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What makes us feel good or bad about our eating?

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Dieting confuses us. We learn to feel good and bad for the wrong reasons. Quitting requires that we start paying attention to what we are really feeling and experiencing, and allow that to determine our actions.

A client asked me the other day, “what is your opinion on the right way to eat fruit?” She explained that she had read that it is awfully bad for you to eat fruit in combination with other food. That fruit needs to have an empty stomach all to itself in order to be digested properly, and that the only proper way to eat fruit, is to have it on its own. In the presence of other food, it would ferment, rot and form gas and all sorts of other horrid things would happen to the unenlightened person that was dumb enough to do it. I asked “have you ever eaten fruit as part of a meal, or afterwards, as desert?” ”Yes, I have” she replied. ”Did you experience any of these awful things?” ”er…no, I think I felt fine” ”Does that answer your question?” ”No. I don’t know. Please just tell me what it is?”

Why the doubt?

My client is an example of somebody who has lost reliance on her internal standards. Through her long history with dieting, she has learnt that when it comes to eating, she cannot trust herself. She has become unsure of herself to the point that she no longer notices or gives any weight to her own experience. Instead of feeling what she’s feeling, she asks "what should I be feeling?" Because she has adopted external criteria for eating, and for measuring her success at it, she has become overly dependent on external guides, believing her internal compass to be untrustworthy.

How she got there

When she was 19 years old, after her first year of university, she had gained a few kilograms. She joined a commercial weight-loss group. Here she learnt what the “right” amount of the “right” things to eat was on any given day. Being eating plan based, every day was of course exactly the same. There was no room for the day-to-day fluctuations in activity levels and other variables, that for the normal eater bring subtle changes in their appetite, cueing them to eat more or less depending on their ever changing needs. One can expect that on some days, she would have felt very hungry and dissatisfied on this diet, if she was paying attention to how her body was feeling…but she no longer did. She had learnt to feel good or bad for different reasons.

Following this eating-plan gave her a sense of control. Ticking off the boxes as she went, she felt satisfied because she had upheld the standard that was set. When she went to her weekly meeting to be weighed, she was rewarded for her efforts during the week by the number on the scale having moved down. Her “good” feeling was reinforced.

Fairly soon she reached her goal-weight and stopped attending sessions.

Not being on diet anymore, she no longer kept strict tabs on everything she ate. She even allowed herself some “forbidden” foods. She had not eaten these things for quite a long time, and now found it difficult to stop when she did. She felt naughty doing it, and afterwards she was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame. Had she been paying attention to how her body felt, she may also have felt uncomfortable and over-full, but her psychological discomfort was so prominent, that this feeling paled in comparison.

By the start of the next year, she had regained what she lost on her first diet and decided to join the group again. She had a similar experience, lost weight, and left after a few months …. again, regaining what she had lost, and rejoining at the beginning of the following year. After round 4 on this specific diet, she couldn’t bear the thought of restricting herself again, and decided to try a different method.

The rules of her second diet, were not so much about controlling the quantities she ate but were very specific about the combinations and types of food. She was allowed to eat large volumes of food, but had to be vigilant, ensuring no carbohydrate-rich foods showed up in the same meal as protein-rich foods, and a large proportion of what she ate had to be raw. Again, she felt good when she managed to stick to the rules (even when she ate amounts that made her stomach feel it might explode) and bad when she broke them.

Then there was one where you had to cut out all sugar, wheat and dairy, followed by the one where you could have anything as long as there was NO carbohydrate, then the one where you had to wait precisely 5 hours between meals and do no exercise and get an injection that speeds up the whole process, the one where 2 meals are replaced by a magic shake and the third is food, the one where you have 6 days on and one day off etc etc etc.

The route out

At this point, the basis for her good/bad feelings, had become completely external. She felt good when she kept to the rules and bad when she broke them…and since the rules kept changing, great confusion!

Dieters forget that their bodies have wisdom. That bodies are exceptionally accurate, skilled perceivers and communicators. The cues are subtle, especially for those that have learnt to ignore them. Regaining normal regulation requires “tuning in” to actual physical feelings again.

The only “rules” about eating that are helpful, are those that are confirmed by our own experience. Rules we could have figured out by ourselves in the absence of nutrition guides.

A parent may tell a child not to put their hand on a hot plate…a child may test the rule, but will only do it once!

A theological angle on this principle for those that are interested. Moses, speaking to Israel about the law they have just received, saying it is not foreign to them, in fact, it is already written on their own hearts, it is instinctively known:

This commandment that I'm commanding you today isn't too much for you, it's not out of your reach. It's not on a high mountain—you don't have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it's not across the ocean—you don't have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (The Message)

William Young, in “the Shack” explains that doing wrong punishes the wrongdoer. We don’t need external judges to do it for us.

“…but if you are God, aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire? I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside”.

William P Young

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