Untethered Eating: Exciting….or Terrifying?

Image may contain: people sitting and foodI love the word “untethered”….not sure why, probably because it makes me think of a dog escaping his leash and running free to smell the grass, jump around and finally, being able to be the creature he was supposed to be. Maybe that is why when I arrived at the airport way too early last month on my way to Florida, I ended up impulsively buying a paperback in the airport bookstore. I actually almost always end up buying a book at that bookstore because we are ALWAYS early. Anyway, I ended up purchasing The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer because I liked what it said on the back, it was not too long and like I said, I like the word “untethered”.

As I was reading the book, it struck me there were lots of parallels that could be made with the way we eat. I tend to be slanted in the way I look at eating because of my experience with working with individuals with eating disorders and with parents of children who have the dreaded unacceptable BMI. I often react to things very differently than others. When really smart and educated, even insightful and spiritual people fail to react to something that totally infuriates me, I know I am prejudiced against some of our culturally expected natural instincts. Anyway, I know this is why this book struck me so hard in the way it relates to eating, and especially dieting minds.

To see what the book is about check out this description on the Untethered Soul’s website. The bottom line, to me, was learning how to live in the moment verses constantly reliving and regretting the past, and/or spending way too much time planning, worrying about or dreading the future (hhmmmm… do you know anybody who does that with food?). It was about that voice that is continually and always in our heads, barking orders, belittling, shaming and stressing us out. And although it is somewhat different (the book refers to inner consciousness) I have talked about “self-talk” before. It is a common term in healing from disordered eating. We sometimes refer to this nasty voice as “ED” (eating disorder), the one telling us we are fat, we are stupid because we ate something, a cookie will make us gain weight, and on and on. The first step is to start to become aware of that voice.

And that is what struck me about the book message and how it can apply to the way we eat (or try not to eat). Becoming aware of that voice is the first step to a more peaceful relationship with food. Being non-judgmental of that voice, no matter what it says, is also critical. The important thing is to become more conscious of what is going on. Not running from it, not trying to change it, and definitely not judging it. Just sitting with it and accepting it.

After reading the book I started to think about what “tethered” eating looks like. All of the things patients have said to me came to mind. The sad thing is some of the culturally acceptable messages also came to mind (so you can imagine how hard it is to heal from disordered eating when cultural messages about bodies and eating are also disordered……how do you fight the world?).  Some of the thoughts stuck in our heads that keep us tethered might be:

  • You need to lose ______pounds
  • You need to get down to a size _____
  • You need to get rid of that tummy (thighs, butt, insert body part)
  • Carbs are bad
  • You need to be “good” (meaning don’t eat “bad” food)
  • Don’t eat fried foods
  • Sweets are bad
  • Don’t eat after 6 pm
  • Read the label and don’t eat anything with sugar
  • You ate __________ so now you need to burn it up by exercising more
  • Cheese is bad
  • Meat is bad
  • Eggs are bad
  • Cookies are bad
  • Pasta is bad
  • I can’t eat what everyone else is eating
  • I can’t order what I really want in a restaurant

And on and on, you get the message. We are so wrapped up in perfect eating and perfect bodies (whatever that means) that we end up feeling tied up when it comes to food. I actually have witnessed people looking almost like a cartoon when they are faced with food. Imagine a child in front of a bakery counter, drooling over whoopie pies or amazing looking desserts and the mom pulling the kid away, the child’s neck still stretched as far as it can toward that sweet display. Sometimes, that is how people strike me, but there is no leash, no adult pulling them back, they are just drooling and denying themselves something they really want because of the subconscious “tether”.  Then again, at other times when I see someone gobbling something up, it is because they have decided to cut the tie and go crazy (just like the puppy running free, they really let loose). It is a natural instinct I imagine, after feeling tied up for so long. But it has nothing to do with enjoying food in a healthy way (or a normal way). There is nothing intuitive or conscious about either extreme (of restricting or overeating).

If you are someone who is trying to lose weight (or simply trying to be a “healthy eater”), you may be thinking “of course I need to control myself, if I didn’t I would eat everything and gain weight (or be unhealthy)!”.

Probably not, if you stop and think first. Not if you tune in to your true hunger (or your true desire, craving or need). Not if you get to a place of knowing you are truly free, and believing it.

Remember, although I wish everyone with disordered eating could do this and be free, I know it is not that easy. Eating disorders are complex, and getting better is not this simple. Stopping binge eating or recovering from anorexia or bulimia takes lots of therapy , work and medical attention. And although leaning how to “tune in” to true hunger (verses using eating or not eating for something else) may be part of the process to recover, what I am talking about now is directed more toward the “typical dieter” who is simply falling into the trap of thinking eating needs to be perfect, or a certain way in order to affect weight. Those of you with eating disorders need to work with your specialists to do what you need to do for your individual situation. I know you will agree, though, that EVERYONE would be happier and mentally healthier if they got off this crazy perfect eating bandwagon.

With that said, my goal is to give you healthy-eating, dieting, weight watching people a little reality check. Thinking you need to be tied, tethered or whatever to eating a certain way either for a certain time period, or forever is actually preventing you from being the healthiest you can be. Keeping yourself leashed to a specific and narrow way of choosing foods based on Lord knows what not only may affect your physical health, it is likely a drain on your mental health, too. Thinking about every bite you put in your mouth is not only draining, it prevents you from living in the moment and enjoying all that life has to offer. And even worse, it actually keeps you disconnected and less in tune with what your body needs.

But what about our health, you might be thinking? Of course we need to think about what we eat! It is the only way to make healthy choices, right? OK, here is the clincher: it IS a balancing act. You DO need to care about your health (which means caring about your food choices) but, you also DO need to be happy and live life. You DO NOT need to be tethered to anything. How do you do both, eat healthy but be free? THAT is the balancing act.

Here are some tips:

  1. Reject any “all or nothing” thinking. Example (my pet peeve, this drives me crazy): sugar is bad, therefore I need to avoid any foods that have a lot of sugar. I need to pick the yogurt with the least amount of sugar (even though I really don’t like it).  I can’t get the one I like because it has 10 grams of sugar. Mine only has 5 grams. Really? FYI 5 grams of sugar is a teaspoon of sugar (15 calories people). So, for an extra 15 calories you are not going to get the yogurt you truly enjoy? NOT THAT CALORIES MATTER but, the point is, 15 calories is only a tiny fraction of your total intake for a day. It is basically meaningless. Eat the darn yogurt you like, would ya!?
  2. Be skeptical of the latest craze. For example, avoiding gluten. If you have celiac disease or a true intolerance, that is one thing. But most of us don’t have this problem, we have no digestive reaction to eating gluten containing foods and there is no reason to avoid it. On the other hand, it is perfectly smart to avoid things that we know are harmful (trans fat, for example), or, if you have a medical condition and need to limit something (such as saturated fat) that is different. But for those of us who don’t have medical conditions, there is no reason to scrutinize every label and every bit of food we eat. With that said, avoiding weird additives and artificial dyes, etc, and preferring natural whole foods is a personal preference and choice, not what I am referring to here (I like real food myself).
  3. Educate yourself about nutrition, but don’t be perfect. I have said it before, it is smart to make healthy choices, to learn how to cook in a healthier way, to plan ahead in order to avoid spending money eating out, bringing lunch to work or school, etc. But just because you know what makes a healthy meal does NOT mean every meal needs to fit some perfect pattern. Being a dietitian is sometimes irritating because I am totally aware of what I am missing in a meal. And I know how my choices may affect how I feel later. I still, though, really do try to practice what I preach. A good example is my recent craving for avocados. For some strange reason, I have been wanting avocados every single day for the past several weeks. Maybe it is the changing weather, with warm weather finally arriving, who knows. Anyway, there have been days where for lunch I just smash that avocado up with some salt on a roll or other bread item and skip the usual protein source (often leftovers) I typically have. I may have other things in my lunch, but they definitely don’t have protein. But guess what? I feel completely satisfied and happy. I know my hair is not going to fall out just because I got 20 less grams of protein for lunch. Yes, I may get hungry earlier in the afternoon than usual, but who cares, that’s what snacks are for. I would rather be happy with what I am eating and truly enjoy my lunch rather than force feed myself a few slices of turkey that I don’t want. So care about your nutrition, but please don’t try to make it perfect.
  4. Make a decision about what you want to eat BEFORE you start eating. Some people are so “out of tune” with what they like, and so accustomed to denying themselves foods that they tend to have an internal war with themselves when they have to pick something to eat. They may want to heat up a plate of that leftover lasagna for lunch, but noooooooooooooooo! That was a splurge on the weekend, and today they have to be “good”. They should have a salad (the last thing they really want). So, as they start to throw together their boring salad, they grab a few wheat thins (they have deemed that as healthy, so that’s ok), then maybe a few grapes (safe too). Maybe a bite or two of cheese as they grab the lettuce out of the fridge. Oh, there’s that lasagna….maybe a cold broken piece of noodle off the top. Finally, after NOT enjoying any of the bites of food they mindlessly nibbled on, they sit down to their bland salad, feeling deprived, but safe. What if, instead, this person stopped for a minute to think about what they really wanted to eat? Maybe they first had to case the fridge to see what was available (smart). They would have discovered the leftover lasagna and made the executive decision that this would be what would be truly satisfying. They get the plate, cut a piece the size they know would be satisfying but not make them uncomfortable, heat it up, and they sit and enjoy their lunch. They leave the table feeling satisfied, not deprived. There is no need to keep going back to nibble because they have actually satisfied their appetite and had a perfectly acceptable, normal lunch.
  5. Slow down. Put the phone down. Turn off the TV. Get a plate (or a bowl). Sit. There just is no way to start to tune in to enjoying your food when you are distracted. If you want to work on being free from restrictive eating and following rules, and you have taken the brave step to allow yourself to choose a meal you really want, then you also need to pay attention to how you feel. It sometimes takes time to learn how much is enough. It is ok to make mistakes (that lasagna person may be satisfied with half of the piece they took, or may find themselves hungry an hour later if the piece was too small). It is a learning process. If you don’t pay attention and tune in to your tummy and how you feel, you will miss it.
  6. Be wary of peer pressure. It is just weird to me how people care what other people are eating (or not eating). When you are truly in tune with your hunger and fullness, and when you start to really know what you like or don’t like it is a great, freeing thing. But sometimes, it does not make sense to others. I think most of the adults I know kind of think they should not eat sweets, so they avoid them like the plague. But when there is some occasion to celebrate, and sweets are available, they just don’t get it that someone may not want any. Something like desserts and sweets  really do lose some of their allure with both children AND adults when they are not made out to be so naughty. Friends or family probably will comment either way, if you eat it or if you don’t (you can’t win, I am telling you!).  If you don’t want something, they will say “oh, you are so good” and if you do take something they will say something else. Don’t let the stupid comments of others make you either eat something you don’t want, or skip something you really do want. The important thing is to eat what, and how much, makes you feel right.
  7. Don’t stop caring about eating healthy. The reality is that a good part of the time we are actually not too picky and don’t care what is available to eat. You may not be on an avocado jag. You may not care if you have the lasagna or a turkey sandwich if that is what is in the fridge. Maybe the blackened salmon on kale salad with goat cheese appeals to you just as much as the chicken wings with onion rings. Why not go with the healthy choice? That is the smart thing to do. But, if you are really wanting the choice that you have previously had rules about, why not take that risk and get what you truly want? The key is to take the time to tune it to how much is satisfying and enough. For example, if a gigantic basket of onion rings (which I love) is placed on your table in a restaurant, having some is satisfying, but eating the entire basket just because they are there leads to discomfort later for most of us. Taking a serving and passing it on is not restricting, it is knowing your body and what makes it feel right.

Untethered eating is not for everyone. For those who have eating issues such as emotional eating, binge eating disorder, or who have other eating disorders or disordered eating behavior, moving to intuitive eating may not be doable on your own (but, hopefully, you are under good professional care and working on it). And for those of you who are dieters, or just trying to eat healthy, but simply can’t imagine taking that step, I hope you at least take that first step: pay attention to that voice. Ask yourself: are you regretting what you ate yesterday? Are you stressing about what you are going to eat tomorrow? Why not at least take a moment to be in the present. Don’t miss out on the simple joy of even one meal or snack you could be enjoying today.

Just like the puppy who breaks off the leash and runs free…..don’t you want to be free when it comes to thinking about food and eating? Just like that puppy who runs around and around and goes wild for awhile, eventually, he plops down and relaxes…..

and so should you.

 

 

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