Lesson two – Meals as love.
If you have any sort of history of food restriction, whether from dieting, or medical stuff, or an eating disorder, or food scarcity of any kind; from financial reasons, or barriers to getting food, or the inability to prepare the food you’ve got – your body is, frankly, not going to trust you.
Even after you start giving yourself permission.
I imagine that, inside all of us, is a small, vulnerable animal (one of my wonderful students calls it the “fuzzy self”) who just needs to know it will be taken care of, and that it will be fed.
And who’s responsible for the care and feeding of fuzzy self? Yep, it’s you.
If you no longer feel clear hunger or fullness signals (aside from desperation hunger or uncomfortable overfullness), there’s probably been a breach of trust, and it’s probably been going on for a while.
If you want to get back to a state of normalcy with hunger and satiety, and to regain comfort with the idea of eating, then it’s time to repair that relationship.
But rebuilding trust requires more than just saying the words of permission; it requires action.
One of my favourite quotes from Epictetus is –
“True happiness is a verb. It is the ongoing, dynamic performance of worthy deeds.”
Part of growing up emotionally is accepting that actions speak louder than words. It is accepting that happiness is not a passively euphoric state of mind randomly visited upon you by the fates – that true happiness is, indeed, something you build from the raw material of your behaviours, and the nitty-gritty of your daily choices. None of which may be all that fun in the immediate-term, but produce tranquility, contentment, and satisfaction over time.
Happiness is an investment of effort.
Love, including self-love, works the same way. As an adolescent, love is the crushing force of intense, uncontrollable sentiment. As a grown-up, you take up love as a practice, something you repair and build over time with kind words, kind actions, responsibility and consideration.
“Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.”
And that’s where we come to the damaged relationship between your mind and body. In order to heal this relationship, you need to express self-love in the form of action.
Even on days when there are no attendant warm fuzzies, you need to stand by a commitment to care for yourself – even if, at first, you must start from the humble position of promising just not to harm yourself any longer. Guess what?
Not eating, whether you do it intentionally or through neglect, is an act of self-harm.
When it comes to food, here is how you fix your relationship to your body: commit to feeding yourself on a regular basis.
It sounds ridiculously obvious, perhaps even simple, but you wouldn’t believe what a struggle it can be, both for practical reasons and for emotional ones.
In a practical sense, the way you implement regular meals and snacks is going to depend a lot on your schedule and where you spend most of your time. Working from home is a lot different than being in an office, or on the road, or at school.
It’s probably the hardest step to take, and it is also probably the most critical. It is the way you live out your intention to stop dieting, to stop restriction, to break the scarcity mindset around food, and to actually communicate to that small, vulnerable animal inside: “I want you to live. You are worth taking care of.”
If you are not eating at regular times already – if you are either grazing constantly throughout the day, or forgetting to eat for long periods of time; simply not eating enough altogether, or alternating eating too little with eating way too much for comfort – the way to begin doing this is to take one step at a time.
Pick one time of the day when you will eat. Pick a time that you know will be the easiest to implement – when you already have a scheduled break during day, or before the day gets busy, or after all your other commitments are finished.
Treat it the way you would treat a standing appointment. It should be something that you know you can make happen, at roughly the same time (give yourself an hour of leeway, because life does happen) every single day.
I literally need to mark my eating times in my daily appointment book because my schedule varies so wildly, and because I eat meals and snacks with students as part of my work.
Write in your day planner, set an alarm on your phone, an appointment reminder on your computer. A piece of paper taped to the fridge, a reminder on your desk. A string tied around your finger. Whatever works.
When I worked a typical nine-to-five job, I made a commitment to take my legally-entitled morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks. When I had an even less structured schedule than I have now, I used a rough interval system of eating every 3 to 4 hours, based on what time I woke up and had breakfast. I checked the clock, and at the end of each meal, I made a mental note that I would need to eat again at X o’clock. Then I simply moved on until next time.
And when I say “meal,” all I mean is the food you would normally eat, gathered together at one time, in one place. You do not have to cook anything, or use real silverware, or sit down at the table. Eat whatever you want to, wherever you want to. If you were going to graze on chips and cookies throughout the day anyway, put the chips and cookies together in front of you and eat them at the appointed time. Then put them away and move on.
The food itself is not important at this stage of the game – we are still working on the bottom level of the hierarchy of food needs.
Through the rest of the day, let yourself eat however you would normally eat – graze, forget to eat, whatever – but when it comes to that one time you have marked aside for an established meal, put food in front of yourself, give yourself permission, and take a least one bite. That’s enough to establish and maintain the habit. Take that bite while you’re working, while you’re standing up, while you’re sitting in your car in the parking lot – I do not care.
Mindfulness is not what we’re working on right now – just make eating happen at one, specified time of the day.
Do this for a full week. Then add one more time during the day that you can make eating happen, and do the exact same thing for another full week. Eat whatever you are already eating, or whatever sounds good to you.
Don’t worry about nutritional balance for now – that will come later. Taking some time for now to set up the framework, even if your diet looks wildly unbalanced for a while, is not going to hurt you. Your body has the ability to balance out nutrition over the long-term – months or years – so that having a perfectly balanced diet at every meal, on every plate, is unnecessary. In fact, right now, trying to do that could trip you up.
Add in meal after meal, snack after snack, week by week. Give yourself permission to eat whatever and as much as you want, and then put food in your mouth at predictable times every single day. That’s it.
Take your legally-mandated 15-minute breaks at work and have a fucking snack so you’re not completely useless at work. I know it looks better to somehow be inefficiently shuffling paper and making rash decisions in the office, but trust me, you’ll be more effective at your job if you just have some damn cookies or half a tuna sandwich and move on, already.
Eat while you’re working, if you have to. Sneak food, if you have to – but just eat.
As you build on meals and snacks by the week, pay attention to times during the day when you get consistently tired, cranky, spacy, or preoccupied with food (for me, this is the afternoon.) This is a sign that you need to work a meal or a snack into that time – so do it.
Most people end up eating between four and six times a day – this is completely normal.
If you need an afternoon snack before you head home, so that you can be sane enough to get dinner, do it. Turn off your computer for the day, or turn your chair away from it, and eat a little something before you leave work. Eat on the bus or the subway, or while you’re walking. Sit in your car for five minutes in the parking lot and have a granola bar. You’ll be safer on the road, and making dinner won’t seem like such a gargantuan chore.
This is eating like a grown-up – being matter-of-fact about your needs, and taking the time to meet them. It is loving yourself in the most important sense of the word.
You do this for your pets, your children, sometimes even the other adults around you – you can certainly do it for yourself, and for the small, scared animal inside who needs to know you are trustworthy.