When you're itchy, it feels good to scratch – it's a distraction from the discomfort. But when you're not itchy, relentless scratching will hurt. People who struggle with disordered eating might feel itchy all the time. There's a persistent irritation deep inside where they believe that their bodies are flawed. So they restrict food, go on diets, and emotionally eat to get momentary relief from the itch. But, of course, that only leaves the irritation to fester.
People in recovery understand that they can't heal by obsessively scratching that itch. Acting out in any part of a yo-yo dieting cycle only leaves a person spinning in the whole miserable circle. Instead, they have to work at the root of the irritation. They have to face and recover from the experiences and conditioning that caused them to dislike their bodies and distrust their appetites in the first place.
In my book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, I write about my life as a dieter. Back then, I felt itchy all the time. My brain became hungry due to my fear that my body was flawed, the stress of weight-watching, and chronic malnutrition. I was stuck in the yo-yo dieting cycle -- alternating between restricting food and losing control over my eating. And while my size and shape made sense for my frame and genetics, I felt like I was overweight. Back then, I was in such pain because I falsely believed what diet culture promotes -- that if I could get control of my appetite and lose weight, I would be at peace.
But then I walked into a yoga studio, where I started a mindfulness meditation practice. Over time, that practice changed my mind and calmed my overactive nervous system (most dieters suffer from a hostile ego and a nervous system stuck in fight-and-flight, by the way -- we treat this condition with neurofeedback brainwave training). I learned how to let go of the punishing body standards and moral judgments I internalized while marinating in diet culture. I also learned how to be kind and gentle with myself, which helped me develop a sense of worth.
Most surprising to me was that when I changed my mind, the hungry sea inside grew calm. The itch was gone, so I no longer felt compelled to act out in my yo-yo dieting cycle. When we feel good inside, we don't need to use food to soothe emotional pain -- we're already ok. And when we learn how to be alive and connected to the amazing body we have (instead of looming over it with criticism), we naturally stop the weight-watching lifestyle that can ruin our physical and mental health.
This freedom is available to you. You can overcome the profound irritation that personal hurts and scars from living in our conflictual food and diet culture cause. If you want to learn more about the non-dieting road to peace, confidence, and better health, check out my book on Amazon, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture or join an online support group at nondietinghealth.com.
We know that too much sugar is bad for us. But it's challenging to navigate a food culture abundant in this highly-rewarding substance without overusing it. For decades the diet industry and health experts have told us to reduce our sugar intake by willpower. It's insulting we're told to control ourselves while the food industry is free to keep making more sugar and promoting its consumption - but that's a topic for another time. Most of us try to follow this advice with varying degrees of success. But, managing sugar cravings can be a tricky proposition for anyone, especially people who struggle with disordered eating. Many of my clients have found that the more rigidly they seek to control their intake of it, the more readily sugar and other highly-stimulating foods take control of them.
Most of us have gone at least a few rounds with our sugar cravings. And many clients who come to our office are stuck in a miserable tug-of-war with them. We were taught that to be healthier or lose weight; we should put our desire for sugar in a box and close the lid. We should sit willpower on top of that box to keep the unwanted desires safe inside. It's an example of the diet mentality so prevalent in our culture. Sometimes the wish for better health or weight loss fills us with a fresh supply of willpower that makes it easier to keep the lid on that box for a while. We might walk around in Candyland feeling empowered and thinking to ourselves, "I'm done with that old sugar-foe."
But as time goes on, the boxed-up desire becomes like a kitten aptly nicknamed Houdini. It finds a way to break out. Suddenly, we're eating a little dessert because it's the weekend. Or candy, because we've been so "good." We are experiencing the truism that when we can't have it, we only want it more. Soon Houdini becomes a full-on escape artist, and that little kitten grows into a big cat. We keep wagging our fingers at our desire and trying to shove it back into the box. But it keeps escaping as we consume more sweetness.
When clients are exhausted and unwell from trying to box their eating urges, they come to us. We help them see that the restrictive diet mentality and willpower are woefully inadequate tools for navigating our abundant and highly-rewarding food environment. To recover a healthy relationship with food, people need a resilient mind and strong eating regulation skills -- a shift from willpower and the diet mentality into creating the internal conditions necessary for healthy eating in Candyland.
Neurofeedback brainwave training is one of the therapies we offer to support this shift. It is a tool that promotes healing of an over-active nervous system in order to improve eating regulation abilities. Overactivation is common in people who have been taught to hustle for perfection in appearance, their diets, and otherwise. The stressful dieting lifestyle paradoxically contributes to inflated hunger and dependence on highly-stimulating foods for soothing. In other words, stressing about healthy eating creates a hungry drive in the deep brain that can increase unwanted eating urges and dependence on sugar and highly-stimulating food substances! To take back our power over tricky foods, neurofeedback helps to calm that hungry drive in the deep brain.
Along with neurofeedback, we offer support groups and health-focused psychotherapy. These therapies support a shift from reliance on willpower to body-attuned eating and stronger emotion and eating regulation skills. As clients reclaim trust in their ability to regulate their eating, they can navigate Candyland with a new kind of agency over food -- one that involves self-awareness, self-trust, and self-care.
If you're stuck at war with unwanted eating urges, give us a call. Start the journey that ends internal eating battles as you reclaim trust in your natural appetite and eating regulation skills. You'll find that you can be empowered over food, even when navigating our tricky food culture.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
When it comes to body image, it can be overwhelming to tackle the negative feelings we might be experiencing. The way we feel about our bodies is informed by a variety of past and current experiences. From the way our friends discuss weight and dieting to how social media depicts perfection, many of us are battling deep inner pain related to our physicality.
As anyone who struggles with body image will know, it is not enough to simply ‘choose’ to love ourselves more one day. Facing our true feelings about our bodies and how we perceive them can be extremely distressing, and it’s a complex area to unpack. Thankfully, there are some gentle but effective ways we can naturally boost our confidence.
Mirrors are typically a fear-triggering element for those struggling to cope with a difficult body relationship. We might turn away from our mirror image in dislike of what we initially perceive. Store window reflections and bedroom vanity mirrors are just some of the looking glasses that trigger bad body feelings. But did you realize that your mirror could be a source of healing?
Start by introducing positivity to your mirror space. Set aside 20 minutes to write five positive messages on post-it notes that you can stick up around the frame and see clearly each time you look at yourself. Affirmations might include, “I am my own measure of beauty” or, “I am enough.” In the image above, you can get ideas from the messages my clients posted on a mirror in my office. Consider these notes as the love letters your mind and body crave as you gradually adopt them into your consciousness.
Next up—gather meaningful items to place nearby your mirror in order to create a sanctuary of positivity. Perhaps there is a unique scented candle that you adore, some photographs of a trip that always makes you smile, or a shell you collected from the beach on a beautiful day. Put these items near your mirror to help soothe your nervous system when looking into your reflection.
In an increasingly digitalized world of social media and 24/7 advertising it can be frustratingly difficult to avoid toxic diet culture and the pressure that comes with ‘picture perfect’ images in the online space. However, by applying this empowering mirror hack and creating a supportive environment at the mirror, you can take steps toward body positivity.
I hope this mirror hack helps you keep sight of the fact that your value goes far beyond numbers on a scale or the size of your jeans. Who you are deep inside, and this incredible body that carries you through life is worth appreciating.
I’d love to hear from you. Please share in the comments some of the ways that you practice body positivity for yourself and your loved ones.
- Alison Ross, LMFT
Trigger warning: This article contains themes that could be distressing those who struggle with eating disorders, particularly bulimia.
Have you ever had an emotional hangover after watching a show on Netflix? I felt sad for a whole day after watching the third episode of Season Four of The Crown. In it, Lady Diana moves in with the royal family as she awaits her upcoming marriage to Prince Charles. She is instantly beloved by the British public, who bombard her with fan mail and floral bouquets. But behind the image she projects, Diana's royal life is deeply lonely. She is in a loveless marriage, her husband (who suffered loneliness himself) is cheating on her, and she feels stifled by monarchy rules about what she can do and say.
The episode portrays how Diana's chronic loneliness fueled her bulimia. Feeling hopelessly alone, she would sneak into the royal kitchen late at night, where she binged on food before purging it. This episode hits close to home for those of us who have struggled with disordered eating. Many of us have felt that kind of loneliness and have used food and compensatory mechanisms like purging to find temporary relief. Of course, these behaviors come at a cost as they fail to address the loneliness itself.
A recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the same part of the brain that lights up when we're hungry is the part that activates when we're lonely. In other words, loneliness and hunger share a home in the brain. Another study found that loneliness predicts postprandial hunger (hunger that persists after you've finished a meal). Science validates what people with disordered eating have experienced firsthand -- that there is a close relationship between loneliness and hunger. That lonely-hungry feeling drives those who suffer to keep eating, even after eating enough to meet their bodies' needs. So the next time you have unwanted urges to use food in ways you wish you wouldn't, a good intervention would be to inquire about whether you feel lonely.
As a psychotherapist specializing in eating and body image, I am very familiar with that lonely-hungry feeling at the core of my clients' suffering. It is not the kind of loneliness we feel when we miss someone; it is about missing one's self. Disconnected from ourselves, many people exist without an inner source of validation, care, or kind companionship. When we can't find a friend in ourselves, the aloneness can be all-encompassing. And it makes it hard to connect with others. Unhappy with ourselves, it might be impossible to believe that anyone else could truly love us.
The chasm that separates us from ourselves can develop early. We now know with certainty that childhood adversity is a major driver. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, being mistreated, bullied, alienated, or discriminated against -- all these can make a person feel deeply flawed. Diet culture provokes similar feelings of shame and deficiency by influencing people to turn against their natural bodies and chase unrealistic forms. The result is toxic stress and chronic emotional pain -- or, to put it simply, that lonely-hungry feeling that messes with our confidence and eating patterns.
Mistrusting our bodies and our selves, we might put on a mask as Diana did. We might present a version of ourselves that feels acceptable while hiding our true feelings, needs, and even our gifts. We might shy away from connections with others as we try to fix the body or person that feels wrong. We tell ourselves that we'll pursue the meaningful life we want when we lose pounds or improve ourselves.
But the solution to the lonely-hungry feeling is not to hide or reshape yourself. That only perpetuates the sense of aloneness. The work starts when you find little ways to be real. You begin to accept your feelings and needs and take your gifts seriously. You find the courage to share your deeper self with others -- a little at a time, testing the waters, as you establish trust.
A favorite quote on this topic comes from the children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit, "He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real." In case you're not familiar with the story, "nursery magic" is the experience of being loved. When others love us, it instills confidence and the courage to be real. When we're willing to practice loving ourselves more fully at any time in our lives, the same thing happens.
I like to think that Diana conquered that lonely-hungry feeling and her bulimia later in life by getting real. I remember her telling the truth about her bulimia to reporters. By sharing it with the world, she helped to break the stigma about it. She bravely left her royal marriage and lived a meaningful, albeit tragically short, life. She publically hugged patients with AIDS at a time when most people shunned them. She walked through a live landmine with her son in a campaign to bring the world's attention to the problem. I think that Diana might have found some of that nursery magic for herself, and I know that it's possible for you too, if that's what you seek.
During the Covid crisis, many people feel more alone than ever before. If you are experiencing that lonely-hungry feeling, reach in and reach out. Reaching in involves noticing your own feelings, journaling about them, and responding to them with love and care. Reaching out is when you take a deep breath and let someone know what you feel and need. You can also heal from loneliness by joining one of many online communities that have popped up since the pandemic began. We offer one that helps you find that nursery magic, called How to Love Your Body.
We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you experienced that lonely-hungry feeling? What are some of the ways you've coped with it?
Special thanks to my editor, Barbara Cook.
Dr. Oz makes his intermittent fasting diet seem so easy. "Eat what you want!" he says (minus sugar, carbs, white flour, processed and fried foods, and certain meats and cheeses), "and stop eating at sunset."
There are so many ways this diet would go wrong for people who struggle with disordered eating (or who want to avoid it). But let's start with this --sunset comes at 5:05 pm. So, Dr. Oz is advocating for the end of dinner with friends and family?! Maybe this would work for a robot, but not for a human who is wired by years of evolution to communal eating.
Make no mistake. You won't fail this trendy diet, it will fail you.
In a recent blog, I explain why I think diets like these should come with warning labels. What you think? Let us know in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
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Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.
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