Happy New Year and beginning of the semester! As with every other year, many individuals have decided to commit to a New Year’s Resolution. A decent amount of resolutions each year are related to weight. Another year, another pledge to do whatever it takes to lose a few pounds. Although having a goal of being more health conscious is a great way to start a year, these goals can sometimes feel overwhelming, and create a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness. All too often a resolution of losing weight leads to a few things: losing a few pounds and then gaining it all back, restricting your calorie intake and then binging on unhealthy food, or giving up on your goal completely due to feeling like you’ll never get to where you want to be.
Research shows that around 95% of individuals who engage in dieting behavior gain weight back within one to five years of the diet. Further, there are studies that confirm the notion that restrictive diets can lead to a cycle of overeating or binging. These statistics are concerning, that 95% of individuals who have the goal of dieting to lose weight will end up gaining it all, or more, back. My goal in sharing this information is not to discourage you from being aware of what you eat. What professionals suggest is setting the goal of adjusting your relationship with food to replace the goal of losing weight. At first there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the goals: both are geared toward losing weight. However, there is a thin line between thinking carefully about the foods that we eat and obsessively restricting our calories to a dangerous degree.
Creating a healthy relationship with food is comprised of many smaller tasks: understanding your body’s needs, listening to your body when you are full, evaluating if you are actually hungry or if you’re using food as an emotional crutch, becoming aware of the way your body feels when you eat certain foods, among many other smaller goals. Having the end goal of losing weight often leaves little to no smaller goals in between, except for giving up “bad” food altogether and to exercise. Research shows that a goal of having a healthier relationship with food allows room for small accomplishments that feel rewarding as well as maintaining a longer lasting effect.
It’s true that setting the goal of forming a healthier relationship with food is a great deal of commitment, just as making any major change would. Any goal that’s set takes conscious effort, feeling uncomfortable, and unlearning some problematic lines of thinking in order for it to be effective, especially long term. Creating these smaller goals is not only better for your body, it’s better for your mind. When any one of us set a large end goal without planning small steps in between there is a strong increase in the possibility of giving up. These goals are also more realistic, specific, and simple, making achieving a small goal feel rewarding, which becomes motivation to reach the next goal.
Creating a healthier and more positive relationship with food is often beneficial for individuals with disordered eating of any kind. Hearing everyone around you complain about their weight, discuss their food and exercise regimens, and speak of how much better life would be if only they could shed a few pounds can evoke negative emotions. These negative emotions can increase the urge to engage in disordered eating patterns, making it more difficult to reach the goal of forming a healthier relationship with food. It would be a great deal less harmful if, instead, these individuals were encouraging themselves and others to discuss the ways in which they are trying to relate to food in a healthier manner. For example, switching the dialogue from “I hate looking in the mirror and seeing everything that I can’t stand about myself, this year I’m not going to eat any sweets and work out for at least a half hour every day” to “The food that I’m eating makes me feel lethargic and I really want to try to give my body food that will help me feel more energized. With that energy I can take less naps and spend that time participating in activities that I love”. The dialogue in the second sentence does a few things: it takes attention away from how a body looks and focusing on how it feels, creates an environment in which you aren’t putting yourself or anyone around you down, and gives yourself a reason to work toward your goal – because you want to have the energy to do the things you love. This can help remind you of the joy it brings when engaging in certain activities, such as hiking, riding a bike, and many more. Adjusting the way you talk about your own body also leads to less self-hatred when goals aren’t fully met.
With a goal of going to the gym for one hour every day, it can become discouraging if you miss a day or two, or can’t work out due to medical reasons. This can lead to the expansion of self-doubt and self-deprecating thoughts. “I’ll never lose this weight. If I can’t even go to the gym every day there’s no way I can ever reach my goals, I might as well give up now”. If, instead, the goal was to engage in activities that improve the way your body feels, there are plenty of other avenues you can take, such going for a walk or participating in yoga. However, being healthy and creating a working relationship with food means more than finding time to exercise even when you don’t want to, it means listening to your body’s needs – which sometimes means taking a day to rest. It is also useful to plan changes in everyday life, such as taking the stairs or going for a short walk on your lunch break.
Creating a healthier relationship with food is not only beneficial short term, it is more likely to create a longer lasting effect. When you learn to listen to your body’s needs, you unlearn using food as a reward and punishment system. You are also more likely to model to younger individuals who look up to you that it is more important to focus on how your body feels than how it looks, and to see food as an energy source that can allow us to participate in the activities that we love.
Although there are many benefits to recreating your relationship with food, it can take an extensive amount of time and effort. This is not a process that is completed in one day, this process may take years of conscious effort for some of us. Although it is a task that takes conscious effort, there is the added benefit of having small milestones to reach which lead to success, long term benefits, and it helps those around us while we help ourselves. Below are a few milestone markers as examples of how to set small goals in order to reach the long term goal of improving your relationship with food.
- Paying attention to your body’s needs – this includes being aware of when your body needs food, water, sleep, etc.
- Listening to when your body is full
- Paying attention to the way your body feels when you eat even after recognizing that you are full
- Paying attention to your motivation for eating – am I hungry or bored? Am I hungry or am I upset?
- Getting a better understanding of the way your body feels when you eat certain foods
- Being gentle on yourself if you are unable to exercise sometimes or at all
- Switch your internal and external dialogue to focus on what your body can do instead of how it looks
This list could go on for three more pages if I let it, but I think it is very important to set your own personalized goals. You know yourself best, and with active participation there can be a more rewarding outcome when you customize your goals to your specific needs. One of the most important goals across the board is to be gentle on yourself, and to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend in a similar position. Change does not come easy or fast, and having the patience to change the way you talk about and think about your body is not any different. Change comes from a series of conscious choices in a positive direction, and this is one item that brings a great deal of rewards. Remember to work hard at caring for yourself, whether your need is rest or foods that make you feel better. Work hard and consistently, and try to be gentle on yourself when you can’t quite reach a goal just yet. As the saying goes, “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit”.
Jessica Brokenshire, BSW, MSW Candidate