Once upon a time, long, long ago, diets were interesting and trendy crazes that people attempted in an effort to slim down.
Nowadays, dieting has become the standard way to eat. So many children of the last few generations grew up being inculcated with a panoply of eating behaviors like counting calories, curbing carbs, shunning sugar, avoiding animal fats, drinking eight cups of water a day, not eating late at night, and much more. The result of that upbringing is an instilled belief that our eating must be controlled. In other words, we need “educated” people to inform us how to fuel our bodies.
For many, the thought of eating without guidelines and restrictions would be like attempting to drive a car without a steering wheel. It’s simply unthinkable. At the point when you get into a situation where you need to be in control, what can you do when you don’t have it?
That’s why it’s totally normal for me to hear from those who are new to Intuitive Eating say that they are at a crossroads in taking their first step. They may be enchanted by all the benefits that IE may offer them (less stress, less guilt, less time commitment, etc.) but are in terror of moving forward with letting go of dieting. They live in fear of relinquishing control.
We live in strange times. Like the men who conspired to build Migdal Bavel, society has created countless inventions to help us control the mercurial natural world. Technology has made great strides toward granting us control over nature, time, and space. Forward-thinking scholars have worked toward insights to give us control over our relationships, our money, and our future.
And ironically, there has possibly never been a generation that felt more out of control of everything.
Despite all the information and all the technology, people feel out of control of their schedules, out of control of their relationships, and out of control of their thoughts. So, it is not all that surprising that people feel out of control when it comes to their eating as well.
In need of a solution, we turn to the experts to supply us with advice. We want to control our health, our weight, and our appearance, and so we look to cutting-edge ideas. We eat like cavemen. We eat like ancient cultures. We eat like Mediterraneans. We eat like Blue Zoners. We eat like South Beachers. We eat in ways that give us a semblance of control over one area of our lives. And yet, we still feel like the food controls us and not the other way around.
Given all that, it seems impossible that anyone would hesitate to jump out of the hamster wheel of dieting. But like with all things in life, leaving the known and predictable course is scary. Even when that path in life is not bringing joy or even balance into our lives.
Oftentimes, this fear can cause us to become defensive and blame our inability to move forward on our shortcomings. We’ll create alibis why others succeed off the trodden path where we cannot. We’re too compulsive, too busy, or just too broken to trust ourselves and step off the wheel.
The damage this counterfeit control causes is all too tangible. We see it manifest in many ways over day-to-day life.
Think of the mother of young children who works so hard to be “good” all week in her food choices. She entirely avoids any run-ins with sweets and tracks every calorie she consumes, only to have all her hard work waylaid on Erev Shabbos when the smell of cookies fills the home. The Shabbos treats she bakes for her brood because they are a natural part of growing up are her undoing, as she finds herself devouring cookie after cookie with complete abandon. The fear of these Erev Shabbasos is so great that she weekly struggles with the idea of not baking for Shabbos at all.
What about the Empty Nester who has finally gotten her life under control? Without children underfoot she has eradicated all nosh foods, simple carbohydrates, and shelf products from her home. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are eaten in pure nutritional “cleanliness”…until the dreaded day when her grandchildren come to visit. Of course, she wants to make kid-friendly food for them, but the sight of such tempting delectibles forces her to serve and flee in order to avoid falling victim to their allure.
What of the woman who can’t enjoy a simple Yom Tov or simchah because once she begins eating traditional foods she can’t find the brakes. Instead of having one slice of cheesecake, she has to schedule “cheat days” for herself where she will eat with reckless abandon in order to minimize the impact of her bingeing.
Let’s not forget the woman who has convinced herself that she is a food addict. She is broken and cannot be trusted around food because of her “addiction.” She must treat food as life-threatening lest she succumb.
In today’s “orthorexic” environment, we must also mention the woman who read that gluten is bad for her and religiously avoids it. The thought of allowing herself to eat the gluten is far too scary, because she thinks she’ll overeat it. But, in the end, she constantly finds herself eating it anyway.
All of these vivid examples are a sobering reminder of what happens when we try to control our fears. We either end up succumbing to them—i.e. overeating the foods that were off limits—or suffering through the mental anguish that results from keeping them at bay.
Let’s assume we agree about how fear ravages normal life, but that fear is still overwhelming you from trying something different. What do you do then?
It’s crucial to realize that our reaction to fear is to try to control our circumstances in order to remove surprise and limit ourselves with variables we know how to handle. In order to control our circumstances, we are forced to have to make a decision of what we’re capable of. We have to limit our possibilities by projecting what we can accomplish.
Anyone who has tried teaching a fearful child how to swim has seen what this looks like. There are many components to swimming that force a child to relinquish some level of control and try new unknown experiences, certainly at the beginning of the process. The child needs to put his head under the water. He needs to lift his feet off the pool floor. He has to be willing to go to parts of the pool where he can’t reach the bottom.
Each of these steps in small doses shouldn’t cause fear. If you can hold your breath above water for a few seconds, you can do it below the water. If you can jump, you can lift your feet off the pool floor. If you can swim in the shallow end, you can swim in the deep end. But often, the child has so much fear of the unknown that he won’t allow himself to go through the baby steps necessary to build up trust in his ability to float and control his actions in the water. By attempting to retain total control, the child will lose the possibility of unlocking latent abilities. Only by allowing himself to relinquish control little by little can the child learn to swim.
Every one of us has to cope with our fears in some form or another. When we approach them with pizur hanefesh, it is crushing. Pizur hanefesh is manifested in living in the past and the future. It’s the state we are in when we ruminate over the past and convince ourselves that our past actions will predict our future ones.
Success in Intuitive Eating comes from approaching eating habits non-judgmentally. My actions aren’t good or bad, and I am not perfect or broken. It comes through compassionate exploration, allowing myself to lift my feet off the pool floor only to see what it feels like. It is done through taking small steps without expectations, allowing me to keep my head underwater, open to what that might feel like. It may be pleasant or I might hate it. I can only know through trying. And it is trussed with a willingness to fail. If I didn’t have the courage to go to the deep end this time, it’s okay. I can learn from my mistakes and my fears and they will make me a greater and more resilient person.
Like the child learning to swim, we need to work on trust. The child trusts his parent, and we need to trust Hashem. When we have complete menuchas hanefesh, we are attuned to the fact that at every moment Hashem is supplying us with what we need physically, while also giving us the emotional strength to carry it through. That allows us to live in the present and look forward to the future. It reminds us that even if we failed in the past, it doesn’t predict the future. With trust in Hashem, I can always have a second chance (even on the one-hundredth try).
Ultimately, we all learn that we can’t control everything. We generally respond by trying harder to create a facade of control to give us inner comfort. But the only way to attain control is to hand it over to the Only One who really has it. Intuitive Eating is about learning the process of gaining control by letting go. Why not take a deep breath, poke your head under and see what it’s all about?
(This article originally appeared in The Voice of Lakewood.)