Author: Abby Resek
I’ve started realizing how often I see the word ‘control’ when people talk about health, and especially about how we eat. The concept of portion control, for example. Control crops up in other, sneakier places too – like the idea of self control. Taking control of your body. This seems like a positive thing, and often it’s not coming from people who are trying to shame you – in fact, it’s usually people trying to describe the journey towards a healthier relationship between you and food, you and fitness.
But I think there’s a problem here.
The land of self-control, the place people envision when they talk about self-control, might not be an inherently bad place. I think what we’re thinking about when we say ‘self-control’ is a world in which we understand our food and our bodies, and we know how to do what’s best for them. We’re not consumed by anxieties or behaviors that would seek to control us – rather, we controlourselves. And I can see why this seems like a good goal, and why, then, we use the language of ‘control’.
But what happens when we’re in this world? When we have negative behaviors? When we over-eat and feel uncomfortable, when we dig into that box of cookies we told ourselves we would absolutely not touch? We’re thinking about it in terms of control, and so when we’re not at an 'ideal' place with food, we think it's because we’re out of control. We think we are lacking in self-control, that these behaviors are a deficit or personal failure of some kind.
And that’s what I think the problem is. When the goal is control, then anything outside of that is ‘out-of-control’. We think we need to have throttle our impulses, and in that we will find success. If we ‘let ourselves go’, if we ‘lose control’, we have failed. This becomes tangled up in our idea of self-worth, and soon enough we’re evaluating ourselves as good or bad people based on what we eat.
So, when we’re thinking about food, I propose we should try to let go out ‘control’, and in doing so, let go of ‘out of control’ also. I think we should just redo this framework. Your body gives you cues – when you’re hungry or thirsty, when you’re full, when you’re tired. One of the hardest parts of being human is that we don’t always know how to listen to these cues. Seriously. I’m not going to say “Just listen to your body!” because for most people, what the hell does that even mean?The seemingly simple rule “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” doesn’t work when we live in a society that’s constantly interfering with our sense of need. It’s a frustrating oversimplification – I’ve seen that and I’ve experienced it.
What I’m going to suggest instead, and I know this is a subtle difference, is that we try to listen to our bodies by using the language of listening to our bodies. What I mean is something like this.
My class schedule on some days of the week is real long, and for a while, I tried eating a big breakfast to get me through until I could get home and have lunch. But, by the time I made it home, I was ravenous. I would eat huge lunch, and then feel terrible for the rest of the afternoon. I was completely stuffed with food, I was terribly uncomfortable, and I would wonder why why why do I keep over-eating? Why can’t I have a normal sized lunch when I know I'll feel stuffed and sluggish otherwise, why can’t I get a grip?
I realized it wasn’t actually anything wrong with me – it wasn’t an issue of self-control. I just needed a god damn snack sometime earlier in the day. So instead of “I can’t control myself when I get so hungry”, I tried to think “My body is asking me to give it food a little bit earlier”. I know, I know – eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full sounds so easy, but I understand it’s NOT. But – thinking in terms of self-control is not the way to fix this. When food is about control, you’re not eating because you’re hungry – you eat because you’re allowing yourself to eat. Food shouldn’t be a question of allowance or deservingness. A lot of our problems with food – with feeling bad when we eat certain things, with our endless frustrations – has less to do with what we’re eating and more to do with how we think and feel about food. So, I suggest we take a step back from what we’re eating, and try to focus instead on what our body is asking for. And I suggest we do this by changing the way we talk to ourselves.
Our lives often aren’t constructed in a way that makes it easy for us to figure out what our bodies want from us. It’s often absurdly difficult to figure out. And what makes it harder is that there’s no universal answer. And, in some ways, I think this is what we’re looking for – we’re creating unreasonable plans for our eating schedules and diets,and getting frustrated when we can’t stick to them. I’m suggesting we do our best to take a step back, and take on the monumental task of listening to what our body is asking us for.
Sometimes your body is telling you it needs a snack before lunch.
Sometimes it’s telling you that you’re not eating enough.
Sometimes it’s telling you that you ate a little more than it needed.
Sometimes it’s saying thank you for eating all those wonderful vegetables.
Sometimes it’s saying you really want a cupcake, so just eat the cupcake.
There’s no shame in not knowing these cues, but there’s a lot to be gained from trying to learn. In a lot of cases, they’ve been buried by all sorts of societal factors – our work schedules, sleep schedules, family lives, how we grew up with food, how food and diets are advertised to us. Sometimes these are things we cannot change. What I’m suggesting here is, instead of controlling our bodies, maybe we could try to get to know them instead.