I’ve just finished the coach certification course from the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. After eight months, 250 hours of online video lessons, hundreds of pages of notes, and reading so many books that I lost count, here are five important lessons I have learned about the psychology of eating.
1. Relaxation = Optimal Metabolism
Everybody who wants to lose weight wants a better metabolism. If we could do just ONE thing to improve our metabolism, it would be to slow down and relax while we are eating. Although metabolism is influenced by the type of foods that we eat, it’s also influenced by our state of being while eating. Eating under the state of stress creates a metabolic disadvantage. For example, stress increases the production of insulin and cortisol, which cause the body to store fat and to not build muscle.
We could be eating the healthiest food on the planet, but if we eat it while we are in stress physiology, we are not going to optimally digest and assimilate the nutrients that meal. Eating in a state of relaxation creates the optimal conditions for digestion, assimilation of nutrients, and calorie burning. We could be following an optimized diet, eating the highest quality organic ingredients, in all the optimal portions, making sure that our meal contains a complete balance of all the essential vitamins and minerals. But when we are eating that optimized meal under stress, our body is not in the state where it can receive the nutrients we are providing for it. Eating a high quality meal under stress is a great strategy for creating high quality waste products to flush down your toilet.
The stress we’re talking about here isn’t just coming from the demands of the outside world. Some of our stress is self-imposed. Negative thinking about the self creates stress chemistry in the body. Hating our healthy diet and hating our body turns on the stress response. If we’re thinking, “I can’t stand this diet, but I have to diet because I need to lose weight, I’m not loveable if I don’t lose weight,” we’re not receiving the full measure of the nutrients in our food. We’re putting ourselves into a position where our body cannot burn the calories from the food we’ve eaten. Take a deep breath. Relax, Food is meant to be enjoyed.
2. Our eating challenges are a doorway
When we think we have a problem with eating, we want some magic strategy that’s going to help us conquer our eating challenge. Maybe we overeat, or maybe we binge and purge, or maybe we chronically restrict our calories and experience the world from constant feeling of hunger and lack. We think the eating challenge is the problem, and if we could just conquer the eating challenge then the rest of our life would fall into place.
When we’re fighting our eating challenge, we’re fighting the problem where it isn’t. The eating challenge isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of some deeper issue. Said another way, the eating challenge isn’t the cause of our distress, it’s the effect of our distress. It’s our job to figure out what the eating challenge is pointing to.
As an example, let’s consider a woman who is binge eating in the evenings. When she gets home in the evening after work, she opens the refrigerator and eats everything in sight. If we look only at the eating behavior, you might assume that she has Binge Eating Disorder. A diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder, though, can mask the true cause of the behavior. When look past the eating behavior to a broader context, we can discover the root cause of the problem. Maybe this person is calorie restricting because she believes that skipping breakfast and lunch is going to help her lose weight. In this case the problem is not really binge eating, the problem is that she is HUNGRY from not having eaten all day. In another scenario, maybe this person is unfulfilled in her relationships, and when she comes home to an empty apartment with no one to love, she feels so lonely that it is unbearable. So she fills up the void with food. Food is often used as a symbolic substitute for other emotions. Attacking the symptom doesn’t solve the problem, and in many cases it may make the problem worse. Eating challenges are not a problem to be solved. They are symptoms to be explored.
3. The fitness and nutrition universe is overly masculine
Hang in there with me on this one. Everyone has qualities that can be described as being masculine or feminine. Whether you are a man or a woman, you posses some balance of qualities that are masculine and feminine. A well-balanced person can dip into the appropriate qualities when the situation calls for them.
When you are in your masculine nature, you’re single-mindedly focusing on achieving goals, you’re using the most direct path to get from point a to b, you measure your progress, and you have a well-defined “system” to get you where you’re going. When you are in your feminine nature, emotions and feelings take priority, and progress is determined more by how you feel than some objective measure. Pleasure is important, and progress towards your goal might be circular, in that you take one step forward and another step sideways.
Using this lens, it’s clear that the typical approach in the fitness and nutrition universe is hyper-masculine. Food and exercise are reduced to a mathematical formula for calories in-calories out. Measuring foods, counting calories, and knowing exactly how many grams of carbs you have left to eat today are common strategies in this approach. The masculine approach to exercise is about exercising for a certain number of minutes to burn a predetermined number of calories. The masculine approach is also evident with the popularity body monitoring devices, which allow you to measure how many steps you’ve taken, how many minutes you exercised in a particular heart rate zone, and how many times you moved while you were asleep. Exercise is often used as punishment, as something you have to do to burn off the calories from the bad things that you’ve eaten.
What does a feminine approach to diet and exercise look like? The feminine approach recognizes that humans are not simply input-output machines for food. A feminine approach to diet pays more attention to nourishment than calories. It recognizes that our eating and exercise is profoundly influenced by pleasure and enjoyment. When we make healthy food choices and feel pleasure while eating them, we’re more likely to feel nourished, and that means we can feel satisfied with less food. When we are moving our body in the world and enjoying the activities that we do, we want to move more. Following the feminine path, we can eat less, move more, and enjoy every minute of it.
4. Embodiment: You can’t drive a car if you don’t get in it
When you start to pay attention, you’ll see that we run a lot of our lives on autopilot. Unless we make an effort to stay centered in the present moment, we can spend a lot of our lives “checked out” of situations, and not fully present in our bodies. We sometimes use food as a tool to do this. For example, we often use caffeine to override and ignore the signals when our body is tired. We use sugar and junk foods to zone out and be less present in our bodies. We can get pretty good at living a halfway-present life.
But when we’re trying to make a change to our body, such as losing weight, being checked out doesn’t work. We need to actually be present in our body, to fully inhabit it, before we can change it. We have to be embodied, fully present in our body and sensitive to all of its pleasure and pain, before we can make sustainable changes to our body.
From this perspective, the prospect of losing weight is a lot like wanting to drive your car to Disney World. You know that you’re not happy right now, but you think that as soon as you get to Disney World you’ll be happy. To be able to drive your car Disney World, you have to get into the car. You have to sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key in the ignition, press the gas pedal, turn the steering wheel, and drive onto the highway. You might have to drive on the highway for a long time. But you can’t drive your car to Disney World unless you get INTO the car. Somebody else could come along and put your car on a flatbed truck, and they could drive your car to Disney World for you. But then your car would be there without you. Because you couldn’t get into the car, you would be back where you started… still unhappy and wishing you were at Disney World. To successfully lose weight, you have to get fully present in your body, and do the work.
5. Excess weight has a genius in it
I’ve often wondered how people who are otherwise brilliant and accomplished could seem so completely incompetent in their ability to mange their own eating and weight. Guess what- it’s not because we’re stupid or lack some kind of willpower and moral fortitude that allows us to avoid eating too much. The reason we are fat is because the weight is serving a brilliant purpose. That purpose just so happens to be a genius solution for some kind of pain and suffering in the person’s life. Blaming the overweight person for their “weight problem” completely misses the point of it. Excess weight has a genius in it. The real question is—if this weight has a purpose, if there’s a message in this weight—what is the weight trying to say? How can we listen better and uncover the genius in the weight? When we pour hate on the excess weight, the purpose and the genius of the weight is forced to go undercover. The more we hate on the weight, the harder it will be to figure out its purpose and ultimate message for us. When we love and respect the weight, its purpose and message can begin to be revealed.
I’ve been obese for my entire adult life, and I’ve been overweight since forever. I’ve often been told that “overweight people use their weight as protection.” Honestly, I thought that was a load of bunk. From my point of view, I’m being judged and attacked for being fat, so that sounds like a pretty stupid way of protecting myself. It’s not like I consciously said, “Hey, I know, I’ll put on a fat suit that everybody hates, and that will make people not judge and attack me. It’s genius.” No really, I can relate if you think this protection thing is the biggest lie you’ve ever heard. I thought so too… UNTIL I finally realized the finer nuances of how I was doing it. So yes, it turns out that I have used my weight as protection. I know that protection is not the only reason I am fat, but it’s one that I haven’t seriously considered before now. And it’s leading to a completely different solution than just “More Cardio.” If your excess weight has a message, what is it saying?
6. Bonus Lesson: Our relationship with food reflects our relationship with our mother
We can’t stop at 5 when there’s a chance to tie it all back to your mother. In psychology, why does it always have to come down to our mothers? Fortunately we don’t have to get our Freud on to understand this one.
We’re hard wired from infancy to associate food with nurturing. We’re hungry, we cry, and in most cases it’s our mother who shows up with the breast or the bottle to satisfy our hunger. While she’s feeding us, our mother holds us close and comforts us. When we’re a baby, we get set up in the relationship where food IS love; eating is a concrete demonstration of our mother’s love for us. The infant can’t tell a difference between food and love. Some of us can spend the rest of our lives exploring how the feelings of love are tangled up with the behavior of eating food. As an adult, we often use food as a symbolic substitute for the love we are craving from others.
When you look at your relationship with food, you can see echoes of your relationship with your mother. When you look at your relationship with your mother, you can see parallels to your relationship with food.
And this whole mother thing makes me wanna say…. Dangit. I’ll explain more about this later.
I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to participate in this training. I want to thank Marc David and Emily Rosen, founders of the Institute, for their passion and dedication to helping people transform their issues around eating. I also want to thank my peer coaches and fellow students for their questions, insights, and openness to discuss whatever issue needed discussing for as long as it took for us to “get” it. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe.