Pants too Tight? The “Making Peace with Food & your Body” Solution

When a prospective client calls, frequently the request is for help losing weight.  I ask her (or occasionally him) “Do you think your weight gain is related to emotional eating,  stress eating, over-eating, mindless eating or habitual eating?  Because if those are issues are true for you, I can help.” But mine isn’t a weight loss approach – because studies show what you probably already know– that diets don’t work long-term for 90-95% of us.

But sometimes I too am tempted to go on a diet – even though I know that for me, as well as most of the people I’ve worked with over 35 years, diets trigger obsessiveness or deprivation and the reactive binge. 

Then why was I tempted to go on a diet in July?

Because my summer pants were too tight

I first noticed the tight pants issue when winter turned into spring and I had difficulty zipping up several pairs of pants.  Or I could just barely button them but they felt uncomfortable.  So I took out my handout “Tips to Finding your Natural Body Weight through Making Peace with Food & your Body” (below), because sometimes I need reminders to take my own advice!  I paid attention to how I was eating and realized that my daily snack of a tablespoon of cashew butter had morphed into 2 or 3 tablespoons. (Overflowing if I was honest with myself.) I contemplated if my new culinary pleasure was worth giving up some of my favorite pants.  Quite honestly, the compulsion was so strong that I wasn’t sure.

So I decided to practice what I preach. I became curious about the cravings. My inner coach started asking the questions I ask clients.

 “How would eating the cashew butter help?”

            “Do you desire the taste and texture”

            -(in which case a mindfully- eaten spoonful should satisfy)

   “Or does the need feel urgent, compulsive?

          -(If it’s an emotional need for comfort or distraction, no amount will satisfy.)  

   “Is there anything else that would make you feel better?

   “If the urge is still strong and nothing else will alleviate this feeling, eat it slowly, mindfully, with great pleasure, allowing it to soothe you. Just enough to feel satisfied.”

I was surprised to notice that, when I slowed it down, the cashew butter didn’t taste as good as I had been anticipating.  I realized I had been eating more and more in an attempt to bring back the desired pleasure!  Within a few days, I was no longer craving the cashew butter and eventually stopped buying it.  My belly fat diminished enough to wear my pants comfortably again. 

When summer finally arrived in Rhode Island, same issue – some of my favorite summer pants were too tight to wear. Was I eating more or was my belly expressing the typical post-menopausal redistribution?  And now what do I do?  I did buy one new pair of pants in my new size because I knew I would feel better if I felt comfortable, but before I bought any more clothes, I wanted to see what I could do to reduce my now bigger belly – without depriving myself (and setting myself up for obsessiveness or triggering off the diet-binge yo-yo.)

In discussing the issue with a friend while on vacation, she commented that I was always eating.  And even though it was generally healthy food and I wasn’t over-eating (past the point of comfortable fullness, because I hate that feeling), maybe all that grazing was causing weight gain. Because I made the decision not to feel criticized and be curious instead, I started observing my eating patterns.  “Is it really hunger?”

What I discovered was not new to me but something I had been ignoring-  my tendency to eat something, often something small, whenever I felt the slightest sensation of hunger.

So, I experimented. Instead of acting on those first sensations, I decided to slow it down and pay attention. I realized that I was anxious!  Not the old generalized anxiety, which I experienced much of my life, but anxiety about being hungry. Given my history of feeling deprived of treats by my parents and my own cycle of dieting – ignoring signals of hunger, and bingeing – using food to manage uncomfortable emotions,  this made sense. I had lost my ability to distinguish between stomach hunger and mouth hunger.

Stomach hunger comes on slowly and, when we eat,

we experience a comfort in our belly and a sense of satisfaction.

Mouth hunger develops suddenly, even if physically full.

Eating leads to shame or guilt instead of satisfaction

I decided to try a new experiment with my food cravings, one based on urinary urgency treatment. Many of you who are postmenopausal may be familiar with this uncomfortable and worrisome situation. It’s advised to practice doing kegels and then pause and relax. Often the urgency will go away. Only when the urge returns the second time, after kegeling, should one walk to the bathroom – slowly. Rushing would only reinforce the pattern of urgency.

I decided to use this model with food cravings -especially since it was sometimes hard to tell whether it was stomach hunger or mouth hunger.  

 (Note: I would never recommend this practice for eaters on the restrictive spectrum, who need to learn to honor their hunger; only for compulsive eaters who often misread cues of emotions or thirst and interpret them as hunger.)

In this experiment, when the sensation of hunger appeared, even if I interpreted it as urgent, I would try to take a ‘2-minute pause’ and calm myself, knowing that stress (even a stressful thought) would activate the sympathetic fight or flight aspect of my nervous system, which can trigger the urge for food. Similar to using kegels to calm the urge to pee if we have an overactive bladder,  I practiced calming myself when I felt the urge to eat –by exhaling, maybe with a sigh, put a comforting hand on my heart or face, use soothing self-talk (“You’re OK”),  or simply practice mindfulness – bringing curiosity and awareness to the sensations.  I was surprised how frequently the hunger sensation disappeared!  The second time the hunger sensation appeared, I would try a different experiment. Drink some water – because I know that thirst often masquerades as hunger. Again, often the sensations of hunger disappeared when my thirst was quenched. By the time I felt hunger the third time (which might be a matter of minutes or as long as an hour), I was genuinely hungry and then food tasted wonderful! (Food tastes so much better when we’re hungry! And if we’re eating what we really want.)

 Of course, to do this experiment, one needs to be prepared with a (preferably nourishing and delicious) meal or snack; otherwise it may be hard not to run to the nearest McDonald’s or CVS for a quick low blood sugar pick -me -up.

I promised myself that, if this experiment did not result in my pants fitting, that I would buy myself some new ones, most likely with a stretch waist – I am finally willing to accept the biology of the redistribution of my aging body!

And to practice body acceptance as part of my self-love and self-compassion practice.    

All my best,
Barbara

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