I know I touched on this before, but it hit me again as I was looking at the dozens of frozen cookie dough balls, pints of untouched ice cream, and bags of unopened potato chips today. Weeks go by without thinking about these foods at all. I'm definitely not resisting urges to eat them all at once or using special strategies to stop eating them if I start.
For the entire time that I was restricting what I ate (30+ years), I assumed that if I quit actively controlling my food, boredom eating, emotional eating, and extreme hunger would take over and I would get huge.
Here is how I described myself in my own self-talk and in several jillion blog and message board posts:
I have no off switch. I will eat until I explode. I can't control myself around certain foods. Once I start eating, I can't stop. I want to keep eating even when I'm very full. I eat when I'm bored, anxious, happy, sad, and for a million other reasons. I like to numb out with food. I gain weight quickly if I don't restrict. If I let myself eat whatever I want, I only want sugar, salt, fat, and fried food.
In my mind, there was zero chance that I could maintain a "normal" weight without actively controlling my food intake. I was sure of it because anytime I stopped dieting I’d feel totally crazed and my weight would jump quickly and dramatically. I’d think, well, this is how I am when I don’t restrict. Eating "intuitively" or "to appetite" may work for other people but it’s obviously not going to work for me. My appetite is out of control.
Of course, I'd be thinking this after ten days, or three weeks, or two months of giving myself a little more freedom and a lot of guilt. That's not long enough to convince a body that's been hungry for decades that everything is A-OK now. Extreme hunger was still in full swing. Emotions were still running high. When you've been in a prolonged energy deficit, or you've been nurturing a scarcity mindset, or you're gearing up to restrict again soon, any reason to eat is a good reason according to your body. That doesn't mean its broken, or you're broken, or you're doomed to a life of lettuce and nutrition software.
Turns out I was a hopeless emotional eater and an enthusiastic storer of body fat when I was chronically underfed. It's crazy what happens when you're not anymore. You realize that you meant to bake and eat some of those cookies three weeks ago but still haven't gotten around to it. You go out to eat, get exactly what you want, and share some of it because you're too full. You forget to eat part of your work meal but don't notice until you find it warm and squishy in your lunch box the next day. You're home alone with the television for ten hours and it doesn't even occur to you to have a food party.
I don't know that I would have believed this without experiencing it. ALL of my evidence was to the contrary, but in hindsight it makes sense. I was hungry. That's it. My body had a lot of stuff to repair from years of overtraining and undereating, which required more food over longer stretches of time than I deemed ladylike. But now that it's finally getting everything it needs, holy hell, I do have an off switch! A good sturdy reliable one.
It's interesting to consider that all that emotional eating, boredom eating, habitual eating, addictive desire, mindless eating, everything I used to call it, everything I most feared, only exists if I restrict my food.
It was so intense and so seemingly real that I couldn't just go with it and wait to see what happened. I let off of the restriction incrementally. As long as I continued to move in that direction, things continued to get better. A particularly helpful approach was to only focus on right now. At this meal I'm going to eat what I want until I'm satisfied. That goes better than telling old stories about what I always do, or making plans about what I'm going to do from now on. Deal in the right now, and if right now you want to restrict, include some deliberate element of doing the opposite. Maybe you will order the salad at dinner but share a dessert too. Or you will eat the veggie omelet, but with plenty of cheese. Deliberately messing up any kind of "perfect" eating keeps you from feeling either deprived or out of control. You're going to make this meal as satisfying and enjoyable as possible. That's it. It's excellent practice and you get to do it multiple times per day, which builds skills and confidence quickly.
It's just a matter of time and practice @Hayley. The more you allow yourself to have what you want when you want it, no conditions, the more brain and stomach agree. If your mental dialog is always something like, "Uh-oh, don't eat too much, that's enough, watch out, you've had plenty, gotta do better tomorrow..." it doesn't matter how much food you put in your stomach, your brain will want more thanks to the scarcity mindset. Knowing you can always have more is such a key factor in stopping eating. That's when it's possible to be indifferent about it. "I don't want more now because I can have it again whenever." Again, that's assuming you're eating and resting enough. When chronic hunger and overtraining are in play, survival mechanisms trip and all food logic goes out the window.
It's always so helpful to read your posts, @skwigg and I'm really grateful to you for taking the time to write down your thoughts. I guess I always wonder how you go about getting to the point where you're no longer obsessing about all the cookies in the house and whether or not you want to eat them. I guess it's like you said - you focus in the here and now ("At this meal I'm going to eat what I want until I'm satisfied.") My problem is that I will feel physically satisfied and full but then I'll start thinking about more food. I truly don't feel like I need more physically because my belly is full but sometimes M&Ms sound good or chocolate or another bowl of oatmeal, etc. But then I brush my teeth and move on.
WOW. This resonates, so much. This gives me a lot of hope about the kind of eater/person I have the potential to be. It's bizarre because I feel like I could've written all that. Which tells me that my experience is not unique, but a perfectly normal and understandable reaction to chronic restriction. I really appreciate this.