Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s here at Frame to talk about food and control.
Lots of women I work with struggle with food. As an outsider looking in you probably wouldn’t notice it. The majority of these women are a “normal” weight. They are “fit” and “attractive” (by societies narrow standards). For all intensive purposes you would look at them and make the assumption that they have this whole food thing sorted out.
But behind closed doors it’s a different story. They are currently on and off diets. There is a battle waging between what they “should” eat and what they really “want” to eat.
They swing between being “healthy” and sticking to the plan and “falling off the wagon” and eating all their banned foods and feeling like a failure.
One of the most common reasons that women come to me for help is because they want “control with their food”. Their current experience feels like the total opposite, where food is actually in control of them.
The great irony with this is that the more that we try and control our food, the less control that we feel we have over it. In the short term we may gain some control, but over the long haul the grip becomes weaker and weaker until we can hold on no longer.
So why is this so?
Humans evolved when food wasn’t in an abundant supply. If we failed to eat, we would die, and so it became imperative we be blessed with a mechanism that drove this desire to eat.
When someone eats less than they need, the tendency is for the body to want to consume more when given the chance. Your body doesn’t understand your desire to be thin or toned or look a certain way that society deems appropriate.
It sees under eating as a famine so wants to protect you by getting you to eat when food becomes available.
(And this can happen regardless of weight and size. The idea that someone who is fat can just stop eating and be fine because they have all these stores of “energy” on them is nonsense. Whatever someone’s size, their body will fight restriction).
So while in the short term you can restrict or deprive yourself, as time goes on this becomes more difficult. And this can be restricting calories or it can be restricting specific foods for arbitrary reasons. There’s only so long someone can hold out and at some point this resolve can take no more, and you eat.
This phenomenon is pretty well accepted and understood by most nutritionists and those in the health field. So nothing too earth shattering here.
But what may surprise you is that it’s not just actual deprivation that causes the body to want to eat, but also impending deprivation.
If the body feels like a famine or period of deprivation is just around the corner, then again it is going to want to eat. It wants to stock up as a precaution.
This also makes senses from an evolutionary perspective. If food was in abundance in the summer but harder to come by in the winter, it would make sense to be able to eat more and stock up your reserves in preparation for the leaner food months ahead.
So many women talk about the experience of eating “all the food” before going on a diet. They decide that next week their new diet starts and in the proceeding week they feel uncontrollable around food or find themselves eating way more than usual. If the diet is going to be cutting out carbs or fats or sugar, these are often the foods that they find themselves eating in large quantities before they start the new regime.
But the same thing can happen even if someone is not following an official diet but just has “good” and “bad” foods. When they eat something “bad” the immediate reaction can be that I’ve blown my diet, so “what the hell” and they eat more.
You typically eat more because in your mind you have decided that tomorrow you are back on being “good”. This translates to your body that tomorrow the deprivation starts again, so let’s get as much as possible in beforehand.
And this leads onto the next point about deprivation, which is that it is not always about physical deprivation, but about mental deprivation.
You can be eating a chocolate brownie and therefore not physically depriving yourself of it. But if you are eating this, while chastising yourself or trying to eat it so fast it’s like it didn’t happen, then mentally you are depriving yourself. You are not mentally allowing yourself this food, even though you are physically eating it.
This is important because if you have a mentality of not allowing yourself some food even when you are eating, what is this saying to your body? It is telling it that it is likely in the near future that this food will be off limits again, that deprivation of this food will start. And we all know what happens with the impending deprivation and where that leads.
(I’ve previously talked about studies with milkshakes and ice cream that shows how this happens, which you can check out here.)
So if this is the case, how do you get more “control” around food?
Well the first thing is you have to stop trying to control your food. People get themselves into this mess because they create arbitrary rules around food. They tell themselves what they can and can’t have. They stop listening to their body (or only listen when it tells them to eat “good” or “healthy” food).
The usual response to this suggestion is that if I allowed myself to eat what I wanted I would eat nothing but ice cream, chocolate and would blow up to the size of a house.
In reality, this isn’t the case. The cravings and desires for these foods are exponentially high because they are “banned” or “forbidden” or “bad”. Take your favourite food and eat it three meals a day everyday and see how exciting it is in a very short space of time. Pretty quickly it’s no longer that interesting. You’ll probably grow to detest it (or at least in the short term you’ll have no desire to eat it).
Yes there are foods that are more or less palatable or exciting. But we make this much more so because of the emotions and “rules” that we attach to eating these foods.
When we legalise all foods we take away foods power and return it to just being food. This may not happen overnight and if there has been a period of deprivation, then in the short term you may find yourself eating more of these foods. But as time goes on, the more you allow yourself to eat whatever your body craves, the more you’ll notice that it craves a wide variety and things that genuinely support your health.
When people can do this, they feel more in control of their food choices. This is rather paradoxical because really they aren’t in control and they are listening to their body. But they feel more in control because they are accepting of this way of eating and ok with whatever way of eating feels right.
Two final points that are important in making this work.
You need to do body image work and become ok with your body where it is now and where it may end up. The majority of people’s reasons for controlling their food are around manipulating their weight. It’s almost impossible to be ok with your eating when you are worried about the consequences of “how will it effect my waistline”.
Secondly, if control around food isn’t about weight, then you need to work out what it is about. And as part of this, you need to start to branch out your coping mechanisms for dealing with this issue (or alternatively finding a way to solve it, if it is solvable).
It’s one thing to want to improve your relationship with food and not feel so “out of control”. But if in reality it is these out of control moments that you are using to serve you and help deal with other life issues, then it’s unlikely your relationship with food will get significantly better without dealing with this other stuff.
At the end of the day, food isn’t the enemy. Your eating behaviours are a reflection of what is going on at a physiological level, as well as on a mental and emotional level. Fighting harder and digging your heels in rarely (if ever) works long term. Being honest about where this stuff is coming from and why it is really happening in my opinion is a far better approach.
Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating. You can find out more information at his website, listen to his weekly podcast and follow him on Facebook.