Wellness is about a coordinated effort of mind, body, and spirit. Your attitudes about things like food, eating, body image, and exercise can either enhance or interfere with your wellness goals. In working with people with eating disorders, we often see eating attitudes and behaviors that make it impossible to be healthy. Some common examples of disordered eating behaviors include things such as:
• Basing decisions on what to eat, when, and how, entirely on external cues
• Compensating for food intake in unhealthy ways, including:
vomiting, compulsive exercise, use of laxatives, diet pills and diuretics, basing one’s self- evaluationg on their weight, size or eating patterns. However, even before a person’s behavior reaches the proportions that can lead to the diagnosis of an eating disorder, eating behavior that is distorted can still lead to health problems and interfere with a person’s emotional and physical wellness. In distorted eating, we see the same types of eating behaviors in less extreme forms.
• Moderate use of external cues to control eating – counting calories or fat grams and avoiding certain “forbidden”foods (especially if you like them!)
• Occasional food “binges” created by avoidance and partial starvation
• Compensating for perceived “excesses” with: periods of starvation or restriction and extra exercise dictated by food intake (“torturecise”)
• Basing one’s self-evaluation partially on weight, size, or eating patterns
Therapists working with eating disorders have long understood a terrible paradox that appears in eating disorders. Individuals who engage in eating disorders are almost always trying to ultimately achieve some positive goals. For example, they may be trying to improve their health, or make themselves more attractive, or help deal with emotions (we will cover this topic a little later). The terrible paradox is that in almost every case, the very behavior in which a person engages to try to meet these goals eventually backfires and makes the same problem worse! Sometimes, but not always, disordered or distorted eating behaviors work temporarily (other times they don’t work at all). But in almost every case, they eventually backfire. Disordered and distorted eating leads to: poorer self esteem, more problems in relationships, reducing how appealing or attractive someone is, poorer health, and make emotional issues worse. It is important to know that the negative effects of disordered or distorted eating are not due to not having enough willpower or not trying hard enough. In fact, the reverse may be true! The problems created by distorted or disordered eating (including dieting for weight control) are simply byproducts of how your mind and body react to negative ideas about food, eating, and body size and shape. Trying harder often just means making it even worse.
Eating and Emotions – Most people have had the experience of eating when stressed or emotionally upset. Two basic things set us up for an increase in emotional eating. These are: (a) trying to use food to satisfy emotional needs, and (b) not eating enough in general so we are often hungry. One can think of our appetites for food and our emotional needs as two separate “fuel tanks” . No amount of food will ever fill the emotional tank! The most we can hope for is that a full belly, often too full (but sometimes too empty), will temporarily numb the sensation. Anytime food works as a temporary relief to an emotional need, the emotion returns relatively soon, often with increased intensity. Emotional needs require emotional remedies. All too often, self esteem, especially for women, is tied to the ability to deprive oneself of what one needs! To quote Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, “putting your own needs first at times isn’t selfish; it’s necessary to give you the physical and emotional stamina to be there for those you care about.” To feel satisfied, we have to have enough! Deprivation does not help. This includes making sure we eat enough. Scrimping on meals (especially for emotional reasons, such as guilt; or to compensate for eating “too much” at another time) sets up a combination of an emotional and a physical need for food. This combination can easily lead to an episode of out-of-control emotional eating. Again, this is not a question of control or willpower; that “weakness” is a direct byproduct of deprivation!
Healthy Eating and Exercise – Wellness is a direct byproduct of healthy eating attitudes, eating behaviors, and exercise patterns. Scientific research on health, exercise, and eating indicates that eating healthy foods (not dieting for weight control!) and getting enough exercise is far more important for health and wellness than controlling one’s weight. In a nutshell, healthy eating is eating that is directed by your own internal cues of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Sometimes, after years of distorted or disordered eating (including weight loss diets), this process may need to be relearned. Learn how to tell when you are hungry for food and when your hunger is for something else. Learn how to tune in to your body to be able to tell when you have had enough. Learn that you can sometimes eat purely for pleasure or to help feel connected.
Healthy exercise is exercise that is reasonable, enjoyable, and sustainable. Focus on what kind of activity you actually enjoy doing. Find that spirit, most often present in children, of moving your body because you like how it feels! Give up using exercise to compensate for overeating or as punishment (“torturecise”). Avoid perfectionism or “all-or-nothing thinking”. Finding reasonable and enjoyable types and levels of activity will help you to keep being active and creates a positive cycle (as opposed to a negative cycle) of health and activity.
Your emotions may be the most important element in the whole process. Positive change is almost always the result of encouragement, self acceptance, and self love; not the result of criticism, self denial, and punitive self control. Understanding and accepting that you already are the best you can be today, is what makes it possible to work energetically and constructively for a better (“weller!”) future!
By Dr. Leonard Bohanon, Ph.D.