by Michael Trovato
Think back to a time in your life when you were proud of something you accomplished. Maybe it was learning how to meditate, getting a good grade in a tough class, or finishing a race, whether it was your first 5K or your tenth marathon. Maybe it was quitting your job, moving to a new city, or ending a bad relationship.
Now go back and think about what you were thinking when you reached that proud accomplishment. More likely than not, the things you are most proud of are things you made a conscious decision to do. You decided to take up meditation to reduce stress and find clarity. You decided to study hard and learn the material in that class. You decided to sign up for the 5K, or train for the marathon. You decided that you no longer wanted to work at that job that made you miserable, live in the unhealthy environment in which you had been living, or be treated poorly the way that person was treating you.
Whatever you did, whatever you are proud of, it had to start somehow. Chances are, you had to think about whatever it was that you wanted to do, and weigh the reasons for doing it or not doing it. Everything we do has a point of origin.
I tend to think a lot, my mind is constantly racing. I think about the things I need to do and the people I need to see. I think about “what if’s,” and what other people are thinking. I’ll overthink just about anything, most of the time. My thoughts manifest into physical symptoms of stress, anticipation, and anxiety.
Most of the time.
And then, there are times when I don’t think at all. Or, at the very least, when my mind and body disconnect from each other. When my mind does one thing, and my body does something completely different. When even being conscious of what I’m doing, and knowing that I should stop, doesn’t stop me.
This is when I eat.
I firmly believe in the power that our thoughts can have in influencing our actions. I also believe that the lack of thought can often lead to our greatest struggles. For me, one of my greatest struggles is binge eating.
I’m not a doctor, nor am I a dietician. I also have never “officially” been diagnosed with an eating disorder, so I’ll stop short of classifying myself as having one. However, I’m a textbook case. The symptoms are all there: eating large amounts of food in a given time; eating when I’m not hungry to the point of discomfort; the guilt and shame that follow.
It can start a number of different ways, triggered by stress, boredom, fatigue, excitement, frustration, or a wide variety of other emotions. Ironically, it can start simply by actually being hungry, my body realizing it’s ready for a regular meal, but then forgetting to flip the “off” switch when I’ve had enough. I’m aware that I’m overeating but it’s as though I’m on autopilot, an out of body experience where I’m watching my body shove food into my mouth, knowing it’s not the best idea, but rummaging through cabinets and the shelves in the fridge like I was stealing something.
The real conscious thought comes afterwards when I’ve finally stopped, having eaten 1,000, maybe 2,000 calories or more in a sitting. I’ve tried to rationalize it, laugh about it, and own it, by making excuses, self-deprecating jokes, or claims that I should be a competitive eater. When it comes down to it, though, I know that I have a problem with food, and that the implications are nothing to joke about.
Much of the information I’m about to share with you are things that you probably already know, but that’s OK. My purpose is more so to refresh the memory, and to provoke thought. Not only to provoke thought, but to connect those thoughts to the things we do. While I’m speaking about food, the invitation to consciously connect thoughts could frankly be about any area of health that you struggle with.
So here’s the informational part…
Over one-third of Americans are categorized as obese, and the reasons for these rates are plentiful:
- We (the average American) cook less, eat out more, eat too much. (1)
- We consume double the sugar we should in a given day, getting more than the daily recommended amount of sugar (150 calories) from drinks alone. (1)
- We mistakenly attribute exercise as an adequate substitute for eating healthy. (1)
- The unhealthiest, most calorie-dense foods are some of the cheapest, quickest and easiest to get. (2)
- We are constantly bombarded with ads for high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar foods; 98% of food ads seen by kids fall into at least one of these categories. (2)
- In 2012, over $4.6 billion was spent on fast food ads, with McDonald’s alone spending nearly three times more than companies advertising water, milk, fruits and vegetables combined (that doesn’t include ad spending by Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s, etc.). (3)
Let’s think about this for a minute.
We know that the media can impact behaviors, especially in children and teenagers. Media exposure has been linked to risk-taking behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and sexual activity. 4 So, if the media can influence whether or not we smoke, drink or have sex, it makes it make sense that it can also have a profound psychological effect on the way we eat.
We know how often we see ads for fast food, and the emphasis on convenience and affordability has created a culture of dysfunction when it comes to the relationships we have with food. Pair that with messages we get about body image, physical appearance and weight loss. “Be thinner.” “Be toned.” “Have muscle definition.” “What do you weigh? Well, whatever it is, weigh less.”
So to follow this train of thought, knowing that the media is full of messages about food, and how our bodies are “inadequate” in some way, is it crazy to say that eating has become a prominent part of our everyday lives?
Now, I’m not just talking about “eating” in the biological sense, where eating is necessary for our survival (it is, but that’s not the point). I’m talking about the thoughts behind eating, and how often we have food on the brain, whether we are aware of it or not.
There is a difference between eating for nourishment, and the act of eating in general. On average, we as a society think about food so often that “eating” has become something we do from a psychological standpoint, not a biological standpoint. When we associate food with different emotions, circumstances, events or interactions, it becomes easier to eat just because, rather than if we just associated food with our physical bodies being hungry.
I know why I binge eat, and how it started. As a kid, my grandparents would always be impressed with me when I would finish what was on my plate. My grandmother was a phenomenal cook, and so naturally, between my taste buds being happy and my brain soaking in the praise for having eaten my whole dish (and then seconds, and then thirds), I made positive associations with eating a lot. Whenever we would get together, whether it was to celebrate a holiday, mourn a loss, or just to go over for Sunday dinner, food was there. During my overeating episodes, the emotions present were broad; it didn’t matter whether I was happy, sad, or anything in between. I just ate, and people were impressed.
So I kept eating.
I’m an adult now, one with multiple health-related degrees. I have learned quite a bit about food, exercise, diet and healthy lifestyles. None of that matters. I still struggle with my relationship with food to this day. Over 30 million Americans do, too, so I’m not alone, and neither are you.
Over the past 12 years, I’ve gained and lost significant amounts of weight. It goes in waves. In 2004, I lost 50 pounds. Then I gained 15. Then I lost 20, gained 35, lost 45, gained 20, lost 35, gained 15, gained 10 more, then 15 more. At my heaviest, I was 255 pounds. At my lightest, I dropped to 174. Today I’m nestled in between, hovering around 214, and battling binge eating every single day.
There are many solutions to our struggles with eating, some are healthier than others. I’m not here to suggest that any one is better than any other; everyone is different. Different treatments will work or not work to varying degrees on every person. What I can share, though, is that through my 12-year journey from size 38 to 34, and everywhere in between. The times when I’ve been consciously accountable for what I’m eating has been the times I’ve been the healthiest. The times when I’ve been mentally absent, I’ve struggled the most.
I lost 50 pounds during the last 5 months of my senior year in high school, simply by looking at the nutrition information at the places I would go out to lunch. I realized that I was eating 1,400 calories between 10:00 and 10:40 a.m. alone, and consciously changed my order. I subbed out fried foods for grilled, cut back on condiments, and replaced soda with seltzer or water. I also ordered less food.
In 2011, I began keeping a detailed food log in a spreadsheet. I began weighing and measuring out my portions and set daily targets for calories, fat, sodium, fiber, protein and sugar. I held myself accountable every day, and whether I met my targets or went over, I counted all but one day per month. I lost 34 pounds.
Over the past 3 years, I’ve gotten less strict. I’ve gone through periods where I stopped keeping track, and it shows. I began a full-time job and went back to school. Time and energy became an issue. I began picking at snacks after a long day at work, or getting home so late and building up such a hunger that I would eat a sandwich immediately after dinner. In many of these cases, I knew that these weren’t the best choices, but I was just too tired to keep track. I’ve gained it all back, and then some. I’ve since started keeping my spreadsheets again, and it’s a daily struggle. I have a good day, then a bad day. I keep track for a week, then miss a weekend. I’m not consistent.
I may or may not seek other treatments down the road, but I’m aware that this is something I will likely struggle with my entire life. I know that I’ll hit my stride again and reach a healthier weight. I know I’ll also probably slip again and gain some back. But what I know most of all, is that whatever I do, I’m at my best when I’m eating consciously.
We all struggle with different things. It may be food or exercise, stress or sleep, money or work, family or friends. Whatever the case may be, whatever you’re going through, I encourage you if nothing else to stop, take a minute, and think of the things you’ve accomplished in your life. Think about your mindset, and how the decisions you made led you to your success. Try your best to harness that again. Write it down if you need to, but don’t let it go. You can act on whatever goal it is you want to reach.
But first, you have to think.
For more information about eating disorders, go to https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders.
1 Barclay, E., Belluz, J., & Zarracina, J. (2016, August 31). It’s easy to become obese in America. These 7 charts explain why. InVox. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/2016/8/31/12368246/charts-explain-obesity
2 The facts on junk food marketing and kids (n.d.). In Prevention Institute. Retrieved from Google.
3 Fast Food FACTS in Brief (n.d.). In Fast Food F.A.C.T.S. Retrieved from Google.
4 The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report (2011). In NCBI: National Center for Biotechnology. Retrieved from Google.
© Copyright Michael Trovato, September 5, 2016