Chili Dip with Nacho chips, chicken cream cheese roll ups, guacamole layered dip with olives, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken, pulled pork, bean salad, corn salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, tortellini salad, cannoli dip with cinnamon chips, homemade macaroons dipped in chocolate, brownies, sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, rice krispy treats, cheese cake, Death by chocolate, peanut butter bars, every kind of chip imaginable…..oh, and wine, beer, sangria and water. What do you put on YOUR plate????
That was only part of the food that arrived at our pot luck picnic this weekend to kick off the summer season. Needless to say, the chatter regarding food and eating was unavoidable. My own daughter was comically stressing about what to choose when the desserts were out. “I’m so full!!! But that looks so good!!” Since she is not a baker and is also very frugal, yummy desserts like these don’t often come her way. I think she felt like she should take advantage of the situation and eat a bit of everything. Yet, she was already full. I simply suggested taking a plate of everything home…..that way, tomorrow, when she was hungry again and eventually in the mood for something sweet, she would be very happy. She thought I was brilliant : ) Such a simple suggestion, yet I am guessing a lot of people might not do this, thinking it was maybe rude to ask to take something home? Yet, I do it all the time for the simple reason being that I am not a fan of tummy aches. Sometimes, you just have to be assertive to take care of yourself….
My daughter’s reaction to my simple suggestion of taking some dessert home made me realize that these summer celebrations, while mostly fun and something we all look forward to, can be stressful to many. That day the dieting/food chatter was impossible to avoid. Some comments my daughter and I overheard:
- “I didn’t eat today so I can have this”
- “I am going to do an extra workout at the gym tomorrow morning to burn this up”
- “I have been good all week”
- “This week already has been bad, I might as well enjoy it today because after Memorial Day I am starting my diet….again”
- “I can’t make up my mind what I want to eat, there is too much!”
- “Get this dip away from me!”
And I am guessing that some people were having their own private thoughts about food and eating they may not have spoken out loud. When I worked exclusively counseling individuals with eating disorders it made me much more aware of how food-filled celebrations like these were absolutely scary. Typical thoughts from my patients were: Will someone be pushing food on me? Will anyone make a comment about what I am eating (or not eating)? Will I gain 5 pounds if I eat something fattening? Yes, everyone is different when it comes to how they handle exposure to such an overwhelming amount of food choices, and it can be emotionally (and physically) draining depending on your relationship with food.
In general, in my career as well as in my daily life I have encountered a few different “types” of individuals when it comes to eating and health, and their reactions to something like my Memorial Day picnic would all be different. For example:
- The so-called “normal” eater: this person encompasses a wide variety of people. Picture the active young adult male (or female) who doesn’t know much about cooking, likes to eat and totally appreciates free food. This guy may not care much about how he looks as far as body size, but has the innate ability to listen to his body signals (or, really doesn’t think twice about overeating or feeling way too full). He tends to take exactly what he likes, enjoys his plate of food and may throw out what he can’t finish. He then runs off to play lawn games with friends. Or, picture the middle age or older person who no longer is as fit as they used to be, but never dieted and doesn’t know what a calorie is. They may talk more about their digestive habits than food and body size. They tend to grab food they enjoy but avoid the things they know give them digestive problems (as we age, for example, some of us can’t digest milk as well as we could before). Or maybe fried foods does not sit as well as before, so passing over the bacon chili dogs with cheese is not because of calories but because of the desire to avoid the uncomfortable repercussions.
- The “restrained eater”: this person does not have a clinical eating disorder (meaning they may not meet all of the criteria for a diagnosis) however they probably spend a lot of time thinking about food restriction, calories, etc. They are very weight-conscious and weigh themselves often to be sure they are not gaining weight, or because they are trying to lose weight. The way a restrained eater behaves at a picnic depends on which mind set they are in at the moment. If they are determined to be restrictive, they may choose only “safe” lower calorie foods (such as the grilled chicken and salad). They might be experiencing some inner turmoil because the food choices available are especially appealing to someone who tends to restrict them on a daily basis. They may actually break down and have something, but the guilt they feel after eating triggers a repetitive and negative, blaming message inside their heads. Or, they may overeat once they have “blown it”, knowing that days of restriction will follow. Yes, restricting intake and dieting is associated with binge eating. It may not make sense to a naturally intuitive eater why on earth someone would eat so much as to feel ill (sometimes referred to as a “food hangover”). The person who has never dieted won’t get it, but those who have put themselves in “diet jail” understand that you gotta eat while you can, because inevitably, the dieting days will start again. The bottom line for restrained eaters is picnics can be challenging.
- The eating disordered person: without going into detail, someone with an eating disorder (anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge eating disorder) faces challenges beyond most people’s comprehension. They may have some great strategies to cope with these overwhelming situations if they have received treatment and this can help get them through it all. Sometimes, the hardest part for them is the scrutiny of others. That is why I make it a point to never comment on what someone else is eating (or not eating). It is none of my business. So please, do me a favor and keep your eyes on your own plate. Intentions may be good (they usually are from caring family and friends) but I promise you, unless your loved one personally asked you to be the food police, don’t do it.
- The “healthy eater”: this person may not be extremely restrained, but they prefer healthier types of foods. They may know little about calories and may not care about their weight at all. But they like good, wholesome and also delicious food. I know a lot of people like this (some may be referred to as “foodies”). They love to cook and discover interesting ways to make kale or beets. When you go to a party and there is that one unusual salad that you just can’t get enough of (and yet it’s main ingredient is vegetables), this is the person who likely brought it. Just this week I had a salad made of shredded broccoli, dried cranberries, walnuts (I think) and poppy seed dressing that was to die for. I also had a fresh corn salad with blueberries and cucumbers (go figure) that was also an unusually delicious combo. Besides enjoying cooking healthy type foods, these are the people who don’t eat much processed foods, not because they are worried about gaining weight but because they would rather make it themselves and know what is in it. I admit to being somewhat of a dessert snob in my old age (I can now taste the chemicals in a Twinkie). It needs to be homemade to taste good to me. Anyway, at a picnic these types of people may tend to be a bit selective but it is not the same as the “orthorexics” who will only eat super-healthy foods to the point of eliminating many fats, carbohydrate foods, etc. and who stress about eating perfectly. Normal, healthy eaters who prefer healthy food don’t waste a lot of time making their decisions about what they want to eat……they just may pick the more wholesome and homemade options (they really don’t miss the hot dog because they don’t enjoy them). But they won’t be passing up that homemade guacamole.
- The weight-conscious “healthy eaters”: these are people who have what is often referred to as “normative discontent”. They may be weight-conscious and try not to overeat, but they are going to enjoy themselves. As I may have written in another blog, in our culture it is difficult to not notice or care about body changes or weight gain as we age. Working on eating healthier and exercising but in a way that does not make you stressed out and does not affect your life in any big way is a different story than the restrained eater who feels guilt after eating. Still, focusing on weight in any extreme way (where it leads to meal skipping or restriction after a picnic or party day) may be a red flag. While it is reasonable to want to have a stable body weight as you get older, if too much energy has to be spent thinking about eating and food choices, or if guilt with eating enters the picture that is a different story.
The message I wanted to send today is that the summer fun has only begun, and my hope is that you will find a way to truly enjoy it at the same time as you honor your health, both physical and mental. That means accepting the person who YOU are and reflecting on your relationship with food. Do you find yourself feeling excessive guilt after eating at picnics? Do you starve or restrict before a party, then overeat and feel awful? Or, do you embrace and enjoy the great variety of foods you don’t ever get to have (because, honestly, who has the time to scrape corn off a cob for a blueberry corn cucumber salad?) If you find you really don’t enjoy these fun summertime food-centered events, try to figure out why….are you trying to be too healthy? are you afraid of gaining weight? Do a reality check. One meal or one day honestly has little affect on health or body weight. If you work on intuitive eating and listening to your fullness, you truly can eventually figure out a way to enjoy the entire event, food and all.
And, remember, you can always take home a doggie bag : )