By Dalia Abott, LMSW, RD

A recent study of 2,000 Americans found 2:41 p.m. to be the specific time of day when cravings can strike the hardest. Each one of us thinks about food approximately 40 minutes a day and makes about 250 food decisions. Should I have coffee? Whole milk? Almond milk? Should I have a bite of that muffin or stay away? Should I pack a lunch? Am I hungry? Surprisingly, all these decisions can be affected by so many variables: plate size, food color combinations, even the lighting of the dining room. So, where do we begin to take gentle control of the choices we are making in order to help us get to the places we want to go with our bodies and minds?

One of the more important things that I work on with my clients is a term I call “reflex eating.” A food choice is made because of circumstances you did not arrange for. A friend suggests pizza, a sibling brings home candy, or your child doesn’t finish his dinner. It is not to say that pizza, candy, or leftovers are things one should avoid; however, they are all things that should be had because you decided you wanted it. Go out and get that candy bar, or work in pizza as a lunch — but be mindful of falling prey to situations that you did not make a conscious choice to join.

Equally as important is to help clients learn how to identify where their triggers are, both physiologically and psychologically. On a physical level, waiting too long between meals, having imbalanced macronutrients, and being dehydrated are just some aspects that can work against our bodies. More common is the thinking that certain foods should be completely removed from one’s repertoire of choices. I have heard it all: no dairy, no carbs, no sugar, and no white foods. It is my belief that a firm “no” will lead to a firm “yes.” You begin to lay down the foundation for your “Battle of the Brownie,” and in the end there are no winners. Deprivation actually leaves you craving these food choices more.

Psychological factors are a bit harder to identify and require more patience with ourselves and our process. Food is the number-one mood-altering substance used in the United States. Stress, loneliness, fear, and boredom are all examples of feelings that can lead someone to make poor food choices. The common denominator in all of these feelings is an inability to sit through something that is uncomfortable. As a result, one chooses to use food as a way to cope because it gives you something pleasurable to focus on rather than life’s problems. The use of food can manifest itself differently for people. One person may choose to numb out with a pint of ice cream, while the next may choose a day of heavy restriction and only protein. Both are equally poor choices and do not lead to permanent self-care. However, with a little awareness and reasonable cognitive behavioral changes, it can be remedied.

The very first lesson that taught us the connection between food and comfort takes place the instant we begin nursing or drinking a bottle as infants. While being fed, a baby is held in nurturing arms. The idea that “food is love” is reinforced over and over again. A child is offered a lollipop when she falls down, birthdays are celebrated with cake, and a promotion is celebrated with a fancy dinner out. It is no wonder that we feed our hearts the way we feed our bellies. Recognizing the origin of this very organic connection should help begin the imperative work of self-acceptance and understanding. One day at a time.

Dalia Abott is a registered dietitian and social worker with a private practice in Woodmere. She specializes in adolescent and family therapy with a focus on eating disorders, body image, and self-esteem. She can be reached at 718-490-9232 or DaliaKAbott@gmail.com.

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