I’ve never had good self control. Much like everyone else, it’s very hard for me to resist instant gratification. I do well when there is some sort of reward for doing things that aren’t fun or interesting but need to be done. I procrastinate on tasks, like never-finished laundry, that don’t have an immediate reward or sense of accomplishment attached to finishing them. I prioritize tasks that I deem fun or important, sometimes to my own detriment. There is nothing special about this way of thinking, it’s just a matter of how it’s applied.
For a long time, I thought that the instant gratification of eating food was enough to justify eating it. I thought everyone ate when they weren’t hungry. I thought everyone felt searing guilt after eating, no matter what they ate or how much. I thought everyone planned their day around eating, and I thought everyone thought about their next meal as soon as the current one was over. I thought that mountains of self control and willpower were necessary in order to eat healthy food and exercise. I thought that people only lost weight with sheer will, and I thought I would never have enough to do it myself.
So when I am asked how I have such good self control around food and exercise, it’s hard for me to explain that I don’t. The way I eat now was earned through years of learning, forgiving my own setbacks, and having honest conversations with myself, and it’s hard to shrink that method down into a quick zinger. The explanation of the way I learned to approach eating sounds just as discouraging as telling someone to dig deep and find their self control. Everyone wants a fast track for weight loss, and since so many diet companies rely on that message to make money, it’s hard to offer a solution that takes practice, forgiveness, and compassion and doesn’t even offer guaranteed weight loss.
However, no diet program promises the peace of mind that comes from learning how to listen to yourself, and in the position I am now, I think that’s more important. By pretty much every standard, I’m still fat, but most of the time, I’m very happy with the way I live my life. I could be much thinner if I liked grueling workouts and eating skinless chicken, but I don’t enjoy either of those things. People who eat skinless chicken and grind it out in the gym everyday enjoy those things immensely, not because they have self control. They get some type of pleasure out of those things, otherwise they wouldn’t do them. I enjoy exercising, but I do it for the meditative aspect, rather than to get super cut. I eat skinless chicken if the recipe calls for it, but chicken skin isn’t something I think I need to avoid, so I will happily eat chicken wings or thighs the way they come naturally.
So how did I get here? Well, the thing that got me started was the book Health at Every Size. It was the first book I ever read that explained that my body always knew what it needed, and I had the natural ability to listen to those needs. I just had to relearn how to trust my own abilities. Armed with the faith that Linda Bacon had in me and with the information she bestowed upon me, I started treating each interaction with food as a learning experience.
I spent a lot of time and energy simply trying to figure out ways to parse out what my body was telling me. I had to relearn what hunger felt like and how to avoid eating when I wasn’t hungry. I had to learn how to pay attention to what my body and mind were actually telling me, rather than overriding those cues with impulsive decisions. The most effective action I took in those first couple months was keeping a pen and paper food diary for a few days. Food diaries rarely worked for me in the past, but this time, I wrote down what I was going to eat as well as how I felt before, during, and after eating.Taking the time to honestly write down the emotions that eating provoked in me led to an epiphany.
I found that without fail, before I ate, I always, always, always knew how I’d feel afterwards. Sometimes I had to really sit there and be honest with myself, but I knew when I would feel guilt, when I would feel pride, and after a couple days, it was essentially pointless for me to wait until I was done eating to write down how I felt during and after. I noticed that the times when guilt was imminent were the times when I wasn’t actually hungry before eating, or the times when I chose something that my body didn’t need. In fact, I found that before eating, I would beat myself up if either of those were the case. I knew I’d feel guilt afterward because I felt guilt before. Eating food I didn’t want or need was almost like a torture device I’d use on myself by saying the food tasted good, or that I wanted the food, or that I deserved it, when I knew none of those things were true. I knew that in actuality I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to be confident, and I wanted to be at peace. Treating myself this way achieved none of those things, but instead harmed my progress toward all three goals.
This exercise made me realize that if I already knew how food would make me feel after I ate it, all I had to do was pay attention to those feelings and react accordingly. If I knew that I would feel guilty after eating something, I wouldn’t eat it. If I knew I would feel happy or proud after eating something, I would eat it. For the first couple months, this became enough of a reward system that I ate more healthfully than I had in my whole life. I enjoyed the food I was eating because I enjoyed not feeling guilty. I congratulated myself every time I made a decision that agreed with my inner thoughts, and I congratulated myself every time I turned down something I knew would only make me upset. By using this inner barometer, for the first time, I was able to make choices that helped me lose weight without relying on self control.
This is not to say that this road is always easy. Sometimes, it actually hurts. I’ve cried a few times over the last few years, realizing that I either had to sit through this intense, ridiculous longing for a stupid fucking cheeseburger, or feel incredibly guilty after eating it. Those are the moments when I have to use self control or forgiveness, but luckily, those moments don’t happen that often. And no matter which path I choose, I feel like I’ve made progress in how I handle those situations. If I successfully avoid eating the cheeseburger, I feel like a superhero the next day. If I end up caving and eating the cheeseburger, I treat myself compassionately instead of beating myself up. I don’t use the situation as an excuse to also eat a tray of pizza rolls washed down with a soda. If I have a hard time with forgiving myself for my mistake, I try to earn the calories the next day with a harder workout or by eating more vegetables. I do this for my own peace of mind, rather than to punish myself, and that’s where I feel progress.
It should also be noted that this way of eating allows for unbelievable amounts of bliss when you can finally enjoy food without guilt. I think I will always remember the first time this happened to me a couple summers ago. I was on a break from work in downtown Seattle, and was pretty hungry. I didn’t want the my usual choices of a Larabar or an apple. No, this afternoon, I wanted a chocolate chip cookie. I was absolutely sure I wanted it. I wanted one of the monstrous 460 calorie ones from Specialty’s, and an iced mocha to boot. I ordered, and I stepped outside into the sunshine, mocha in one hand, cookie in the other. I sat in the sun and found that the cookie was in that beautiful stage between warm and cooled down where the dough is cool to the touch but the chocolate chips are still melty. I took a bite, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the moment. For a short moment, I expected guilt to step in and take it’s normal place in my mind, but because I trusted myself enough to know that this was exactly what I wanted, it never showed up. The cookie, the mocha, and I were alone, and I loved every second of it. I picked up my food and walked around in the sunshine, beaming, feeling like I’d finally figured it all out.
As you can see, it’s pretty hard to explain all this in passing. Every time my self control is pointed out, I wish I could explain where this all came from. I wish I had a way to present this as a viable option without having to say, okay, so you just read this book, and you confront yourself and your own feelings, and you kind of admit that you’re lying to yourself and then you try trusting yourself for a couple years and then you feel great almost all the time. I wish I could hand out a flyer that absolved people of their guilt, but I can’t. All I can do is tell you that this work is worth it. A couple years worth of energy spent on learning how to trust yourself might sound tough, but when it’s compared to decades of feeling guilty about pizza, boy let me tell you, those couple years are a walk in the park. And the pizza over here is so fucking good.