Experiencing Food In A New Way

I originally published this as part of Megan’s Musings #2 but decided to make it it’s own standalone post, so here it is!

Lately, I’ve been working on letting go of perfectionism, being ok with not knowing all the answers, and embracing where I’m at today. This includes embracing the process and journey in terms of my relationship with food. I eventually want to share my full “story”, so without going into too much detail for now, I’ll just say that starting out at a young age I developed an unhealthy preoccupation with food and my body. While the specifics of my struggle have changed over the years and the severity has waxed and wanted, the struggle has been ever present. I often find myself wishing that I already “arrived” to the end of this battle. It’s been a thorn in my side for the majority of my life. I keep looking for the “answer” that will get me past it. I thought for a while adopting a plant-based lifestyle was the answer. And, yes, it has given me tremendous freedom in some areas and propelled me forward, but it has also shined light on many of the areas that I still need to address. While this frustrates me at times, I also recognize that I wouldn’t be where I am today without this “problem” and I’ve grown so much in the healing journey. I’ve come to embrace and love the growth process! I’m learning to allow myself to have my own experience with food. My experience is going to look different than everyone else’s and that’s ok. This has been a struggle for me because I’ve historically been the type of person that likes to “fit in”. But, there’s nothing about the choices that I’ve made for myself that fit me into a specific mold and certainly not popular culture. Sometimes I question myself, but I just need to give myself some daily reassurance and encouragement that I’m perfectly ok where I’m at today. My counselor reminded me that I don’t give myself credit for all the knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years in the area of nutrition in general. I don’t have a degree, a book, or any sort of credentials, but I’ve done a tremendous amount of self-study and learning that adds up. While I will never know everything and can always learn something new, I also need to accept the fact that I know ME, MY body, and MY health better than anyone else and need to trust myself to put together what works best for me. I’ve lived most of my life looking to the outside for support and reassurance that I’m doing the right thing. But, I need to trust my own judgment based on the knowledge I have. I coach people to do this all the time – to gather knowledge and then make the best possible choice for themselves based on their knowledge, their circumstances, their personal experiences, and tweak as necessary – so why is/has this been so hard for me to do???!!! I have much reason and evidence to be confident in my intuition and my knowledge, but I still struggle to trust myself.

In the last few weeks my counselor and I have been honing in on what’s behind my preoccupation with treats in particular. Of course there’s the addictive nature of salt, sugar, and fat (especially when combined!), but I know the issue goes much deeper for me. I’ve been spending time digging into my past to search for the roots. It’s no secret that I’m a former ice cream addict and have had an unrelenting sweet tooth for my entire life. Sweets were very much part of my childhood years. I was also taught or told early on that I needed to “watch” what I ate and “be careful”. I think it was at this age that I started to question my judgment around food and where I started to struggle with listening to my body and making healthy choices. When my family went through rocky times in my early teen years, my way of taking control and getting attention was to control my body and food. I started drastically restricting my food intake and eventually was diagnosed with anorexia and depression. This created a false sense of security for me. I thought that when I had these two things under control, I was ok. If they got off track, I was not. Of course restriction and willpower can be good things when used in the right context, but when taken to the extreme they can be unbalancing, detrimental, and even destructive. I received professional help for the eating disorder, but I have come to realize that it is something that may remain with me to some extent for the rest of my life. I have no doubt that God could completely take this away, but He hasn’t yet and I’m ok with that. I still have learning and growing to do.

I eventually started to see improvement with the eating disorder and got to a more normal weight and eating patterns, but I still thought a lot about food and was particularly into ice cream and other desserts. I didn’t recognize this at the time, but I now see that I looked to treats for comfort when I was down. Treats were something to look forward to when the rest of my life seemed to be crumbling. Treats would never hurt my feelings and never abandon me. And, I didn’t have to rely on another human for any of it. Humans were letting me down so turning to an inanimate object seemed like a good alternative. I worked hard to eat healthy and exercise and treats were my one vice, my only indulgence. I withheld from indulging in many other of life’s pleasures so it was easy for me to justify my behavior. Food became my idol.

Now fast forward to 2014. I had felt for many years that I needed to deal head on with my “idol” but had no idea how to do that. I also found out that I had high cholesterol. In an attempt to tackle the cholesterol problem and also break my sugar habit, I embarked on a 3 week “detox” in January 2015. I adopted a plant-based whole foods diet and gave up all animal products, processed foods, and sugar. I really had no trouble giving up meat but the dairy and eggs part was hard for me. Cutting out sugar was the most challenging. At first I felt like a part of me had died. And essentially it had. I was identified by many of my family and friends as the ice cream lover! It had been such a part of my life for so many years. But, after some time, the desire subsided and I no longer obsessed about it. It seemed abstinence was the answer and it was….for a long while. But then, we made some changes as a family that opened the door in my mind to have a little sugar again and once I did, it was like I never stopped in the first place. I wanted it just like I did before and when I indulged I felt intense internal guilt and shame. The first thing I tackled in my counseling was this guilt and shame and I feel free of that now. But I was left with the remaining question of “what am I seeking when I want treats?”, or “what emotion / void am I seeking to fill when I want to indulge?” It was hard for me to pinpoint at first but after some processing I recognized that it was joy and pleasure that I was seeking. I was looking to food to give me lasting joy and pleasure (something sensual pleasures will never be able to do!).

Now that I’m aware of what’s been going on, the question becomes how to best deal with the issue. I thought abstinence was the answer and it does work to some extent but it seemed to miss addressing the deeper root. Sure I could avoid the substance and not experience the feelings, but is there another way? Is it possible to develop a healthy relationship with food / treats so that I could have some sort of neutrality and balance around it? Could it be a part of my life without being attached to any emotion or eliciting overwhelming thoughts? It’s hard for me to believe this is possible, but my counselor believes it is.

My counselor and I have been talking a lot about food addictions and different ways to address them. I am most familiar and comfortable with the abstinence route (similar to what AA would teach) when it comes to sugar in particular, but there are other ways to address addictions. One of these other ways is what is known in the therapy world as the feeling state addiction protocol. The idea behind this strategy is to identify the positive feeling that is associated with the behavior (comfort, joy, or pleasure, in my case for example) and then work on separating this feeling from the behavior so that you will eventually get to a point where that behavior no longer produces the feeling and thus the need to continue doing that behavior subsides. This is a very different approach than the abstinence route in which you take away or avoid the trigger behavior (like avoiding sugar completely or never taking a drink again) because in the feeling state addiction protocol, you don’t take away the triggers but instead see if you can figure out how to make the trigger less appealing so that eventually you no longer get the same satisfaction from engaging in the behavior.

The feeling state addiction protocol sounds fabulous to me in theory, but it’s honestly very hard for me to wrap my mind around the concept that this might even be possible with food addictions. But since the abstinence route doesn’t seem to be working for me, I’m certainly open to experimenting with other alternatives. There are many steps to the feeling state addiction protocol process and in simplified terms, it would go something like this: once aware of an addiction, identify the positive feeling you associate with the addiction (what you are seeking when you engage in the behavior, what you’re trying to get from it, or what is the void that the behavior is filling). Then, do the work to address the need in a different (and healthier!) way so that you no longer need to engage in the destructive behavior. For example, if you are turning to a behavior to relieve stress, then focusing your energy on other healthier stress relieving techniques or changing your circumstances so you aren’t so stressed. Or, if you are seeking joy, filling your joy cup with God, relationships, and/or a hobby of some sort instead of the destructive behavior. Sometimes it could be adding something to your life (like more fun activities or more laughter) and other times it might be subtracting things (like unnecessary stressors or unhealthy relationships). Depending on how deep-rooted the problem is, it might be a relatively easy fix. Possibly just bringing awareness to the issue, stopping, pausing, counting to 10, and taking a few breaths to reframe your mind. Other long-standing issues / behaviors may take a little more time and processing to figure out – especially behaviors that are done out of habit and seem almost instinctual because you’ve done it so long.

My counselor challenged with an experiment: when I really think I want something (treat mostly), instead of resisting it and trying to use my willpower, just buy it so I don’t get all up in my head about it and build it up to be something so grand and special. It’s become a power struggle. I think I’m wielding my power by resisting these things I want so much, but she thinks I’m yielding my power to them by resisting because I build them up to be so special in my head and then I start to feel deprived and neglected when I “can’t” have them. By resisting, I want it more. I want what I decided I can’t have. I don’t understand why this is the case for treats when it’s not for things like meat and cheese, but it is. I’ve made a decision not to eat those things and I have no desire to do so, but treats are another story. So with this experiment, rather than taking the abstinence route, I’m yielding to the behavior and seeing if it really gives me the satisfaction I think it’s going to. Rather than change my behavior, I’m experimenting to see if I can disassociate the emotional feeling from the behavior so that I no longer get that positive feeling. At the same time, I’m working on finding my joy and satisfaction in healthier places (first in God, then in relationships and other healthier outlets). The hope is that I will see that the behaviors won’t satisfy me like I think they will, and I will build evidence that will help me to not indulge the next time I think I really want it. And, if I’m doing the work to find joy and pleasure in better ways, I will be able to enjoy treats in a healthier, balanced, and non-attached manner. We shall see!

My birthday was a great opportunity to try out this new experiment. I spent a little time the day before my birthday gathering up some of the treats I’d been thinking so much about – some vegan and others admittedly not. I got all of the things I’ve been thinking so much about and had built up in my mind to be so wonderful. I was looking forward to it so much that I didn’t sleep well the night before in anticipation. I decided I was not going to feel guilty or beat myself up over my purchases. I needed to remind myself that the only person I need to answer to is ME (and the Lord)! While a thing or behavior might not be BEST for me, it is not inherently BAD and I shouldn’t condemn myself the way I so often do.

So, what happened after all the anticipation? My birthday night came, and I had some of it all. The initial tastes were amazing, but I was quickly dissatisfied, felt crappy, had a terrible stomachache, and I didn’t sleep well. I got instant pleasure from the taste but it was so fleeting! You’d think I would get the lesson after the first round of experimentation didn’t live up to my expectations, but the next night came and we had some of the treats left, so I decided why not have a little more and see how I feel. Once again the first few bites tasted so good but I was so quickly dissatisfied and I slept terrible. The next two nights I passed on treats and felt great. I thought about indulging but then reminded myself how I felt afterward and how fleeing the satisfaction I got was. This was enough for me to not want to indulge those two nights.

I’m hopeful to get to the point where I can decide to have a treat or not have a treat without the treat having any power over my thoughts or needing the treat to satisfy an emotional need. I want to be able to enjoy these little (not lasting) pleasures without attachment, without guilt, and without becoming hooked. I no longer want to use them to numb my feelings. It’s about recognizing what I really need and meeting my needs in appropriate ways so that I no longer need to look to food to fill these needs/voids. I need to practice so that I can build evidence that I can meet my needs elsewhere and that the treats won’t give me what I was seeking them for (lasting joy and pleasure, etc.). And hopefully the addictive chain will be broken!

Some lingering thoughts / questions I have on this topic:

  • The gut and mind are intimately connected and I’m trying to sort through this connection. From what the research is saying, if I continue to feed my gut sugar, for example, I’m going to keep wanting it. Doesn’t this fly in the face of my experiment to indulge when I want to? Because if I keep indulging won’t I keep wanting it? At the same time, I’m recognizing more and more how crappy it makes me feel and how unsatisfying it really is. Maybe at some point the scales will tip and the latter will weigh out the former.
  • What do healthy boundaries look like for me? What does a healthy relationship to food look like? Can I find lasting freedom and neutrality around food? Can I find balance? Time shall tell.
  • One thing I know, healthy behaviors, when taken to the extreme AREN’T balancing for me. I’m certainly darn good at taking things to the extreme!
  • I so often look to the outside to supposed “experts” in various fields to tell me what’s good for me (for example, what to eat, how to exercise, etc.). While I can learn from all of this information, I still have the responsibility to myself to create my own rules and systems that best serve me and keep me balanced. God has blessed me with much knowledge and discernment that I need to put into practice on myself!

Stay tuned for my thoughts on how all this fits in the context of family and the bigger picture of setting healthy boundaries and allowing each family member to have their own experience. Until then….have a wonderful weekend!


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