The other day I was eating brunch at a friend’s house with a group of other residents. I got there a little later than everyone else, and the hostess served me a waffle and some fruit salad when I arrived. I was so busy saying hi to everyone and telling and hearing stories that the waffle sat uneaten on my plate for 30 minutes or so before I started digging in. I didn’t really notice, but some of my friends joked that they were amazed watching me sit there in front of a delicious-looking waffle for so long without eating it.
The truth is that, unlike a lot of people, I think, I don’t really feel compelled to eat food just because it’s in front of me. My roommate from med school noticed this too. I remember one time her mom was over, and had just gone to the farmer’s market and wanted to cut up some fruit for me. I wasn’t hungry so I said, “No thanks.” She didn’t get it. “But it’s just fruit!” she said, and she made a plate and handed to me anyway. My roommate had to explain to her mom that I really wasn’t going to eat it.
I’m no Giselle, but I tend to be on the thin side. I’m 5’9 and my weight hovers around 128lbs. This is a combination of genetics and habit. I’m sure I have good genes on my side, but that doesn’t mean habit doesn’t play a huge part. The way I eat come out of years of paying attention to my body and they way certain foods make me feel, so that I actually prefer eating foods that are good for me. I’ve trained myself to enjoy healthy foods, eat only when I’m hungry, enjoy a delicious meal but at the same time consider food an afterthought and not something that consumes or preoccupies me. Here are the some of the principles I follow:
Willpower Is Not The Answer
I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to food. And to be honest, I don’t get why you would want to. Eating is fun and delicious. Living in a constant state of food denial isn’t a great way to live, and is actually counterproductive to developing healthy long-term eating habits. In fact, restrictive dieting can lead to destructive eating habits, because when you’re hungry you’re more likely to overeat and pick unhealthy foods.
And dieting makes you become more preoccupied with food, not less. The more you think about food, the more likely you are to reach for reasons other than hunger, like boredom or stress.
Don’t Eat When You’re Not Hungry
I eat what I want to, when I want to. But at the same time, I almost never eat when I’m not hungry. People sometimes don’t get it when I refuse food when there’s so much social pressure to eat. “But just take a taste” they’ll say. If I’m not hungry, I don’t even want to taste something. I don’t enjoy it and it confuses my mouth and stomach, making me start to get hungry even when I’m really not. I don’t eat birthday cake just because it’s someone’s birthday and it’s around – I probably wouldn’t eat cake at my own birthday if I wasn’t hungry for it. I don’t mind ignoring social pressures to eat because I’ve noticed how eating when I’m not hungry makes me feel, and it’s just not worth it.
Another reason people eat when they’re not hungry is the scarcity mindset. Despite the fact that enough food is produced in this country every day to keep everyone morbidly obese, we sometimes feel that certain situations are our only opportunities to eat. This is rarely actually the case. If you’re not hungry at your designated lunch time, you can buy or make something and save it for later in the day. You don’t need to eat out of fear that you will get hungry. If I’m going on a long road/plane trip or am otherwise in a situation where food won’t be immediately available, I’ll make sure to bring along snacks so I won’t get stuck without a better option.
When you start listening to when your body needs to eat, you really don’t need to worry about things like portion sizes. I eat out of the bag all the time, because as soon as I’ve eaten enough, I stop. If I go out for a meal, I probably eat 50% of what’s on my plate and take the rest home for leftovers, because that’s how much my body needs.
Pay Attention To How Foods Make You Feel
When you pay attention to your body, it can usually tell you what you should be eating. I’ve eaten oatmeal or Go Lean Crunch cereal every day for breakfast for probably the last 10 years. I know a lot of people like low carb diets, and maybe it works for some, but I know it’s not right for me or my metabolism because nothing makes me feel better than eating oatmeal in the morning. Given me a bowl of oatmeal and some green tea and I feel like I can conquer the world.
Some days I’ll crave a lot of carbs, others protein, and sometimes (often, actually) I’ll even crave ice cream or other fatty, sweet foods (but I usually just need a few bites to feel satisfied). I pretty much just follow what my body tells me it wants, and it seems to work out. The more you follow your body’s instincts, the more you take your brain out of the equation, which uses all sorts of inaccurate cues to make you eat at times when you really shouldn’t.
I can’t remember the last time I ate processed fast food (probably over 10 years ago) because it makes me heavy, bloated and like crap. If you’re listening to your body and you think it’s telling you to eat McDonalds, you’re probably not listening close enough.
Exercise – Not Just Because It Burns Calories, But Because It Helps You Stay In Tune With Your Body
So I have a past as a college Division I water polo player, but I’ll be honest that exercise has mostly fallen by the wayside since a little unfortunate situation called “residency” has taken over my life. But I’m still a decently active person, and walk to work, surf and go to the occasional yoga class. I find that if I don’t exercise for a long time, I start to lose touch with my body, and lose incentive to take care of myself by eating well.
I actually weigh less now than I did back when I was working out 2-3 hours a day in college, probably because I don’t have any muscle mass anymore (as you may have read in my About Me page, my Tanika Bodyfat scale told me my body type is “undermuscled”), and because I’m WAY less hungry and eat much less now that I don’t exercise so much. I like to exercise to feel healthy and energetic, not because it controls my weight. If you’re exercising so much you don’t even enjoy it anymore, and doing it thinking it will help you lose weight, you’re probably missing the point about exercise, too.
Hey readers, what techniques do you use to eat healthy? Do you feel like it comes naturally, or that you need to use willpower to eat the way you want?
Image by Gaglias
I really enjoyed this post!
I, too am amazed sometimes at the social pressure to eat. It’s everywhere!
When I was in my surgery residency I did often eat even if I wasn’t hungry, partly because I couldn’t afford to risk getting hungry at an inopportune time on a long case, or worse yet, having my blood sugar drop. And I never knew exactly when I’d have a break to be able to eat again. I’m still working on changing that behavior.
Now that I’m in corporate America, I’m amazed at how people skip meals, or grab junk, or eat at their desks while crunching their spreadsheets because they “don’t have time” for a normal meal.
Our society really does have a dysfunctional relationship with food, doesn’t it?
Hey Dara! I don’t think you can blame yourself for not eating well on surgery… I think any surgery rotation is a pretty legit excuse :-). I was hungry and thirsty pretty much my whole 3 months on surgery when I was a med student. Office jobs definitely make it tough to eat on your body’s natural schedule, since your time is filled with meetings/phone calls/conferences etc and there’s always junk food around. It’s good to be conscious of all the social pressures to eat so you don’t get stuck in following the crowd!
Great post, Elana! I’m actually gonna get my mom to read this, I don’t think she believes there are woman like you in this world lol. She’s trying to develop healthy eating habits but forgets all to quickly…
Haha, hope your mom finds it helpful/interesting!
I totally resonate with what you write about actually weighing less now (and I read that as having a happier body) than when you were working out way more. I put myself on a punishing yoga regime months before my wedding to get in shape and have since learned to practice as a way to better communicate with not only my body, but my emotions and spirit. I’m amazed that what’s happening now physically is what I so wished for during those harsh couple of months. Of course, the physical body isn’t as important to me as it was then. Funny how things work out that way…
I’ve definitely gone through phases where I try to force myself to do a ton of exercise, thinking it’s the best thing for me… but it just makes me unhappy and takes all the enjoyment out of being physically active. There are times when my body wants to do that much and time it doesn’t. I’ve found I feel much healthier if I do what my body wants to, even if that means taking a break from exercise.
Hi Elana! You are very thin! It would be nice to be tall and thin like you. 🙂 I respect your healthy eating habits. You are so disciplined! Haha I felt slightly embarrassed by my own eating behavior when I read your post…I eat so much and I come from a line of big eaters. What do you think of competitive eating? so my sister has won a few eating contests, and I also won one with her recently in SF. It really wasn’t about enjoying the food at that moment or satisfying hunger…we were just there to claim titles that we felt we deserved, and my friends had been challenging me to do it for years. I feel like competitive eating actually requires mental toughness, to keep going even when your body wants to stop. I think it’s unhealthy though, so I may not be doing any challenges again or at least for a while. I guess I just really like the feeling of winning, and I can’t say I’m amazing at many things…but I am quite good at eating, so…maybe it’s something I hold on to…lol. another issue I have is that I don’t feel full that easily. I think I’m like a fish (right? they just keep eating as long as there’s food around?). I have been trying to think about healthy food choices though!! and I really should eat less. I will work on that. I think I should write down what I eat. I agree it’s important to think before we eat. btw, since 3rd year of med school, I think my capacity has shrunk! Too many hours of starvation on surgery!
Hey Joyce! I actually think I don’t have any discipline at all… I’ve just trained myself to enjoy things that are healthy for me :-). I don’t think there’s any problem with eating a lot as long as you eat what makes you feel good. I remember you saying that you and your sister do competitive eating, and I think that’s awesome! It’s probably not a great thing for your body to do on a daily basis, but if you enjoy it and find the competition fun, I say go for it. I think it’s more important to pay attention to how food makes you feel than to keep track of everything you’re eating. I hear you about losing stomach capacity during surgery- I think I lost 20lbs on that rotation alone :-).
Haha ok. 🙂 I guess everyone has different capacities. I eat a lot relative to my size (and actually more than anyone I know), but in my family, that’s normal! Haha my mom eats a lot more than I do. Yeah, the attitude towards food is more important than the quantity. I think emotional eating, etc is not OK. That’s not even enjoyable, it’s just sad…and important to deal with the underlying issues that cannot be solved by food. I liked how you talked about listening to your body. I remember you talking about losing weight on surgery! I can’t imagine you being 20 pounds lighter than now! That’s very underweight isn’t it? Aaaargh med school!
I found this last summer and it seriously changed the whole way I think about food. For the longest time I was obsessed with trying to plan and control what I ate because I was so scared of getting fat. It was constantly on my mind, and sometimes I would still overeat because I was letting my mind tell me when to eat instead of my body! It is soo much easier to let my body control when I eat. It is not so hard to ignore social pressure to eat, and I don’t feel guilty about occasionally eating unhealthy food because I just let my body tell me how much it wants/ needs. Thank you so much for verbalizing this take on food. It has made my life much easier.
He Gigi, thanks so much for your comment, it makes me feel awesome that this post positively affected you this way! Yeah, isn’t it so much better to let your body decide what it wants instead of letting your mind obsess about food? Thanks again for your feedback.
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