Most of us straddle two extremes when eating. We alternate between unconscious overeating and anxiety-induced restrictive eating. One day, we sit in front of the TV, mindlessly popping pretzels into our mouth. The next, we think back to the now empty bag of pretzels and over-analyze every calorie that comes near our lips. Eating becomes either habit or painful. We stop enjoying meals, barely tasting what we put in our mouths, because we are overwhelmed by distraction or hyper-attention. As a result, we both overeat and under-eat. Our weight fluctuates and we lose sight of what is important: health. In order to maintain health, we have to maintain a normal body weight. This can’t be done if we continue to jump from extreme to extreme. We have to stop mindless overeating and overly restrictive under-eating.
To stop the first, we must understand what triggers mindless eating, and that is primarily convenience and visibility. If it is easier to grab the candy bar off the counter than to find a healthier snack, the candy bar will be eaten, every time. And if it’s right in front of your face, it will be eaten more readily. When candy jars were moved from workers’ cubicles to a location six feet away, the workers ate five fewer pieces of candy a day. Their mindless munching was curbed simply by making the candy less accessible and moving it out of their line of sight. So to solve this extreme, you should move the candy jar out of your cubicle. Make the unhealthy options inconvenient; move the healthy ones to the front of the refrigerator. Have them in your line of sight. Make grabbing an apple easier than finding the last piece of pie. Also, create pause points. If you are forced to take the time to question whether you want more than the serving you just had, you’ll probably stop. Put a serving size into a small dish or buy individually-wrapped single-serving snacks. It’ll help slow you down and it will put thought back into thoughtless eating. You’ll have solved one of your problems, but what about the second?
To combat traumatized, restrictive consumption, make eating a pleasure. When you are obsessed with the calorie count, fat and sugars in a dish, you won’t find any satisfaction in the meal. What you need to do is become, what one nutritionist calls, a competent eater. As such, you view your food habits positively, with flexibility and comfort. You listen to your body, eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. You look at food, and rather than seeing a list of numbers, you see a tasty snack. By not overanalyzing, you find that you like eating. You eat in moderation but not to the point that you feel limited. You eat as you should, with normal portion sizes, adequate nutrients and variety. In doing so, you are able to maintain normal weight, and you eliminate the second extreme.
We can find the middle path, where eating is not mindless and not traumatic. We have to put thought back into what we’re doing. We have to pay attention, and we have to make eating fun. Meals should make you smile not bite your nails.