The Sliver People

Image result for thin slice of cakeEating behavior has fascinated me for years. Maybe because of my Italian heritage and the tendency to “cook enough for the army, the navy and the marines” as my mom would say…..coupled with my discovery of the research on “restrained eating” and learning about the link between dieting and binge eating. Added to my years of working with people with eating disorders and weight concerns, I have a great appreciation for the complexity of eating, food, and why people do what they do. So I love when people tell me stories about food and eating. Last week at work one of my co-workers told me a story about a family dinner and how something a relative (great aunt) said that kind of bothered her.

It was a celebration and cake was being served. My friend, her son and her daughter were enjoying a piece of cake at the dining room table while this aunt sat on the couch watching. “Look at you all, stuffing your faces!”she said in a way that was kind of negative, as if she were witnessing bad behavior, or behavior to be ashamed of. My friend went on to tell me about this aunt who appeared to be criticizing them for eating cake. Apparently this person is someone who always resists the dessert…..she “does not eat sweets”. She has “willpower”. And she seems to look down on those who give in.

But then, here is the weird part, the question my friend had: she refuses to take dessert EVER…..but then eventually, every single time, after shaming everyone else, sneaks back for “just a sliver”.

OH! I knew exactly who my friend was talking about. She sounds like “The Sliver People”, I said. We both burst out laughing, describing what we see when people try not to eat something they really want but for some reason don’t allow themselves to have. After a good amount of giggling at the term we just coined, I went on to share my theories of The Sliver People. Now remember, these are just my theories (which are influenced by research on cognitive restraint and dieting behavior as well as what lots of my patients have described to me about the way they think and feel about food).

So what is it with the Sliver People? My theories:

  1. They have a “good food-bad food” mind set. Sweets are bad, dessert is bad, cake is bad, so nobody should be eating it. If you eat “bad” food, then you, by association are being “bad”. You have no “willpower”. You are weak.

My Response: if you like it, it is GOOD. If you have cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you won’t feel too good. It’s all about balance and “listening to your body”. If you want something sweet and don’t eat something sweet, you will likely be thinking about food all day. I would recommend eating that darn piece of cake and going about your day.

2. They think cake (substitute sweets, desserts, “bad” food) makes you fat. Magically, one piece of cake can add gobs of weight.

My Response: the scientific fact is that one average piece of cake may have a few hundred calories (except my sister-in-law Michelle’s Mocha Marsh mellow 90 million layer cake she enters into baking contests which she manages to cram in a bit more melted butter and cream I am guessing that makes her a champion baker)….anyway, it takes much more than a piece of cake or one dessert to have any effect on weight, even Michelle’s. When you eat more calories than your body needs, it knows what to do. You don’t have to count. Think about it. When you eat a bigger meal than normal, something very strange happens: you no longer feel hungry, imagine that. You can go longer than an hour without thinking about food. So if you eat the cake and it is more than you normally eat, your appetite on its own will keep you in balance (if you learn to listen and trust it). Not easy for some people.

3. They have been dieting most of their lives. They are on a diet still. Cake is not on the diet.

My Response: when people “go on a diet” and eat only certain foods while eliminating others, we know they eventually have to “go off” the diet. Dieting and food restriction lead to food obsession and disordered eating, often binge eating. When dieters give in and have even “just a slice” feelings of guilt often follow. That is why restrained eating and dieting often lead to depression (in addition to the negative effect of starvation and inadequate energy intake on our brains and mood). I know I will never convince people to stop “dieting” or looking for that magical eating plan that will transform their bodies and their lives….but I won’t stop trying. Instead, if you focus on “healthy eating” and living, then having a piece of cake for dessert at a family celebration does not disrupt anything. It just adds to life’s enjoyment and moments we should be cherishing, creating memories together, savoring every single thing that is good…and I call that “healthy”.

4. They really aren’t hungry,but want to taste it. Their belly is full, but they know they won’t get this chance again (how often do you get a chance to try an award winning 9 million layer cake?).

My Response: I think it is “normal” eating to listen to your body, and if you know you can’t fit an entire piece of cake comfortably into your belly but want a “sliver”, it’s not a big deal. Chances are the person who takes just a bite because they want to taste it are probably not even noticing what everyone else is eating. They certainly are not being judgmental about anyone who decides to eat an entire piece. They are just eating what they want and not what they don’t want. Maybe they may take a piece “to go”. There is nothing wrong with that, honoring your body and staying in tune with it is something we all should be working on, that is if feeling good is your goal.

Are you one of the “Sliver People”? If so, do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? Remember, this is not meant to be a judgement of people who don’t take an entire piece of cake. It is meant to make us all aware of how we have been influenced by a culture that values thinness and weight loss and dieting at the expense of the true meaning of life. To cherish family, friends and celebrate all that we have, all of our blessings as much as we can while we can (if you ask me). To be thankful for all of it, every single day. To miss out because of fears of gaining weight, well, that is just sad.

Oh, and please don’t judge me because I only eat the frosting.

The Joy of Feeling Free: Do You Have It?

IMG_9335They were sitting on the ground in a patch of sandy dirt, huddled together, focused on something that must be really intriguing, I thought. Why else would a 9 year old boy and his 7 year old sister be so content and quiet? As I got closer and peeked over their shoulders I was taken aback. Not what I expected. I was imagining there was some funky looking bug or maybe they had some hand held electronic device that kids these days are obsessed with. But no…..what they were focused on was creating the very best road system for their tiny little match box cars. There they sat, in the sun, all barefoot and dirty, happy and content as can be, just digging imaginary roads. I am guessing it was much more complex that it looked to me, you know how kids imaginations can be. But then again, with all the video games, etc. maybe things have changed. Anyway, I loved it.

This happened at a campground on Cape Cod where my husband and I were staying for a week with another couple. We had the perfect spot, secluded and right on a beautiful lake. Not a luxury vacation, but if you are the camping type, you would have loved it. The week long vacation was very different than the last vacation we took with our friends, a long trip to Italy where we stayed at beautiful places, with great food and good wine and lots of culture. Yes, this was different. No luxury here, nope. Not much culture, although campers might disagree with you, as well as Cape Codders. The “New England” feel is everywhere. But unlike our last trip, we were “roughing it”. No electricity, no running water at our site, the nearest bathroom facilities were a good walk up the hill, and the closest shower was a short car ride away (you could walk it, but you would need another shower by the time you got back).

Despite the lack of usual niceties, we had everything we needed. Two tents, 4 gravity chairs, fire pit, picnic table complete with checkered tablecloth and canopy in case it rained (it didn’t).  We had our “camping kitchen” which provided extra counter space, storage area for pots, pans, paper plates and packaged foods, and then we had our coolers filled with ice and all the necessities to get us through a few days. We were spoiled with our air mattresses (that had to be inflated by running an extension cord into the bathroom, the only place with electricity), and we had 4 kayaks, 4 bikes, a double tube and a spare air mattress that we used as a float. Imagine 4 middle aged adults floating around a lake holding onto each other, a mattress, a float and 4 drinks, giggling as the wind blew this motley crew wherever if felt like. We were in our glory, feeling like kids again. The reactions we got from various people we eventually encountered were funny. Some you could tell wish they could join us. Others, well, kind of eased their children in the other direction.

It took a few days, but we got into the swing of things. As usual, I packed too many clothes. I pretty much lived in my bathing suit (the one I kayak in, which is basically shorts you can wear in the water with a modest bathing suit top that could double as a halter top. Really comfy yet practical). And my 5 dollar Old Navy flip flops. Never wore a pair of earings, no make-up needed (no mirrors anyways). I washed my hair twice, why bother when you will be jumping in a lake every day? Yes, it was a wonderful feeling. Feeling like a kid again. Simple and Free.

Even when it came to eating, things were different. First of all, I have a new appreciation for my automatic coffee maker… know, the kind that grinds the beans and has the coffee ready a few minutes before the alarm goes off? We did have coffee, we made sure of it, but it was no easy task. First of all, I was always up first. Even though we rarely knew what time it was, my body knew it was past 6 am so I woke up (our cell phones kept dying, no way to charge them consistently). If you have ever used a camping type stove, you know they run on propane. So you have to hook it up, then open the stove which clanks and clicks, and then use a lighter to start the thing, and finally, fill the pot with water. We had the old fashioned stove top percolator, so it always took awhile. When it came to meals, we were all on different body clocks so that took some doing. I like something sweet when I first get up, so one day I took my bike on the bike trail down to a wonderful French bakery called something like “Eat Cake for Breakfast”. Ok! There usually is a long line but not at 8 am. Everyone was happy with the treats I brought back that day. We were so random with our meals, without schedules or clocks it was truly natural eating. Buying the exact food we wanted (I NEEDED fried scallops, my husband NEEDED fried clams, my friend NEEDED ice cream). We ate what we wanted. We savored the specialties of the Cape which included lots of fish and home made ice cream and of course those Cape Cod potato chips. We all brought food too, and the meals we created at the camp site were sometimes funny….but delicious. We doctored up leftovers to be resourceful. One of the last nights I created a dish made with ratatouille, leftover grilled chicken, fresh corn scraped from leftover corn on the cob and grated cheese. Everyone loved it. I made a sangria with leftover fruit and red wine along with some bruschetta from Italian bread that was getting stale. After this wonderful meal we rushed to the bay to watch yet another sunset and play our lawn game, Kubb, Check out this link which can also be played on the beach : ) We blasted our music (old Beatles tunes one night), sipped our drinks, laughed as the sun disappeared and the moonlight took over. Walked barefoot, back to the car, another wonderful night spent without jewelry or make-up, shoes or clocks, TV’s or computers. Just the sky, the water, the sand, the stars, fire and friends.

I am not going to lie. That first real shower felt good. Sleeping in my own bed was awesome, and it was especially great to have a bathroom within walking distance. But since coming back to reality, and after chatting to a few family members and friends about my trip, it struck me how fortunate we were to have the ability to enjoy ourselves despite the lack of structure or predictability, the absence of technology or schedules for anything, from eating to exercise to reading and sleeping. We may have joked about those stairs up the hill leading to the bathroom, and how crazy it was to have to drive to take a shower, but the reality is we loved having an excuse to be kids again, to feel free, and to be free. We obviously can’t live this way every day (you really do need to wash your hair and wear shoes). But, how structured and predictable do we really need to be? Do you find yourself panicking if you can’t eat what you think you should? Do you get bothered if things aren’t perfectly clean and in order? Are you imprisoned by needing everything in your life to be on a tight and predictable schedule? Do you ever give yourself permission to let things go “just because”? Do you allow yourself down-time to reflect, or simply to just walk barefoot and feel the grass against your feet, and the sounds of nature to fill your head instead of the sound of television? Do you get to play mindless games like Left Right Center, or do you feel guilty when you are not productive?

Yes, this morning, being that it is my last Monday morning off in a long time, I am truly feeling thankful. I am appreciating that I can let go and be mindless, eat whatever, do whatever, live without a mirror or make-up or jewelry, not wash my hair, have French cookies for breakfast and not care. I don’t mind admitting I love my bed! and my own bathroom! But sometimes pushing your comfort zone makes you appreciate all that you do have even more. And sometimes, not accomplishing anything is a wonderful thing. Can you do it? How free are you?

Here’s my challenge: pick a day, just one day this week that you don’t have a “to-do” list. Eat whatever you want. Do whatever you want. Wear whatever you want. Let yourself be free. Just one day.