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The Food Therapist
Break Bad Habits, Eat with Intention, and Indulge Without Worry
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In The Food Therapist, Shira Lenchewski offers readers an ongoing one-on-one food therapy session, revealing the root causes of our emotional hang-ups around food and providing the necessary tools to overcome them. This practical and judgment-free guide helps readers hone the skills needed to put their get-healthy intentions into daily action, such as planning ahead wisely, tuning into their fullness cues, and harnessing willpower (even when life gets messy).
Lenchewski also offers easy-to-follow, tasty recipes aimed at rebalancing our hormones and conquering our cravings without deprivation. The Food Therapist is a refreshingly modern resource that helps us finally un-complicate our relationship with food and our bodies. We can then focus our efforts on making thoughtful, healthy choices, day in and day out, which serve our ultimate goals, whatever they may be.
If you asked people to post a status update on their relationship with food, I’m guessing most would toggle to “It’s complicated.” Much like thorny love connections, our relationship with food is one of life’s most emotionally loaded, yet still instantly gratifying, bonds. When things are good, they’re oh so good—there’s passion and excitement, comfort and confidence—the stuff you wouldn’t trade for anything. On the other hand, when your interactions feel stagnant or strained, everything seems like a struggle. You may go through periods of second-guessing your every move or maybe even giving up effort entirely. Yet, while any genuine romantic relationship is bound to be somewhat complicated, given that there are built-in issues of trust and fairness along with a second helping of life’s problems (since there are two of you), the same doesn’t have to be true of your relationship with food.
The interesting thing, though, is that many of us analyze our romantic relationships at length (and—ahem—sometimes to death) but don’t really spend much time digging deep when it comes to our ongoing relationship with food. But here’s the simple truth: You can’t make better, more consciously driven food decisions that are in line with what you really want for yourself and ultimately reach your health and bod goals if you don’t examine the roots of this vital relationship. And yet, in my experience, most people haven’t even skimmed the surface of their personal backstory with food (aside from throwing endless shade at themselves).
When people used to ask me about my interest in nutrition, I’d often tell them about growing up as an athlete (rowing) and my focus on food in terms of fueling my body. While both those things are valid, I realized later that I was leaving out what was in many ways much more important and relevant: the full picture. I was an uber-anxious, self-conscious kid who grew up in the 90s, when the fat-free craze and other gag-worthy diets were alive and well. I grew up hearing about weight a lot—family members saying things like, Ugh, I’m so fat, Look how skinny she is, etc. I was actually a healthy-looking kid, but I didn’t feel good in my own skin. I didn’t love my bod, but I did love food, and I thought that you kind of had to pick a lane—you could either feel good about your bod but relinquish the joys of eating delicious food, or you could enjoy food but in turn sacrifice having the body you wanted. I genuinely thought it was an either/or thing. Without all the facts, the self-awareness, or the self-compassion, I became the queen of Diet Coke and sad salads with dressing on the side. As I eventually discovered, not only is this a really gloomy way to live, but restricting yourself this way doesn’t actually work. It keeps you forever hungry and constantly thinking about food, and quite frankly, I had more important sh*t to do.
Ditching this narrow mindset was a complete and utter game changer, but I couldn’t have switched gears without forgiving myself for doing it wrong all those years, for doing the eating equivalent of biking uphill with my brakes on (something I’ve unfortunately done, by the way). The moral of the story for me was that you don’t have to choose between looking and feeling your best and eating delicious, flavorful, satisfying food. In fact, I honestly think you’ve got to have both factors at play to make consciously healthy food choices on the regular. It’s the same reason you’ll never find me fasting on Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year), doing a liquid cleanse, or engaging in anything ultrarestrictive when it comes to food because, honestly, I’ve been there and done that, and not only did it feel like crap but it also didn’t bring the results I craved. So rest assured: The reason I can speak so definitively about food-related missteps is that I’ve known them intimately, both personally and professionally.
Some details on the professional part: I’m a registered dietitian in private practice in Los Angeles, and I’m more or less a food therapist. Truth be told, the gig wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, coming out of my clinical-nutrition graduate program, but I’ve fully embraced the role. In grad school at NYU, I pored over biochem and organic chemistry with serious gusto. (Not joking; I freaking love science.) But after finishing my dietetic residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, I realized just how much the science stuff takes a backseat to the emotional aspects in everyday life. In my practice, I work with different types of women and girls (and some dope dudes, too), from editors, law-firm partners, MBA students, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and Hollywood folk to working moms and full-time moms—a varied and unique bunch, to say the least. Early on, I noticed a recurring theme that’s still ongoing today: Most of my clients can immediately rattle off all the things they ought to be doing: limiting added sugar, exercising portion control, making better choices at restaurants, etc. The problem is that they’re not actually doing those things on a regular basis. In other words, there’s a gap between their intentions to get healthier or lose weight and their day-to-day eating behaviors. So before my clients and I get to the actual meal planning, the crux of our initial work plays out more like a food therapy session, getting to the bottom of why they aren’t doing those things.
But how is it that so many of us are motivated to look and feel better and understand the basics needed to get there, and yet we’re not following through? Hint: It’s not because we’re the worst (although, ironically, that’s often where our heads go). It’s largely because the vast majority of us have a conflict-ridden relationship with food. When you add up the emotional baggage that comes with that troubled-relationship territory, the constant distractions we all deal with on the daily, and the physiological issues involved, it’s not actually all that shocking that we’re not delivering on our get-healthy goals. The reality is, it’s really difficult to translate our good intentions into effective actions in the face of all this noise, because we’re constantly working against ourselves.
Here’s the awesome news: It’s scientifically proven that at any age, we can change the way our brains function to boost willpower and develop consistent healthy habits and behaviors, even if those habits and behaviors don’t necessarily come naturally to us. But we can only get there if we’re willing to flex different mental muscles and practice these moves on a regular basis. The first step in developing healthy behaviors is to identify your personal roadblocks and then to phase out your emotional hang-ups around food and your body. After that, you can start applying strategies to help you deal with these root causes in order to make truly thoughtful eating choices that serve your ultimate goals, whatever they may be.
And that is exactly what you’re going to learn to do in this book. Part One is like a one-on-one food therapy session, where I’ll help you broaden your understanding of your personal history with food, what makes you tick (and eat), when you tend to lose control, and what your values are in terms of indulgence and pleasure. You’ll begin by pinpointing the factors that cause you to stray from your healthy-eating intentions so you can use that info as a road map to anticipate and sidestep those obstacles in the future. Then you’ll learn how to develop workable food-related coping strategies that will better serve you—including how to tune in to your body’s signals (no ashram required) and employ willpower more efficiently so it’s available when you really need it. In Part Two, I’ll map out the Food Therapist Plan for getting your hormones working for you, including meal plans, recipes, and strategies for keeping this plan sustainable and enjoyable for the long haul. I’ll also help you develop tools that will enable you to bounce back quickly when things go amiss (this is real life, after all). All of this will help you set yourself up to execute new behaviors that will become habits—and keep honoring them long after the New Year or that beach vacation.
By the time you’ve finished this book, you will have gained a permanent spot in the driver’s seat. Rather than allowing your emotions, your environment, or other factors to dictate what or how much you eat, you’ll be in charge of your own food decisions. I’m also certain that you, too, have way better things to do than stress about food. It’s on.
YOUR DIG-DEEP FOOD THERAPY SESSION
Time to Have The Talk with Yourself
Hit the pause button on your regularly scheduled life for a few moments and let’s get right into it. Let me ask you something: How do you talk to yourself when it comes to food and your body? Better question: Would you let anyone else speak to you that way? What about when you happen to overdo it on sweets or comfort foods, or anything, for that matter? Do you tend to think of your eating habits as good or bad, virtuous or naughty? Better question: Do you think of yourself in those absolute terms based on what or how much you eat?
Like most complicated relationships, our connection with food is seriously layered, and it’s tied to what is arguably the most complex bond of all: the one we have with ourselves. Anyone who has been in a grown-ass romantic relationship knows that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you see his or her flaws. It’s easy to love someone when things are ultrasmooth. Ride-or-die love is different: It’s choosing to love and be committed to the person, despite his or her faults. That can be scary (and challenging). I’m not talking about quirky faux flaws that aren’t really deficits (like being a neat freak or a bed hog); I’m talking about the messier stuff, like the way your loved one acts when he or she is under enormous pressure or feeling particularly down. Depending on you and your significant other, seeing that ungraceful, possibly disappointing, twisty stuff can be a total deal-breaker.
With respect to our relationship with ourselves, we don’t really have that luxury. We can’t simply peace out (it’s not you, it’s me–style) when we overeat or aren’t thrilled with our bods. Instead, we tend to put ourselves in the doghouse when we’d be so much better off approaching those disappointments compassionately, just like we do when our favorite people let us down. In my mind, ride-or-die love in a healthy, sustainable relationship means two imperfect people refusing to give up on each other. It’s a pretty amazing thing we do, not only for romantic partners, but also for our BFFs and other people we care about and believe in. So why is it that we rarely afford ourselves the same tolerance and TLC, especially when it comes to eating and our bodies? Ideally, we should all be striving for that kind of bond and ability to accept imperfections with ourselves, too—not only because it feels better, but also because it’s part of the secret sauce that helps us close the intention-action gap between wanting to eat healthier and making consciously healthy choices on the daily. So imagine taking a vow to make that same commitment to yourself: on bloated days and skinny-jean days; after a particularly indulgent month and post–sugar cleanse, too. This doesn’t mean you have to love your bad habits or even your cellulite for that matter, but you do need to accept that they are a part of you and your story (at least for now). It sounds touchy-feely, I know, but stay with me. Ironically, once you accept yourself this way, without the shame and negativity that fogs up your perspective mirror, then you can figure out your roadblocks and start working on stuff that’s actually in your power to improve. As a starting point, it’s wise to examine how well you tune in to and treat yourself on a day-to-day basis—how well you listen to your wants, figure out your needs, and dish out self-compassion, all of which affect the quality of your relationship with yourself.
You’re probably thinking, this all sounds fine, but what does it have to do with food? Well, that care (or lack thereof) also influences your relationship with food, playing a central role in what, why, and how much you eat, and how you feel about it. The fact is, the foods we choose and the way we eat are very much tied to the way we think about our bodies (for instance, My stomach is gross or I hate my thighs) and the way we speak to ourselves (I have no self-control or I’m such a sloth), especially when we stray from our good intentions. Same thing goes for the way we understand our food histories (including ghosts of diets past). Having a healthy relationship with food means being on our own team—for real, though, not just when we’re at our fittest and most together.
What I’ve found, again and again, in working with my clients is that approaching food relationships this way, and accepting our food-related fumbles without the typical shame spiral, allows us to identify and really get to work on overcoming the obstacles holding us back from making solid food choices consistently, day in and day out. This is major, because before you can change your food behavior, you’ve got to be willing to confront why you’re not already practicing the healthy habits you want. Over the years, in my private nutrition-counseling practice, I’ve seen clusters of patterns that reflect why clients weren’t applying the food behaviors they aimed to carry out, as well as how and when they were veering off course. The most common obstacles include having trust issues related to food, being a pleaser (as in: caving to other people’s food choices in order to keep the peace), having a go-big-or-go-home mindset when it comes to dining, craving a bit too much control around food, being hot and cold with noshing habits, and using food as a vehicle to amplify good feelings and temporarily forget about bad ones. When I work with clients, we always start out by exploring their specific eating obstacles and tendencies. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do here—only, in this case, you’ll do a self-compassionate deep dive on yourself.
It’s time, then, to DTR (define the relationship). Anyone who has ever teetered in the uncomfy are-we-exclusive gray area while dating can agree that it’s best to approach the talk as straightforwardly as humanly possible, because quite frankly, it’s important to know where you stand. The same is true of your relationship with food. As psychologist Kelly McGonigal puts it in The Willpower Instinct, “The best way to improve self-control is to understand how and why you lose control.” That’s what I’m talking about here: In order to change your eating behavior, you’ll need to zoom in on where you are now and explore how you got here. As with any relationship, it can be difficult to confront your emotional baggage and missteps along the way, but remember: The goal isn’t to punish yourself for these missteps, but to understand how, when, and why you’ve ditched your long-term goals for your more immediate wants; this is the crucial first step to closing the gap between your intentions and actions. To set the wheels of change in motion, I developed the following DTR quiz that will help you investigate the underpinnings of your relationship with food and what’s been holding you back.
Once you complete this quiz, there’s a good chance you’ll identify with a couple of different obstacle types. That’s normal—it’s part of what makes you unique. The aim of exploring the patterns found in each of those obstacle categories is to spark some introspection about why you’ve been making the food choices you have. In doing so, you can start recognizing patterns that don’t work for you or that may be standing in your way of making healthy changes that last. It’s almost like once you start thinking about your “problematic tendencies” without the accompanying scary music, dealing with your eating-related baggage doesn’t feel so intimidating, and you can focus your energy on gathering strategies to help you deal. (I want to make something crystal clear, though: I am not talking about eating disorders here; I’m talking about the everyday issues we all have with food.)
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
If you chose two or more from any of these obstacle patterns, read all the corresponding analyses that apply to you, below. This will give you some insights into why you’ve been struggling with the food issues you have. Hey, there’s no judgment here! We all have issues—and our own unique combos of them—so the challenge is to understand them, find tools to cope, and learn to live with them in a healthy way that doesn’t suck to maintain. It’s possible, I promise.
You don’t always trust yourself around food. Maybe you don’t keep certain foods like sweets or chips at home because you’re afraid you’ll eat them all. Or maybe you dread family-style meals because you usually leave them feeling stuffed beyond reason. Like many of us, you probably learned to associate food with comfort and rewards as a kid—thanks to ice cream cones after a bad day and pizza for celebrations—and now it’s your go-to for both. At the root of these issues is the fact that you may not trust your inner system of checks and balances; in other words, you may be out of touch with your body’s hunger and satiety signals.
You may even be what I call a perma-dieter: individuals who have a history of trying lots of different diets, many of which were restrictive and unsustainable. The cycle goes something like this: they followed the strict guidelines initially, making some weight-loss progress, but eventually fell off the plan hard, reversing the progress they made. At that point, feeling terrible about themselves but determined to do better, they began the cycle again with another unsustainable diet. And so on and so forth, reinforcing the ultimate disservice: mistrust in their own food judgment and self-control. In fact, research shows that many perpetual dieters are somewhat desensitized to their internal fullness signals; as a result, their food behavior is often driven by external or environmental forces. This may sound like a stormy forecast for the future, but it really doesn’t have to be (for real).
THE PLEASER TRAP
Like a mirror, you tend to reflect the behaviors of the people around you (in general, but especially with food). When it comes to food, this means you often let other people drive your choices. You may think you’re being agreeable or go-with-the-flow but if we’re being honest, you’re also habitually relinquishing control of what you put in your body. You’re definitely not alone. A pair of studies published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that people with a strong desire to please others and maintain social harmony eat more when they believe their dining companion wants them to.
The trouble is, you’re the third wheel in your relationship with food. Having this profile makes it endlessly challenging to stand up to inadvertent sabotage and food pushers who, for whatever reason, want you to eat more or indulge in certain things. Plus, when you constantly cater to what other people want you to eat, it’s hard to know what you actually want and need. This may add to your own stress and frustration. It’s time to realize that putting yourself first in this way doesn’t make you high maintenance. You’ll need to challenge this notion in order to get the results you crave.
FEAR OF THE MUNDANE
You’re somewhat of a maximalist, with a go-big-or-go-home mindset. You probably work hard, deal with a lot of pressure (at work, home, or somewhere else), and food is one of the main ways you treat yourself—by ordering the most decadent thing on the menu or by indulging in foods that may not be healthy but give you a major pleasure rush. With some of my clients, this mentality is a huge part of how they move through the world and connect with other people. So the idea of having to reel in your carefree and adventurous culinary spirit may feel like an assault to your identity. I get that—really, I do. You may even be worried that if people start seeing you eating more healthfully, you’ll get unwanted attention for that—and worse, if you don’t stick with it, everyone will know.
The truth is, you may be overly invested in food as a source of pleasure and reward, whether it’s because you’re not getting pleasure in other ways or your high stress load makes you crave not just the taste of decadent food, but also the temporary soothing effect it can have. Behavioral scientists acknowledge that a major stimulus for noshing isn’t actually hunger, but the anticipated pleasure of enjoying highly palatable foods. This may be especially true for you, and even more so during stressful times. After all, increased cortisol exposure from chronic stress can amp up the brain’s reward system, making the drive for these super-palatable foods even stronger. The problem isn’t that you love delicious food—that’s actually fantastic
- On Sale
- Feb 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing