One dietitian shares how letting go of her food rules helped her reduce cravings, worry less about food and weight, and just enjoy eating more.
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"So does being a dietitian mean you can't enjoy food anymore…because you're always thinking about it as calories and fat and carbs?" my friend asked, as we were about to take our first spoonfuls of gelato.
"Yes," I said, bitterly. I'll never forget her question and my gut reaction to it. I knew that it didn't have to be this way. I knew I was putting myself through unnecessary suffering. But I had no idea how to stop obsessing over food.
Thinking about food all day (or at least most of the day) is my job. But there have been times when I realized I needed a break from that. I wondered what I would spend my time thinking about if it wasn't analyzing the food I was eating and evaluating whether it was "good" or "bad".
I have to admit that from when I first became a dietitian up until just earlier this year, I had so many food rules and distorted beliefs:
"I'm addicted to sugar, and the only cure is complete abstinence."
"The more 'in control' I am of my eating, the more I can help other people 'eat better'."
"Being slim is the most important way to show people I'm a nutrition expert."
"Dietitians should be able to keep sugary foods in the house and have the willpower to resist them."
I felt I was failing at all of these. So did that mean I wasn't good at my job?
I'd known for some time that including "less-healthy" foods as part of an overall healthy diet was the key to health and happiness. When I first became a dietitian, I named my counseling and consulting business 80 Twenty Nutrition to emphasize that eating healthier foods 80 percent of the time and less-healthy "treats" 20 percent of the time (often called the 80/20 rule) results in a healthy balance. Still, I struggled to find that balance myself.
Sugar detoxes, low-carb diets, intermittent fasting…I tried different diets and regimens in efforts to "fix" my food issues. I'd be the perfect rule-follower for the first week or so, and then rebel by gorging on sugary foods, pizza, French fries—anything that was "off limits". This left me exhausted, confused, and feeling plenty of guilt and shame. If I wasn't strong enough to do this, how could I help other people?
My Turning Point
Everything changed when I took a mindful eating course and created a program for cancer survivors that included these concepts. So many people I met at the cancer center were terrified that eating the wrong thing had caused their cancer—and they lived in fear that eating imperfectly could also bring it back.
While it's true that overall lifestyle patterns can increase or decrease the risk of some types of cancer and their recurrence, it deeply saddened me to hear people talk about never again having foods they once enjoyed. I empathized with how they felt and counseled them on recognizing when a desire to be healthy could actually be harmful to their health and well-being.
For instance, some of my clients shared that they would avoid celebrations with friends and family in order to avoid foods they viewed as unhealthy. They would feel incredible amounts of stress if they couldn't find the "right" kind of supplement or ingredient at the health food store. Many of them struggled with a vicious cycle of being strict with their food intake and then opening the floodgates and overeating less-healthy foods for days or weeks at a time. They felt defeated and tremendous amounts of guilt and shame. They self-inflicted all this pain despite having gone through such challenging treatments and beating cancer. Hadn't they been through enough?
I explained to them that social isolation and stress are also closely linked to reduced longevity and cancer outcomes. I wanted each and every one of these people to experience as much joy and calm as possible. I wanted them to spend quality time with family and friends rather than isolating themselves so they could eat the "right" thing. Helping these clients forced me to take a look at my own belief systems and priorities.
The mindful eating principles I taught emphasized choosing foods that are nutritious—but also foods that you really enjoy. By slowing down and paying close attention to the five senses as they ate, the participants were surprised to learn that foods they'd been mechanically eating weren't even that enjoyable. For example, if they were overeating cookies and then tried to eat a couple of cookies mindfully, many people found they didn't even like them that much. They discovered that going to a bakery and buying one of their freshly baked cookies was far more satisfying than eating an entire bag of store-bought ones.
This was also true with healthy foods. Some people learned they hated kale but really enjoyed spinach. That's not "good" or "bad." It's just information. Now they could zero in on eating fresh, high-quality foods they loved. Sure, they could try their best to plan their meals around the healthier options—but the people who relaxed their food rules and worked in some foods they viewed as "treats" found they were happier and ate better overall, treats included.
The Dessert Experiment
To incorporate the same idea into my own life, I began an experiment: What would happen if I scheduled my favorite foods into my week and took the time to really savor them? My biggest "issue" and source of guilt is my sweet tooth, so that's where I focused. I tried scheduling a dessert I looked forward to into every single day. Less often might work for some people. But knowing my cravings, I acknowledged that I needed that frequency to feel satisfied and not deprived.
Scheduling might still seem pretty rule-oriented, but it was key for me. As someone who typically makes eating decisions based on my emotions, I wanted this to be more structured. Every Sunday, I would take a look at my week and schedule in my daily dessert, keeping portion sizes in mind. I was also careful not to bring large amounts of dessert home, but to buy single portions or go out for a dessert. This was important in the beginning so I wouldn't be tempted to overdo it.
And the health factor of the desserts varied. Some days, the dessert would be a bowl of blueberries with dark chocolate drizzled on top. Other days it would be a small bag of candy or a doughnut, or going out for ice cream or sharing a dessert with my husband. If I had a huge craving for something I hadn't worked into my plan for the day, I'd tell myself I could schedule it in and have it the next day—and I made sure I kept that promise to myself.
How My Thoughts About Food Changed Forever
An amazing thing happened after trying this for only a week. Desserts lost their power over me. My "sugar addiction" seemed to almost disappear. I still love sweet foods but am completely satisfied having smaller amounts of them. I eat them often and, the rest of the time, I'm able to make healthier choices. The beauty of it is that I never feel deprived. I think about food so much less. I worry about food so much less. This is the food freedom I'd been searching for all my life.
I used to weigh myself every day. With my new approach, I felt it was important to weigh myself less often—once a month at the most.
Three months later, I stepped on the scale with my eyes closed. I finally opened them and was shocked to see I'd lost 10 pounds. I couldn't believe it. Eating the foods I really wanted—even if they were small amounts—each and every day helped me feel satisfied and eat less overall. Now, I'm even able to keep some highly tempting foods in the house that I wouldn't have dared to before. (Related: Women Share Their Non-Scale Victories)
So many people struggle to lose weight—but why does it have to be a struggle? I passionately feel that letting go of the numbers is an essential part of the healing process. Letting go of the numbers helps you get back to the big picture: nutrition (not the slice of cake you had last night or the salad you're going to have for lunch). This new-found reality check gave me a sense of peace that I want to share with everyone I meet. Valuing health is wonderful, but being health-obsessed probably isn't. (See: Why ~Balance~ Is the Key to a Healthy Food and Fitness Routine)
The more I relax my food rules and eat what I want, the more at peace I feel. Not only do I enjoy food so much more, but I'm also mentally and physically healthier. I feel like I've stumbled onto a secret that I want everyone else to know.
What would happen if you ate dessert every day? The answer might surprise you.