Breaking Up With Food


I knew it had to be a permanent separation. The calculation was simple: my body had come to need only about a third of what I wanted to eat every day. I wasn’t interested in dieting. This was going to have to be a deep emotional break-up, a rift that would last the rest of my life.

What would it mean to cut myself off from food, other than for nutrition? Figuring this out wasn’t so simple, but it was essential if I was to carry out the act and maintain my resolve. I was sure the temptation to go back would not relent, so I would have to go through a preliminary period of contemplation and self-scrutiny. Everyone eats emotionally. My task was to watch myself, to identify my personal variations and intrigues, the mental gymnastics I used to justify this or that indulgence.

I saw that I ate out of restlessness; to distract myself from worry; to pay myself back for a tough day; to quash my envy of those around me partaking lavishly in cookies and bread; for something to do at parties; to express a moody disregard for my future; to feed resentment; to please a friend who had made something special; to reward myself for completing a difficult project; to appease a craving that happened to creep into my mind; to pass the time while inching along in traffic; for reasons as creative as there were struggles in living day to day.

This kind of self-observation is not pleasant. Several absurdities became clear that made me wince, such as competing with my husband to make sure I got my share of something particularly delicious when we went out to dinner. So what if he ate three times the chicken phad thai that I did? I started resisting this silly contest by scooping out a reasonable portion on my plate and that was it – no refills. The trick was to nibble as slowly as possible, to savor every bite so that I still had something on my plate when he went for his third helping. I told myself that the quantity consumed didn’t matter, while prolonging the pleasure of eating together did. But the primitive grasping nature of this impulse stunned me when I first tried to hold it back.

Another surprise was the power of social anxiety. To attend a gathering without munching on all available goodies required taming a mammoth. I saw myself reaching into bowls of chips, snagging delicacies from trays, and managing to get varieties of morsels into my mouth without any participation from the executive portion of my brain. To fill up just one plate with a sampling of treats and carry it around with me, a tiny bite here and there, required the suppression of millions of years of evolution. Nervous and mindless grazing kept trying to take back over as I held onto the reasonable portions and tried to make carrot sticks last for a half hour.

I am sixty-three years old. It was a year ago that I severed my relationship with food, and thus I have been enjoying several months walking around in a lighter version of myself. I weigh what I did thirty years ago. I feel like myself again. I am fending off adult-onset diabetes as well as heart disease, both which run in my family. I can wear just about everything in my closet. But there are other dimensions of discovery and reward that keep arising.

At a recent wedding, I made sure to sit down with a few people in succession and have in-depth conversations, rather than wandering around and engaging in the very chit-chat that provokes a need to stuff food into my mouth. Those conversations remain in my memory, rather than a few pounds of little pizzas taking up residence in my belly.

An emotion not deflected by food can be fully felt. Hurt, anger, resentment, fear – all seem to do better with expression rather than chewing them into submission. Food is soothing, so we naturally give ourselves treats and indulge ourselves during hard times. Finding other forms of comfort is an effortful, ongoing liberation.

The break-up hasn’t been perfect. Holidays and celebrations have prompted regressions back to my former relationship with food. The next day, the scale shocks me with the rapidity with which my body is capable of restoring what has been lost. It is like resuming – briefly – with an ex, remembering the attraction but recalling the reasons for flight.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2017.

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