In the past few weeks, I’ve seen an increase in people discussing and writing about having gained weight since the event of the pandemic. Many of us have turned a corner from “acute crisis” to “settling in for the long haul,” and we’re taking stock now. We’ve also recently heard some public figures make critical remarks and references to others’ weight, which has only increased pressure on everyone who already struggles with body image or who experiences criticism about their bodies.
Just so you know, this is not a post about how to lose weight. This is a post about some steps to take if you are thinking about losing weight. This is because the first thing we often jump to when feeling unhappy about our bodies is restricting food intake (“dieting”). But that’s often literally the last thing to do! So please remember to consider these other factors FIRST before jumping to food restriction.
Sleep is often one of the biggest factors in weight changes. Have you been struggling with sleep the past few months? Many people have, whether because of anxiety, depression, or change in routine. Sleep deprivation can change hormones: it reduces leptin and increases ghrelin, which can dramatically disrupt both appetite and metabolism. This can mean experiencing intense cravings and processing fuel differently.
Sleep deprivation also interferes with executive function, which means both cognitive and emotional processes are harder to manage. That can mean it’s hard to plan for and prepare the food you’d like to eat. It can also mean increased emotional eating, or in some cases loss of appetite because of anxiety or depression.
So first of all, make sure to prioritize sleeping enough and sleeping regularly before addressing your eating.
After getting your sleep on track, next consider how you’ve been exercising (or not!)
Whether you’re an essential worker who’s been stressed and working extra hours, or you’ve been working from home, or you’ve been unemployed and out of your normal routine, your body needs the stress outlet of some kind of movement.
Often when people are worried about weight, they focus on exercise as a method of “burning calories.” There are a lot of good reasons to exercise, but “burning calories” is usually an unhealthy way to approach exercise. It’s often an approach that is self-punishing (“I must do an unpleasant activity because of my size!”) or contains elements of bargaining or paying for eating (“I can eat this food I like if I ‘pay’ for it by exercising!”) You don’t have to “pay” for eating with exercise.
A healthy exercise approach is to focus on improving heart function, improving lung capacity, gaining flexibility, metabolizing cortisol to decrease anxiety and regulate sleep, and attenuating depression. In other words, exercise to improve your physical and mental health. Not as a way to neutralize eating.
If you are not satisfied with the overall nutritional balance of foods you are eating, then you are certainly allowed to modify what you’re eating. But when changing your diet, it is important to remember that the goal is to first ADD components you believe you are not getting enough of. Maybe you feel you’re not getting enough leafy greens, or enough legumes, or protein, or calcium. Search out foods that will help to add those elements to the overall balance of your diet! It is acceptable to still eat other foods for enjoyment.
It can be hard to prioritize “adding in” foods, partly because we are constantly bombarded by puritanical, perfectionistic messages that we should be removing or restricting foods.
Checking in with Your Emotional Side
So you’ve stabilized your sleep, you’ve improved your relationship with exercise, you’re getting a better balance of the nutrients you need, and maybe that’s enough! Maybe you’re back to feeling okay!
–Or, maybe you still feel you’re eating more than you want to, or more than you think you “should.” What then? You’re doing all the “right stuff!” Why are you still eating more! Well, this is the hard part, as the emotional component of any behavior change usually is.
Whenever a behavior is difficult to change, there is usually some part of you that is using the behavior to feel okay. To feel safe, comforted, entertained, loved, awake, valued, to feel pleasure. Eating is such an emotionally layered action. We are not simply input/output mechanisms for fuel and activity.
What emotional need has food been fulfilling for you while you’ve been dealing with stress? Until you can find another satisfactory way to fulfill that emotional need, you will continue to use eating behavior as an emotional tool. No amount of calorie tracking, substitute sweeteners, or rigid meal-planning will sustainably alter that dynamic.
Something to keep in mind is that you can’t fool yourself about your own motives. What I mean by this is, you may be saying to others or to yourself, “I’m doing this for my own good! I need to restrict my food for my health!” but meanwhile there is part of you thinking “I’m going to restrict food because I should be punished [for existing, for taking up space, for using any resources, for having the “wrong” appearance].” Or maybe there is a part telling you that it’s not okay to be fat, or maybe it’s calling yourself names.
Guess what? Until you can keep that part of you from bullying the part that is using food to feel better, it will only make things worse for all parts of you.
Ironically, the bullying part needs patience and tenderness to change, too. That bully part is usually trying to protect you from the criticism of important others. “If I criticize me first, then I won’t get criticism from others.” Let the bullying part of you know that you truly appreciate the protection, but that it’s not necessary any longer. You don’t need it to call you names or harass you.
When you are able to pacify the bullying part, then you will be able to more clearly hear the part using food as an emotional tool.
If that part of you is using food for comfort or safety, is there something else you can use sometimes to feel comforted or safe? If that part is using food to feel loved or valued, can you find some other ways to remind yourself you are loved and valuable? If that part has been using food to quell boredom, can it tell you some other things that might help you feel interested and alive?
Once you have examined the emotional underpinnings of your eating habits and your body image, then you can find more acceptance for yourself, and you can choose whether you want to change your behaviors. But in the meanwhile, remember that this body has carried you, and helped you survive and overcome everything that you have lived through so far. It deserves gratitude and care from you! And so do you, yourself. ❤
The article linked below has more discussion about an emotionally balanced approach to eating:
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