How to Give “Bad” Food a Good Rap

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Sepia tinged memories rise like steam from the suburban driveway of my childhood in Pittsburgh. It’s the summer of 1994. I’m 16, and rocking size two pre-faded Contempo Casuals shorts. This is the thinnest I will ever be. Each morning begins with a five-mile run around a man-made lake; the tantalizing carrot dangled ahead of each step is another 10-pound weight loss. The afternoon brings a part-time job slinging gluten (not that I know this word yet) at Bruegger’s Bagels. The evening promises meandering car rides among the steep hills with friends, car windows down, hair whipping winds, and the looping of that summer’s soundtrack: Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Ironic, and Beautiful Life.

But, a threat looms.

With each graduation party, picnic, or social gathering, I can hear the screeching horror movie music as IT orbits menacingly. Behold: the Pittsburgh Pretzel Salad. Sweet, salty, smooth, crunchy—a decadent study of opposites. This dish along with the equally mystifying dessert pizza—a sugary mix of oats drenched in vanilla icing atop pizza crust—offered at the Pizza Hut lunch buffet are the culprits for my getting “off track.” Eating either of these indulgences means the day is now “ruined,” so why not keep the party in my mouth going? Besides, it’s summer and every occasion is a special occasion and the refrain becomes “diet starts tomorrow.” In my restriction bound approach to food, I had to believe in the promise of tomorrow that would inevitably continue to feed the vicious cycle of guilt, regret, and self-incrimination.

What a waste of youthful energy.

But how many of us still play these mind games well into adulthood? The summer especially shines a light on these behaviors because all the ingredients for a meltdown are present. Weddings, “sips specials,” and weekends away trample any routine. With bikini and bare arm pressure, we reprimand ourselves for not reaching our goal weight. This psychological nightmare drags on for four months (what now holiday season?) and we stare longing at our winter sweaters. And, of course, when you are at your lowest point, the horror music cues and whatever your version of the pretzel salad happens to be, it draws closer.

But, here’s some refreshing news. Sometimes that “bad” food will help you stay on your weight-loss path. Why?

Food is never just food.

Food is connection, pleasure and relaxation.

When traditionally “bad” foods hit all these marks, they nourish your body’s hungry soul. And, satisfying the soul will always keep you “on track,” especially in the long run. Your “indulgence” with friends and family can act as a reminder of why you make an effort to be healthy: to enjoy all that life provides. Any time you hear your thoughts swirling in the direction of “should vs. should not” or “good vs. bad,” take a deep breath and ask yourself the following:

  1. Am I eating this food to escape from people I can’t stand or to connect me with people I genuinely care about?
  2. Is this food a side dish of guilty rebellion or something I truly crave?
  3. Will I come away from this entire experience needing a nap or feeling nourished?

Ideally you want to answer yes to the latter half of each of these three questions before taking that bite. And once you do, chew your food mindfully, knowing that it was always meant to be an experience enjoyed through all of your senses and to connect you with a community. If the answers to the above questions aren’t clear, however, try putting down your plate and coming up with some answers as you crunch on a piece of celery. Quiet your mind and commit to listening to the subtleties of your complete needs.  The more attention you pay to your motivations, the more you’ll return to a situation making the best choice for that specific moment.  There is an immense freedom from not being on a restrictive eating plan, to opting for choices aligned with your body’s needs. Ultimately, this will leave you more energized and living at a more self-assured, mindful pace.

How do I know? I’ve counseled hundreds of clients through this process. They often enter my office expecting me to reprimand them. I refuse. I understand the mind and body as one. My role becomes helping my clients realize the wisdom in being “imperfect.” They find that with the relaxation that comes from removing guilt, portion control becomes natural.

“Diet starts tomorrow” is still one of the longest running zingers among my high school friends. Now I can genuinely laugh at what was once the monotonous metronome beating in the background of my life. All of the goals I had projected accomplishing “once” I lost 10, 20, or even 30 pounds, I’ve achieved regardless of my size. Ironically, the more deeply I understood the irrelevance of my weight, the looser my wardrobe became. 

I wish the same for you.

To a sizzling and subtle summer,

Ali

P.S. Last month, I mentioned a challenge to help you be where you are. The challenge is now slated for September. I’ll be blogging more then to talk about these changes and tell you to get involved. One development I can disclose now, however, is that I’m once again running my Truce with Food program live. I’m excited to implement some new learning tools sure to make the program even more dynamic. We start the first week in October, so drop me an email if you are interested in holding a spot. Last, but not least, if you enjoy this newsletter, consider passing it along to others who might benefit and tell them to join my list. Here’s the link to send.

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