You feel bad, and you’re positive: a snack will make you feel better. Or you’re in a great mood, and just want to celebrate it – with a snack. Or you’re sitting on the couch at night, and habitually have… a snack. Do you have eating habits that you would like to get rid of? Good news: you can do it.
There’s a mental circle that you can end up in several times a day. Marjena Moll used to know like the back of her own hand. Every morning, she decided to stick to healthy food for the entire day, and not to have any snacks. But sooner or later – usually later in the day, when she was tired – she always gave in. Right away, she regretted it, and felt ashamed of yet another failure.
Moll, who helps people as an eating coach in the Netherlands, learned to examine her emotions. “I discovered that much of my pain had to do with my judgement about it. Many women judge themselves when they’re feeling miserable or sad. That way, they’re adding insult to injury. They’re hurting themselves even more. If you tell yourself: I’m experiencing this feeling now, but I can bear it, you transform pain into power. You’ll spring back much sooner if you don’t resist it.”
“It all starts with ending your self-judgement and the fight against yourself. If you get on your own side, you’ll find there’s room for curiosity: when do I overeat, and why? If you start looking at yourself in a loving and curious way, you’ll notice new things. Perhaps you’ll find how convinced you are that ‘there’s no tea without biscuits’. But that’s just a thought. You don’t need snacks to feel good, because everything you need to be fulfilled is in you. The croissant or the cheese with your wine doesn’t define your holiday, your enjoyment comes from within.
Some laundry to do, some e-mails to reply to… Most of us want to do a lot in one day. Result: you get tired. These are the times when you don’t stand a chance. “That’s because of how our brain works. Two parts of our brain are related when it comes to our eating behaviour. There’s the most advanced part, the prefrontal cortex, and a primitive part. In the most advanced part, we make wise choices: we want to eat healthy food, perhaps lose some weight.
But when we’re tired, and our ‘reservoir of willpower’ gets empty, the primitive part of the brain takes over. This part doesn’t want to make sensible choices, it wants to give in to the desire to savour, to eat snacks.” To keep your willpower up, you need to have breaks. “If you pause often enough, you’ll see that a six minute break can make you feel like you’re on a holiday – in the middle of your dirty laundry.”
Moll knows it’s tempting to try yet another diet. She often did so herself. “But for most people, diets don’t work. If food is a drug for you, a stimulant, you struggle with two opposed desires. On the one hand, you want to have a healthy relationship to food, on the other hand, you want to enjoy it. Diets maintain an obsession with food. You keep thinking about what you ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ eat. While all you want, is a stable, good relationship to food.”
Most people have fixed eating routines that depend on where they are and when. The only way to get out of that pattern is to unlearn the habit. “That doesn’t mean you have to banish all the good stuff from your life. It means learning to choose very consciously, because you really like certain foods, and not because you have a desire that needs to be satisfied immediately. So, by all means, plan to have a nice piece of pie during a long walk with a friend. But if, at that moment, you think ‘I’d like a second piece’, realise that you don’t have to give in to that idea. By training yourself, you’ll get to know your body, and the call of your primitive brain part doesn’t keep bothering you.’
Perhaps, for you, food is connected to how you feel. If you are pleasurably anticipating a city trip, you immediately think of getting nice snacks to eat on the road. The feeling of rejection you have after an unpleasant conversation at work, or when your relationship is in a rough patch, makes you crave for food. “To taste, chew and swallow makes a bad feeling fade away. That’s how your brain learns: ah, a bad feeling, reward coming up!’
To get out of this vicious circle, you need to be curious about what you’re feeling. Moll: “Who are you when you just let the feeling of rejection or misery go through you, without pacifying it with food? You need to learn how to feel it, without looking for an escape in food.” It’s not hard, says Moll, just inconvenient. But this inconvenience, and the ‘withdrawal’ from the habit of pacifying it with snacks, is temporary. And strangely enough, this inconvenience can be something to look forward to. “If you look deeply into your own eating habits, you want to get through the inconvenience. Because you know that once you are through, you’ll be on the other side of your struggle, and you’ll feel like the strong person you know is inside of you.”
Text: Dorien Vrieling – Photo: Brigitte Tohm