Have you been dieting for decades, or at least what seems like that long? If so, have you ever experienced a sustained period of time without anxiety about food, a noticeable lull in the noisy clatter of your negative thoughts and perceived failures? Catching a glimmer of what could be, either by circumstance or design, can offer useful clues about how to get what you really want – yes, what you want even more than a smaller size pair of pants – peace and contentment with food choices.
I want to describe for you just such a situation, as told to me by a young woman who came to me seeking weight loss advice. She explained that she has been trying to lose 20 pounds for a very long time, but the weight would not budge. Well, actually it would budge – it went up and down all the time – but never moved significantly over time.
It quickly became clear that she has been stuck in a rut of common dieting thought patterns. Days always started out with a determined attitude to “be good”, but often these plans fell apart later in the day, or possibly after a day or two. When a new diet plan offered hope for a different outcome, it just became a new opportunity to fail, because the thinking process was still the same.
Because I see this pattern so often among longtime dieters, I was quite sure that what she called “good” days were unrealistically inadequate and the high days (“bad days”) were just as extreme on the other end of the calorie spectrum. Sure enough, when I asked her to tell me what would be included in a day she considered good, the list added up to only 800 calories! Logic made it easy to speculate about how many calories would have to be eaten at the other extreme to keep her from losing any weight overall.
The conversation then took an enlightening turn. She looked at me as if she suddenly realized something, “You know, I’m not sure if this means anything at all, but I spent some time during college in Greece, and things really worked better for me there.” Hmmm, I thought. This is truly significant. “Tell me more,” I beckoned. “What was it like for you there?”
What followed was a perfect description of what I could not have impressed upon her in 20 counseling sessions. She had felt for herself exactly all of the components of a successful eating plan for life, a plan for optimal health and weight control. She described the peace (“yes, that’s what it was!”), confidence and pleasure of a completely different eating experience altogether. A comment she made early in our meeting jumped back out at me at this point: “My eating is very affected by my environment and situation.” I realized the full extent of what she had meant by the comment.
What followed was a vivid description of sunshine, relaxed meals with happy people, wine, bread, potatoes, meats prepared in simple but flavorful ways, fresh vegetables and fruit. No one was talking about weight, or how many calories the food had, or how the potatoes would turn straight to belly fat. What a contrast to her experience growing up in an Atkins household! In short, eating was stress-free and pleasant. AND, guess what? With the lack of worry, she actually lost weight! Coincidence? I think not.
The return home a few years ago was scary and difficult, because she knew that it would not be the same. This was a huge loss, the loss of something too big to describe. The tears said it all. She has been grieving since then and has not been able to regain what she lost. Fortunately, I think the conscious focused recollection was a starting point for a return to that peaceful feeling. It will take some time, and she will have to “keep Greece in her head” as much as possible, as she tries to keep from being sucked back into American dieting patterns.
So, do you have a “Greece experience”, a time when you felt this kind of peace connected with eating? If so, take a closer look at why you felt so relaxed and balanced. The pleasure in your life was probably balanced. It came from people, food, accomplishments, and happy thoughts. I am certain that you did not think about food all the time, and you felt a sense that you were in charge of your choices. Am I right? It’s a good reminder, isn’t it?
The U.S. is not like Greece when it comes to eating and body image. We are a culture of dieters with unrealistic standards for physical attractiveness. The anxiety this produces is sapping the joy and enthusiasm out of life for many Americans. Yes, many of us can improve our health by improving our eating habits and getting more physical activity. That is clear, but the negative way our culture approaches these goals is not working. It is no secret that dieting is just not working to solve the health problems associated with unhealthy lifestyles. It may seem counterintuitive to our “just do it” mentality, but a gentler positive approach is so much more effective. I see it happen. I know it works.