Diet and pop-psychology pundits define “emotional eating” as using food to comfort ourselves when we’re upset or stressed, even if we’re not hungry. They suggest we replace eating, under those circumstances, with other ways to comfort ourselves. This makes sense to me in principle, but last week another way of expressing the concept came together in my mind. For me, emotional eating is what I do when I’ve tried to take up more space in my life and feel frustrated or anxious instead of gratified. The relationship between taking up space and eating was new to me. (Except in its physical sense!)
Taking up space in life means asserting your needs, expecting them to be met, and doing what it takes to make that happen in a constructive way. Obviously, asserting yourself and following through can sometimes lead to obstacles and fears as well as to rewards. A while back I listed, just for fun, ways in which I’d like to take up more space. I tried to dream big, but my list contained a surprising number of small convenience items that had been bugging me. One was fixing my three leaky car tires, which needed filling every time I was at the gas station. Why should I put up with that?
The service station guy said I should come on in. But he didn’t have time to look at all three of the leakers right then, so he asked me to come back in two days. Frustrated in the day’s mission, I bought and ate a bunch of chips and pop with my lunch. I felt entitled to a treat.
I don’t always resort to food when I’m frustrated. I’ve become very aware of that urge, and I can often deflect it. This time it took me by surprise, but the triviality of the frustration (waiting two days) made the chain of events easy to see. My resolve, directed at having a specific need met, lost its direction and zoomed off at random. The goal and the motivation were no longer specific (fix the tires because I want a reliable car). They were vague (do something that is just for me).
The connection between the desire to assert and meet my needs, and the urge to eat, is clearer to me than the concept of emotional eating for comfort. I don’t need to comfort myself; I need to assert myself, take up more space in life, define my needs and meet them. In fact, extrapolating maybe too far, are we infantilizing ourselves if we assume we need so much comfort? We’re not babies. Maybe what we feel isn’t a need for comfort; maybe it’s bottled-up energy. We can try to channel that energy into achieving what we want, even if it’s something as small as fixing the tires or making ourselves a healthy meal.
Seeing this connection makes me want to ask myself in the future, when I have an uncharacteristic food craving, “What constructive thing can I do to assert my needs and meet them, instead of eating half a bag of Ruffles?” Maybe some of the time I’ll come up with a good idea, accomplish something, or make an exciting plan.
It’s not unusual to feel uncomfortable in certain workout settings. For a long time I wouldn’t join a gym or take an aerobics class because of anxiety and self-consciousness. Upscale health clubs seemed to be full of fashion models and buff show-offs, people who walk naked from the locker to the hot tub looking as elegant as if wearing their wedding clothes. When it came to the actual workout, I was afraid to try to keep up with an aerobics class. Other times, I thought I’d like to work out with machines or weights, but when I had the opportunity, I found I was unsure how to use them.
Two anxieties seemed to be at work when I wanted to join a gym but couldn’t bring myself to do it. One was a lack of confidence combined with resentment of goodlooking people who might pass judgment. The other was nervousness about being physically able, through skills or strength, to do the workout: lift the weights, operate the machine, get through the class without keeling over. How can we cope with these anxieties, other than by giving in to them?
I eventually gained confidence by visiting many gyms over the years to test and re-evaluate my comfort level, and by asking many questions of friends who enjoyed gym workouts and classes.
If you feel self conscious in the gym or the locker room because of how others might see you, consider giving it another chance, and really look around at the people there. Every gym I’ve visited, including a large, upscale one, has contained a whole cross-section of ages, shapes, and clothing choices. It’s easy to focus on the buff people and their spandex, but look past them and see everybody else in their cotton T-shirts and shorts. Notice that they’re concentrating, and usually not looking at each other. Imagine the rewards they’re getting as they work toward their fitness goal. Those rewards can be yours.
No matter what you’re self-conscious about, remember that you’re a customer entitled to help and good treatment, and that you’re the equal of everyone in the gym: they’re all pushing for their own improvement, just like you.
Nervousness about physical abilities—keeping up with an aerobics class or being able to do everything on your workout plan—may or may not go away. First, try going into an aerobics class with the commitment to do the same one three times no matter what. Repetition will prove to you that you can get the moves down, and it only makes sense for it to take several tries. Then try different classes to see which ones you like the best, regardless of how hard it is to keep up, because now you know all it will take is practice.
That said, I’m still nervous every time I go to my regular exercise class—a boxing workout. Although I’ve acclimated to the workout, and am practically addicted to it, I’m still nervous before every class. Every time our first round of jump-rope starts, I wonder vaguely whether I’ll make it through the hour or whether I’ll do something so awkward that someone will get impatient with me. But when I look around, I see that everyone is awkward sometimes, and nobody is impatient.
The point is that even if nervousness (which we feel in so many different situations) doesn’t go away, we can do the activity anyway and benefit from it. If you’ve decided that challenging gym workouts or classes would make you healthier, I suggest three things. First, look around. Defeat self-consciousness by knowing that others feel the same way, that others accept and support you, and that they’re not really looking at you anyway—they’re concentrating on their own workouts. Second, work through nervousness and enjoy the results you earn. Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help or information that could help with either self-consciousness or nervousness. You’re entitled to it.
Last Saturday was the company picnic and the culmination of all of the recent volleyball practice. Most of our team arrived at the picnic venue, a huge park at the foot of Mt. Si, as soon as it opened in order to start warming up and practicing our serves and passes one last time.
That’s me in the long-sleeved white T-shirt. I had just astonished myself by getting under a spiked ball and returning it over the net—though I didn’t manage to do that in an actual game.
Pretty soon the young volleyball-player officials took their posts and the tournament started. My knees felt weak with excitement and nervousness. Was I really doing this? Had I actually chosen to expose my shaky new skills and my tentative new enthusiasm to a group of acquaintances and strangers in a competition? Was I out of my mind?
During the first game, I was so overwhelmed at being involved in a volleyball tournament (even one that was only at a company picnic) that I had a lump in my throat the entire time. I felt happy, proud, thankful, and relieved to be able, finally, to participate in a team sport at a competent beginner level. And I felt vindicated. If sports in school had been better supervised, I would have been able to learn to play decently instead of cowering while others were too aggressive. I also felt an echo of sadness and embarrassment (as if back in school) at having been the one who was always the last picked for teams, at having somehow fallen into the role of a kid who was always humiliated during games. Of course, I wasn’t the only one, and I know now that it wasn’t my fault.
We lost the first match, which put us into a bracket with other losing teams. We practiced until it was time for the second match, which is now a bit of a blur; I think I sat out the first two games so that someone else could play, and the team won one game and lost the other. I played in the third game, which we won, taking the match and progressing to a match with another team.
Our opponents for the third match were raucous and edgy and intimidating, with a cheering section of men holding beer cups and singing songs. We beat them, and I felt good because a series of my serves had brought us from behind and into the lead by a point or two.
Speaking of serves, all week I had been practicing an overhand serve, but I could only make it about 75 percent consistent before the tournament. But some of our teammates had inconsistent serves too. So if I risked my overhand and missed, I wouldn’t be the only one who had ever flubbed a serve. I used the overhand serve several times in the tournament with about fifty percent success. When we were behind and I was tired, I used the underhand, which was reliable.
We would lose our fourth match and be eliminated from the tournament. Most of us were tired from being out in the sun, and probably mentally tired as well—I know I was. Our three most skilled players became more aggressive to try to compensate. This is one of the reasons I didn’t dig out any spiked balls in an actual game: in practice sessions with only a few of us on the court, I had a clear path to anticipate the spike and get under the ball. In matches, more aggressive players always lunged for the dig.
A challenge came up in the fourth match when I was in the position of setter (front center—the person who sets the ball up for the attacker). One of the most skilled players was in right center, a nice guy who I like and have enjoyed practicing with. He announced, right before a serve, that he was now the setter. I was speechless. Did he really just preemptively take my position? He did.
I decided to wait until my next turn as setter to say anything. Did I have a right to object, or should I back off? Would I be making a scene if I let him know what I wanted? The team had planned to play our rotating positions, and not specialize. I kept asking myself how I would feel if I passively let him take my position. It became clear to me that I truly wanted to play the setting position, because I felt that I was good at it and because I was entitled to.
When I rotated into front center again, I let the player know I wanted to set, because then I would know I have a purpose in the front center position. He agreed immediately. Still a little angry, I went on to say thank you, and I don’t think I’m all that bad at setting, if you don’t mind. He seemed surprised at my vehemence and was gracious about it. We had two unremarkable volleys and quickly rotated out of those positions. Later, between games, I told him I was sorry I might have overreacted. He smilingly brushed it off and I felt fine again.
I don’t really think I overreacted exactly, because the player should not have assumed it would be fine with me for him to take my position. I had been doing well as a setter. I apologized because I wanted to make sure he didn’t think I was so prickly as to be a lost cause as a teammate. Maybe it wasn’t necessary; maybe in a sports setting, little flare-ups come and go and don’t need to be mentioned. I don’t know. It’s not only playing the game that’s new to me, but also the “language,” or the accepted communication style.
Inexperienced players like myself aren’t the only ones who have more to learn about teamwork. Skilled players can learn to resist the urge to jump out of position to retrieve a ball that’s heading to someone like me. They can learn that when they get out of position, they don’t just diminish the fun for new players. They also are less likely to hit the ball accurately and are less prepared for the next volley. It would be much better to play strictly in position for as long as it takes to bring weaker players up to strength. Then the whole court would be full of competent players.
Even though the tournament is over, Tom and I and our teammates are looking forward to more practice sessions starting this Saturday. It seems I’m not alone in finding this to be an exhilarating new experience.
Tom and I are going to play in his company picnic volleyball tournament next Saturday. I’ve been to three practice sessions. This is a big deal because (1) I hadn’t played volleyball in twenty years and (2) in school I was a complete failure at all team sports for the entire twelve years. I could swear that the various rules were never taught—people just seemed to know them. And I couldn’t concentrate on the progress of a game, instead staring into space and then ducking the ball as if I was being shot at. This made the other kids yell at me a lot.
Tom’s volleyball friends welcomed beginners, so I summoned my nerve and started showing up. After six years of trying various workouts, including a year and a half of boxing classes, I’m more confident of my athletic abilities. I thought, well, at least I know I’m in good enough shape to lunge for the ball if that’s the best I can do. I’m pretty sure I won’t be afraid of the ball any more, because in boxing we routinely fling around a 10-pound medicine ball and I have little difficulty with that. I might as well try.
I’m really glad I did. During the first game of my first practice session, I found myself mentally gushing, “I love volleyball! I’m going to join a league this winter!” (And then asking myself, “Have you lost your mind?”) I turned out to be as competent as any beginner. I make my share of mistakes and my share of good passes and sets just like everybody else. I can now tell the difference between “those guys are hogging the ball” (which hasn’t happened very much) and “I can’t be allowed to take the ball because I’m a pathetic player” (as it seemed in school). Another happy discovery is that nobody minds if I ask to have a rule or a play explained. Another is that I’m now able to concentrate a little better on the action—though I do have a hard time remembering the score.
Enjoying a team sport and finding a whole array of rewards in it has been a new experience that I never thought I’d have. I thought I’d missed out on it for good. Even if we don’t play any more after this weekend’s tournament, I’ll have a lasting new perspective. I won’t be afraid of team situations, and I’ll be able to look for the fun in them.
Revisiting something I used to dread, and changing my feelings about it 180 degrees, were made possible by my six-year exploration of various fitness activities and goals. That exploration, which was tentative at first, allowed me to try out new physical skills on my own terms. My relationship with a supportive spouse has also helped me feel secure going into situations that made me nervous, even when he wasn’t going with me. And nothing was quite so nervous-making as the thought of playing a team sport with people I didn’t know. Now I’m looking forward to playing in a tournament, something that four weeks ago I never would have dreamed of doing.
What formerly intimidating activity have you re-evaluated and come to appreciate?
Junio writes, “Does anyone have tips for how to stop yourself from wanting something?” The temptation she’d like to avoid is a cold beer after a long workday. For me, it’s Ruffles potato chips (and other things). I’ve wished for a long time that I could manage not to want the empty-calorie foods, as have lots of other people. I have two ideas about this: one, some goals that are possible take so long to reach that they falsely seem impossible; two, sometimes you can find a way to allow yourself one of your major temptations and make up for it elsewhere. Together these two principles can go a long way toward helping to cope with temptation.
I get a craving for Ruffles every so often and I try to let myself buy them no more often than every five or six weeks. When I get a bag, I eat half of it in one day. I enjoy it. But the next day I have a weird feeling in my head and stomach—not quite a pain or ache, but just sort of yucky. I imagine I’m feeling the simultaneous dehydration and bloating caused by all the salt in the chips. For a year and a half during and after the time I was losing weight, whenever I was tempted to buy Ruffles, I reminded myself of the yucky way I felt after indulging in chips. It didn’t work. I relied on other tactics, such as avoiding that aisle in the store, eating baby carrots, or deciding to wait only until the next day (over and over again). And I decided eating too many Ruffles every five or six weeks would just have to be okay.
All of a sudden, this year, I realized my Ruffles craving had lessened. When I thought about eating them, or saw them in the store, most (not all) of the time I was put off by remembering the dehydrated feeling I’d get from them. It took a long time, but the frequent craving has subsided and become only a minor one. So for some people with food cravings, trying for a long time to consciously turn yourself off to the food can work (though not as quickly as one might like). It seems that everything having to do with getting fit, losing weight, and changing eating habits takes a long time, so we just have to resolve to keep trying no matter how long it takes.
My other idea, give in to the temptation and make up for it somewhere else, can work for empty-calorie indulgences that do not run in the many hundreds of calories. One of those big imperial pints of beer or half a cup of ice cream is probably not as outrageous as half a large bag of Ruffles. In that case, what I’d do is give in to it and do some extra walking on the way to and from work, or skip a couple of daytime soft drinks or other workplace treats. Since we’re all going to indulge in treats we love, we might as well look at the daily options. Give up where it hurts the least and indulge where it feels the best.
After spouting my own thoughts, I thought I better see what credentialed writers or health professionals have to say about hard-to-resist food temptations. A search on the term “resist food cravings” turned up nothing but three or four commercial or hospital sites. Those with something to sell took the “you can’t do it on your own” approach. The usual predictions of doom, coming from a doctor in this example, sound so discouraging that it’s no wonder if we all assume we have no power over food. Dr. Tate at tatehealthcare.com says:
You’re familiar with the “yo-yo dieting cycle:” you start a weight-loss diet. You do well for the first few days. Soon, however, your hunger and food cravings start to build…. You try to resist these food cravings but eventually you lose control…. Of course, you quickly regain any fat you’ve lost—plus even more. Most Americans are doomed to repeat this yo-yo cycle for the rest of their lives! The fact is—without medical help—you, too, are almost certainly doomed to repeat this cycle for the rest of your life. Almost every year, you’ll weigh more than you did the year before. Naturally, you’ll feel worse and worse about your looks and your health….
Whoa! Thanks for the encouraging words. We might as well give up right now and go lie on the couch with some bon-bons.
Eventually I found some constructive ideas by searching for “food cravings.”
This weight-loss coach advises a basic healthy diet that can help prevent cravings from getting out of hand.
This article by a nutritionist offers insight into cravings but ends by saying you should eat what you crave in moderation. The problem for me was that there were too many astronomical-calorie foods being eaten in moderation, amounting to almost the whole diet. (Pizza in moderation, peanut butter in moderation, pastrami sandwiches in moderation, ice cream in moderation, french fries in moderation… you get the picture.)
This tough-talker says it’s all about mental strength! I have to admit I kind of like this site in spite of its in-your-face attitude. I bet this guy’s an ex-Marine. Sample quote: “Don’t give me your little stories.” Hoo-rah!
Doreen Virtue, Ph.D. says cravings are generated by emotions. Guess what: she’s a psychotherapist!
Weight-loss coach Jennifer R. Scott advocates “stalling” to stave off a craving. Sometimes if you can wait twenty minutes, have a glass of water, and get involved in another activity, you can forget the craving. I use the twenty-minute rule a lot in the evenings when I want to munch.
Dr. Dorie McCubbrey says cravings can arise from habits and that introducing variety into your routine and your diet, you might be able to break the pattern of daily empty-calorie temptation.
MSNBC’s Nutrition Notes says to eat frequently enough to avoid overwhelming hunger and a blood-sugar drop, and don’t be so strict with your food rules that you create cravings of what’s forbidden.
So, I think we do have power over food temptations. Exercising this power just happens to take a lot of effort, time, and practice.
What’s worked for you? It doesn’t have to work every single time to be a great idea.
Found this list of safety hints for women via this week’s Carnival of the Vanities. I think they’re good ones and a few of them are new to me. Unfortunately for the daily calorie burn, one of the tips is “always take the elevator, never the stairs!” It’s a good reminder to balance conflicting priorities; I loved taking the stairwell in the office where I worked, for the exercise, but if somebody had hit me over the head there’s no telling when I would have been found.
These safety tips don’t directly address a need for fitness or strength. Most are tips for good judgment. But I think making good decisions and being fit can help any person stay safe by being able to run away faster; by keeping your balance long enough to use a knee or elbow and get away; by being better able to save yourself in an accident; and by possibly being less likely to be attacked or to have certain types of accidents (falls or ankle sprains) in the first place.
I don’t know of any statistics on fit people fending off attacks, but I feel more capable and safer from being in good shape. Our neighborhood is an unpredictable one, but rather than limit my activities out of fear, I choose my routes, look around me, and walk as if I won’t be stopped. I know I’m still vulnerable, but I’m doing what I can. With regard to accidents, there have been plenty of times when I’ve come close to twisting my ankle or falling during a steep hike. In those instances I’ve been thankful for the stability, flexibility, and agility that comes from strength and balance exercises.
Unrelated to fitness, another thing that helps me feel safe on the street is the fact that I never wear shoes I can’t run in. Even when I was much younger and not as safety conscious, I could never bring myself to wear heels or open shoes of any kind. They made me feel hobbled. Sandals have to have an ankle strap; loafers have to have a sole with some grip; dress shoes have to be flexible, comfortable, and impossible to kick off.
Do you have any favorite safety tips? Do other women share my avoidance of fragile shoes?
I’ve gone through phases in my attitudes toward exercise, fitness, and food. I went from blissful ignorance to a sense of dread when I saw I’d gained too much weight and couldn’t lose it. I needed to relearn how to eat. How did other people lose weight, other than by going on unrealistic diets? Small, discrete suggestions from people who’d been there were what I wished for. Eventually I found routines and meals that allowed me to get back the fitness I lost. I want to share some of the stages I went through and steps I took, in case someone else is looking for tips as I was (and always am).
I was an active kid and ate whatever I wanted, including unlimited quantities of the foods you’re supposed to have only in moderation. I was a miserable flop in gym class, never able to concentrate on organized games or remember the rules. Instead of playing sports, I climbed trees, ran sprints on the sidewalks and in the local vacant lot, skateboarded in front of the house, and rode my bike as fast and as far as I could.
In my twenties, I biked to work in summer and paid no attention to what or how much I ate. Although I noticed I was slowly gaining weight, I had no idea how to stop. Rather than make the effort to learn about nutrition or to fit more exercise into the cold months, I went into denial. I told myself I was still very active and had a long way to go before I’d have a weight problem.
By my mid-30s, I had gained 25 pounds. I had lost all of the muscle definition I’d had in my upper arms, shoulders, and thighs. I’d started a workout routine at the YMCA two years earlier and had continued to gain weight (though much more slowly). I was frustrated, but all I knew to do was to keep exercising. After all, what would I eat if my favorite, convenient, comfortable foods were off limits? I don’t cook and I don’t make detailed meal plans. Thinking ahead about the week’s meals is tedious and stressful for me, and I can’t make myself do it.
In 1999 I learned that my aunt, 30 years older than I, had osteoporosis. Because I knew I could still prevent this disease in myself, this event motivated me to change my diet. I changed one eating habit at a time, continued exercising, and finally started losing weight. I was stunned when I weighed myself after a two-week interval and discovered I’d lost five pounds. I actually asked the gym staff if their scale was out of calibration. In eight months I lost eighteen pounds and regained some of my muscle tone.
To lose the extra weight, I made the following changes one at a time, adding a new one every week or two, in approximately this order.
* Substituted sparkling water for Coke, both to cut calories and to try to protect my bones from calcium loss.
* Ate two pieces of fruit during each work day, whether I wanted them or not.
* Eliminated pizza for eight months, substituting smaller portions of Thai or Chinese food (also fattening but not as bad, either because I ate less of it or because pizza is so extremely high in calories).
* Eliminated ice cream for eight months.
* Bought small quantities of fruit home to eat each weekend and made sure I finished it all by Monday morning.
* Ordered only nonfat lattes and mochas if I wanted a coffee drink during the workday.
* Bought and installed a nutrition software program to help me count calories eaten and burned.
* Measured ingredients in my meals to make sure my calorie counts were accurate: exactly one tablespoon of mayo in the tuna salad, exactly half a cup of cereal and milk, and so on.
* Eliminated lattes and mochas completely (including nonfat) for five months after deciding to think of them as a snack choice. Instead if I wanted a snack, I’d have one handful of trail mix (nuts and dried fruit) or one ounce of smoked salmon. I kept these snacks at the office along with bottles of sparkling water.
* Reduced my consumption of peanut butter sandwiches from one a day to three a week. Substituted spicy, Asian-style frozen meals made by an organic brand.
Along with continuing to exercise at the Y every other day and to walk as much as possible, those changes to my diet were what finally tipped me toward weight loss. I never had to meticulously plan meals or cook ahead for the week; all I had to do was learn some convenient one-step meals and go easy on whatever ingredient was the most fattening. It also helped to tell myself, in a loud internal voice, that I could have the leftovers tomorrow instead of finishing the whole serving now, or that I could come back to the restaurant for dessert another time if I still wanted to.
What are the most useful changes you’ve made while building healthier routines into your life?
Many choices and habits, some harder than others, add up to physical fitness. These choices require daily effort and attention, and even some creative thinking. Together they add up to a process that never ends—and that’s good. Talking with others about this process, and about the rewards of being in shape, helps me maintain better habits.
I want to use FitNotes to learn, and to help others learn, by talking to each other about how to get fit and stay fit through exercise and reasonably healthy eating. I’ll share my experience and my reading in short, upbeat articles, to let readers know why I think that if I lost weight and got in shape, you can too. I hope you’ll leave comments and send email that will spark conversations and allow us to learn from each other.
Some topics I plan to write about in weekly columns: enjoying exercise for its own sake; being proud of meeting small and large exercise goals; how exercise improves mood and attitude; building muscle without a gym membership; pros and cons of calorie counting; meals that are healthy and convenient; and more.
I’ll also list links to other websites that seem to offer high-quality help and information, whether free or commercial. Please let me know if you find any good fitness weblogs or sites.
Disclaimer: I’m not a healthcare professional; I offer personal experience, reading, and opinions as a basis for columns and discussions. Nothing I write should be taken for medical advice. See your doctor before starting any new exercise program or diet.