For years, I had only temporary success at weight loss. I’d exercise for a while, lose some fat, then stop exercising and gain it back. Or I’d cut out some foods, lose a few pounds, then gain them back. Usually the cycle ran less than a year.
I’m not alone. Nearly 65 percent of dieters return to their pre-dieting weight within three years, according to Gary Foster, Ph.D., clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania. (source)
It’s so discouraging to put so much effort into something that happens so slowly, only to have it undone so quickly and easily. For me, the amount and speed of my weight loss didn’t become really encouraging until I started a serious strength-training program AND changed how I was eating at the same time.
But even then, I wasn’t sure I could keep it off. If a stressful season returned, would I cave into my old habits? Finally, something happened that made me feel a tide had changed for good.
For me, the change became permanent when I altered two things:
- WHAT I ate, and
- WHY I ate.
I’ve come to realize that if I only change what I eat without addressing the causes of my emotional eating, no diet is going to stick. But if I address the emotional issues while still frequently “indulging” in foods that create cravings (and not eating the foods that quell cravings), it’s still going to be a daily, uphill battle.
I believe that addressing both is the only permanent solution.
Changing what I ate
At different times, I’ve toyed with cutting back on fat, or eating low-carb, or restricting calories/portion sizes. I never tried all of them at the same time, because that would be like…
But never, on any of those diets, did I see my cravings go away to a helpful degree.
In the spring of 2015, my husband was suffering from an autoimmune disease called idiopathic angioedema, which caused random areas of his body to become inflamed without notice or any discernable patter. After exhausting the knowledge of local doctors and finding a specialist in San Diego, the only medical treatment that kept it under control was taking four Zyrtec tablets a day. The normal dose is one per day. He was so tired all the time that, out of desperation, he agreed to try this crazy Paleo diet I’d been talking about. I’d read first-hand accounts of people with other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis seeing significant relief from their symptoms when they eliminated certain foods.
It did help his symptoms, and he lost several pounds, even though weight loss wasn’t his purpose for doing it. I was already at a healthy weight when we started eating Paleo, and I actually gained a few pounds the first few months on it, but I noticed something else amazing: 99% of my cravings were gone. (Along with chronic shoulder pain and foggy brain.)
As I’ve said elsewhere (What is the Paleo Diet and should I try it?), I think that one of the reasons the Paleo diet helps people with so many health and weight issues is because it pretty much forces you to give up highly processed food and instead, eat whole, nutrient-dense foods, simply prepared. My diet — by which I mean my normal, day-to-day way of eating, that I can happily live with longterm — has since evolved to something a little more relaxed, but it’s still very much focused on eating whole, real foods and avoiding factory-made convenience foods. (I call it the 5-star formula.)
It’s those easy-to-eat, easy-to-keep-eating, factory-made foods that are driving most of our cravings. (For more info, see Why some foods are more addictive than others.)
Often, people approach a diet with the hope — conscious or not — that if they can just eat a certain way for a few weeks, it will magically, permanently change everything.
Ready for some tough love? That’s wishful thinking.
A temporary, restrictive diet (such as Whole30 or 21 Day Sugar Detox [see my books page]) can help clear a few things up, but it isn’t meant to be a lifetime religion. It’s for figuring out what foods work for you and what don’t. Maybe you’ll find that cutting out dairy 90% of the time gets you the balance you need to stay the course: gets you an improvement in the benefits, while still letting you have pizza with your friends once a week.
You may also discover that you can indulge in a little something sweet from time to time, without it kicking off a downward spiral into the cave of the Sugar Monster.
Or, you may find that you can’t.
A friend of mine discovered that just one piece of white bread will kick off hours of sugar cravings for her. I can enjoy some desserts in moderation, but there are certain junk foods I can’t even sample without craving them continuously for days.
This is important to know. This is where the freedom is found! Discovering your own personal boundaries is, ironically, the thing that brings you freedom.
Researchers found that when a playground doesn’t have a fence, children tend to cluster near the school building. However, when a fence surrounds a playground, children feel free to play anywhere on the playground, not fearing traffic or other dangers. When you’ve discovered that a certain food always hits you like a train, you know that food needs to be outside your fence. But there are plenty of other delicious, satisfying foods inside your fence that you can enjoy! (See my index of real food recipes for about 200 examples!)
It’s human nature to focus on the one thing we can’t have, rather than all the things we do get to enjoy. (Hello, Eve in the Garden of Eden!) But that kind of focus will rob you of pleasure and contentment.
It’s challenging, but you can retrain your mind to focus on the right things. Focus on the foods you do get to enjoy. Focus on how much better you feel when you eat healthy foods.
Just recently, at the suggestion of his doctor, my husband began the ketogenic diet (or “keto”) which focuses on the ratio of carbs, fat, and protein in the diet, with very high fat content and very low carb content. And it has crushed his cravings!
(Important note about keto: If you have type 2 diabetes, cancer, seizures, or just a very recalcitrent sweet tooth, you might want to consider this diet. Two firm cautions: If you have type 1 diabetes, you should not do this diet, because it may create a dangerous situation called ketoacidosis in type 1 diabetics. If you have type 2 diabetes, you should only try it under a physician’s supervision, so they can monitor your blood sugars and adjust your medication as necessary. Some type 2 diabetics find they can reduce or eliminate meds on this diet, but you should always approach that while working with a doctor who’s aware of what you’re doing.)
If you can just live without the convenience food for a few weeks, you’ll be amazed how your tastes change — and your self-control!
But I have to admit: although my new way of eating killed most of my cravings, I needed something bigger than a set of food rules to make sure I never went back to my old ways of eating again. I still struggled with nighttime cravings and some emotional eating.
For that, I needed to change why I ate.
Changing why I ate
Sometimes, even without a physical craving, there are still things that make us want to eat stuff we know we’ll regret. Often those are feelings like boredom, loneliness, or stress.
Or our cravings may be ramped up in social situations where habit or peer pressure test our limits. Like, um, holidays?!
To be able to say “no” when facing a tempting situation, you need to have a bigger “yes” burning within. A question I encountered online recently is a great illustration of a “bigger yes” at work in real life.
I belong to a Whole30 Facebook page, and recently one of the members posted this question:
“I did my first Whole30 in June to rebalance my hormones, clean my gut, and tone up. After the Whole30+, my skin cleared, my body was less bloated, I lost about 5 lbs, and started having more energy. I continued it until this weekend when I hit a temptation. Maybe it’s cause I’m 20 and of course I want to lose weight, but I already eat very strict…and I only go off on bad streaks of sugar sometimes. I want to fit into my old cute clothes again and feel renewed but I also love having a social life and Whole30 really restricts this… So how do I find this freedom?”
I don’t say this in judgment, because everyone has to decide what their own bigger “yes” is. But from what the young woman asking the question said, her biggest “yes” is: “I want to eat what my friends are eating.” To her, that’s a bigger “yes” than “I want to fit into my old cute clothes,” “I want my skin to stay cleared up,” and “I want to have more energy.”
For me, fitting in a smaller size or looking thinner wasn’t enough to keep me disciplined long-term, either. I needed a bigger “yes.” A reason big enough to help me say “no” when I need to.
And after watching Alzheimer’s steal my mom away bit by bit, I found it: avoiding type 2 diabetes and dementia.
A whole foods, healthy fat, sugar-free diet can keep type 2 diabetes largely under control. A high-carb, sugary, processed food diet can make it worse. And there are close ties between diabetes and dementia.
On this much, many scientists agree: The rate of Alzheimer’s disease could be cut by close to half if diabetes could be abolished. The connection between the two is so strong that Suzanne M. de la Monte, one of the top researchers in the field, has said that many cases of Alzheimer’s could be dubbed Type 3 diabetes. [Emphasis mine] (source)
When I think of my choices in terms like sugar and carbs = possible Alzheimer’s, the “should or shouldn’t I” is a whole lot easier to answer! Instead of “should I eat this or not?”, the question becomes…
- Do I want dessert every day, or do I want a dementia-free life?
- Do I want bread all day long, or an unfoggy brain?
- Do I want the grand-slam breakfast, or do I want to be able to play with my grandkids?
Want a jump-start to changing your two things?
Read about the #2thingschallenge.
The deeper why: When a change in diet and a bigger yes aren’t enough
What if you’ve cleaned up your diet, found your bigger yes, and you’re still struggling with frequent, repeated returns to your old ways? I’m not talking about having pizza with your family one night and having cake at a wedding reception in the same week. I’m talking about several times every week for weeks on end, or periods of time where you completely abandon all your boundaries, to the point where you gain weight and lose hope. Again.
There may be a few things going on.
Robb Wolf, author of Wired to Eat, said in a podcast interview with Chris Kresser:
I’ll be working with a client and … in one way or another, [they say] the following: “I’m trying to develop a healthy relationship with food.” On first blush, [I respond], “Okay, that’s totally reasonable.” Who could argue with that? …Then I start asking some questions. Is it really about the food? And so, I would dig and dig and dig, and I found a very consistent trend: almost always somewhere in the past, this person has suffered some sort of pain. There’s been some sort of a traumatic event — that could be family, school, or peer group. It could be a variety of things. And for whatever reason, food has become a palliative tool in dealing with that pain, and then that can lead into overeating. Either making more food choices or consistently just overeating to kind of get the satisfaction and the dopamine release associated with eating.And what I’ve noticed is that a really strong focus on that relationship with food guarantees that the fundamental underlying issues will not be dealt with. [Emphasis mine]We’ve turned this into a situation of chasing symptoms and not root cause. And it’s going to be an unresolvable scenario unless we can sit down and say, “Okay, I understand that food has kind of become the focus, but I’m going to throw out this suggestion. [Maybe] this really isn’t about food. There’s something else deeper here going on, but food has become a Band-Aid, has become a symptom. Can we talk about and explore this? Maybe work with a therapist and really get some professional eyeballs and ears on this thing.” And when I help people, guide them towards that path, we’ve had really, really good success….This is the message that comes out of the media and medicine, dietetics, self-help, and self-care, but I’m just starting to think that this [focus on having a good relationship with food] is something that literally ensnares and entraps us and distracts us from actually dealing with the root issues that are ultimately going to liberate us out of this scenario.
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
- stress in marriage relationship
- stressful job
- new job
- recent or impending move
- new baby; new foster or adopted children
empty nest (especially if your life revolved around your children)
- strenuous schedule due to work, school, and/or other-care
- hands-on caregiver
- emotional, sexual, verbal, and/or physical abuse (past or present)
- a loved one in personal or health crisis
- a loved one with mental illness
- death of a loved one
- a grief that’s been stuffed, not processed
- protracted or life-altering illness in yourself or immediate family
- an unpleasable parent
- an unpleasable self; unable to give yourself grace
- unable to speak about how you really feel
- survivor of trauma (car accident, natural disaster, etc.)
- victim of rape, robbery, or other violence (including war)
- unresolved guilt over abortion or other deep regret
I experienced the fastest weight gain of my life during the three years when my dad was dying, my mom was succumbing to the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, and my kids were transitioning from high school to college — and into more independence from mom. Which was a good, healthy thing for them to do, but it did mean some loss and grief for me; not just in my relationships with them, but in the way motherhood gave my life meaning and purpose.
For those few years, comfort food became a coping mechanism. And let me just say: I don’t think we should add beating ourselves up over something like that to our list of stressors when we’re in the middle of it! Unless your weight/health is at a crisis point — say, crossing over into pre-diabetes or diabetes — I think it’s okay to give yourself a pass for several months or one or two years that are just going to be difficult, no two ways about it. But after that season was over for me and the habits persisted, I knew it was time to change the habits and reverse the damage. It took a couple more years for me to get to where I was really ready to dig in. Another thing that was crucial: asking for help!
How about you?
Have you discovered which foods trigger cravings for you?
What might your “bigger yes” be, that would help you say no to more tempting foods?
Might you need to start or give another go at therapy, to help you move forward regarding past or current pain?
What you have to look forward to:
- Able to pass up desserts and junk food without feeling deprived
- Able to freely enjoy the occasional special food without tossing all your boundaries out the window
- Feeling great when you wake up in the morning
- Feeling clear-headed all day
- Having energy to do fun things you can’t do where you are now
- Able to reduce or quit some of your medications (along with their side effects)
This could be — this can be your life! Just recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight, it’ll take some long term commitment, possibly some professional help, and, initially, some uncomfortable changes in what you eat and why you eat, but trust me: it’s so, so worth it! And in the end, it doesn’t feel like deprivation any more.
Need some help?
I can help in 2 ways…
- Starting Jan. 2, 2018, I’ll be doing a “2 Things Challenge.” Anyone is welcome to join in! The challenge is to pick 2 things that you’ll do over the course of 22 days in January, to improve what you eat, and why you eat. I’ll be posting ideas and encouragement on my Facebook page and my Instagram feed (where I’m @jana.realfood). Follow me either or both of those places to follow along.
- I’ll be speaking and conducting workshops and classes a few times this spring (2018). Signing up for my mailing list will keep you up-to-date as details emerge. You’ll also get a couple free e-books when you sign up: The Meal Plan for People Who Hate to Meal Plan, and 10 Small Steps to Big Change.