and provide a safety net to challenge our beliefs about body control and food. Within three to six months, you will organically begin to make choices from a place of trust — trusting that your body will let you know what it needs and trusting that you won’t lose control. You see, it is only when we begin to rebuild our trust with our bodies, food and ourselves that we can truly investigate how certain foods impact our bodies, minds and spirits. If we choose to restrict foods before rebuilding our relationship with food and body, we run the risk of making choices from a diet mentality instead of for optimum health.
No one wants to take the long route anymore, especially when it comes to our bodies. But here’s the thing: The longer route is the quicker fix! So this New Year’s, consider a resolution to making peace with your plate, by first making peace with your relationship to your body and yourself.