We as humans are a very emotional species. All we need to do to verify that statement is go to the section of Barnes & Noble where the Nicholas Sparks books reside. Our emotions are tied to everything we do: love, work, play, laugh, and maybe most importantly, eat. We all have different emotional triggers for eating – happiness, sadness, anger, boredom, satisfaction – and for some of us, emotional eating can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. But since we can’t live without food and can’t go a year without a Nicholas Sparks movie (The Best of Me came out October 17), I feel it is in our best interest to learn how to make our emotions and our eating play nice in the sandbox together.
The way you look at and treat food is like any other relationship that you’ve ever had. Think about it. That fluttery feeling you get when you meet a new tall, dark, and handsome suitor with impossibly sparkling eyes and an equally sparkling smile? Don’t you get the same feeling when your nostrils and taste buds are flooded with the aroma of filet mignon with truffle butter and garlic mashed potatoes at a new restaurant? How about that living-on-the-edge, carpe diem feeling when you go out on a limb and ask said suitor on a date? That resembles that feeling when you impulsively answer, “Yes” to the “Can I interest you in dessert?” question, and dip your fork into a smooth and creamy piece of cheesecake smothered in warm caramel. And the gut-punching feeling you get when said suitor stops answering your texts and makes no plans beyond that first date…well, that’s the same feeling of defeat you might get from polishing off a full pint of Ben & Jerry’s. If I hadn’t made my point yet that food and relationships are highly correlated, the Ben & Jerry’s reference should have hit it home.
I’m the first to admit that I haven’t always had the best relationship with food. I understand that feeling of guilt when you “cheat” on your diet, the feeling of defeat when you have to give up on a way of eating and start over. The guilt, defeat and frustration all stem from striving for perfection when we eat. This is the emotion that I fought against the most in my struggles with food and dieting. I grew up a perfectionist, and that quality was magnified exponentially when I began to study ballet. I moved away from home at age 16 to attend a prestigious ballet school in Pennsylvania, and the compulsion among the dancers to be “perfect” practically dripped off the walls. In order to make it in the professional ballet world, you have to have the perfect body, perfect technique, perfect movement quality. But when we were standing in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors in nothing but leotards and tights, the perfect body compulsion was usually the only thing occupying our brain space. While several dancers surrendered to the pressure to be thin by developing eating disorders, an even larger proportion (myself included) developed disordered eating patterns. I was so determined to follow the “perfect” diet, which meant low-calorie everything, nothing “unhealthy”, and the fewer calories consumed per day, the better. Each day was like a blank slate. I could be satisfied with myself if I was “good” and followed my diet at each meal.
But the reality that no one is perfect and no one diet or particular food is perfect set me up for failure from the beginning. Starving myself during the day to limit my calorie intake only intensified the cravings for things like pasta, pizza, peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s. When it came time to have a “cheat day” or a meal at a restaurant, I would go overboard. It was a fall from the perfection I strived for, a guilt trip that would only subside the next morning when I could start the restriction cycle all over again. The restriction pattern fueled my perfectionism, and my perfectionism fueled the restriction. It was a cycle that just spun me further and further into bad eating habits, despite how healthy I thought I was.
The problem with eating according to perfection is that you end up paying too much attention to calories alone and missing out on a ton of powerful nutrients. Take avocado, for example. I used to stay away from avocado since it is higher in fat and calories, but it’s packed with omega-3 fatty acids that are essential to the diet and contribute to cardiac and brain health. On the flip side, certain candies are low-fat and low-calorie, but they are empty calories. They do nothing to fuel your body or make it strong. By restricting to a minimal amount of calories per day, I was not getting nearly enough of key food groups like vegetables, dairy, and whole grains.
So now it’s your turn, since I’m sure you can relate to at least part of my story. I challenge you to go to the grocery store and pick out a day’s worth of groceries without looking at any nutrition labels. There is no perfect food, so let’s move past that notion once and for all. Pay attention instead to color, freshness, and words like “whole” and “natural”. Then when you eat this food (and continue to NOT look at the nutrition label), let me know how you feel. Let me know if that perfectionism that forms a dark cloud over you brightens just a little. Life is too short to be a slave to calorie counting. Trust me.