Think about healthy relationships with people; these relationships aren’t healthy because they follow certain rules (as if the rules were the reason), but living within the parameters of what is healthy protects the relationship. The same relationship between rules-healthy will exist in your relationship with food.
The guidelines below are not a recipe for a healthy relationship with food; however, violating these rules will place you at risk for disordered eating. Focus on accepting your body as God created it (first section of this chapter) and allow the points below to merely be how you steward the life and body God gave you.
1. Review the Basics:
How are you doing at the initial marks of a healthy relationship with food that we set out in chapter two? These are the foundation for the other practices listed. Hopefully, the weeks you have committed to these practices will serve as momentum towards the other things you’ll learn in this chapter.
- Get adequate sleep
- Don’t skip breakfast
- Plan what you will eat
- Every balanced meal is a victory
2. Be Mindful as You Eat:
Whether you struggle with over-eating or restricting, mindful eating can be a great benefit. For the over-eater, the tendency is to eat mindlessly; not paying attention to what is eaten because the goal is comfort, not nutrition. For the restrictive eater, eating becomes a stressful activity marked by guilt and anxiety. Mindful eating counters both.
Mindful eating simply means to pay relaxed attention to the full experience of eating without guilt. Allow your attention to focus on the taste, texture, and aroma of your food as you eat. During a meal pay attention to how your level of hunger changes to satisfaction. Receive the meal as a gift from God and practice gratitude throughout the meal; as opposed to just praying before the meal.
“Sixty seconds before you eat, sit quietly (with no distractions) and think—what do I feel and what am I thinking about right now? Record this. Then look at what you are about to eat. Notice how it tastes. Do you like what you are eating?… After you finish, take another 60 seconds and write down how you feel—energized, tired, unsatisfied, content, etc… (p. 66-67).” Stephen Arterburn and Linda Mintle in Lose It for Life
In order to do this, especially if eating has becomes a stressful experience for you, you may need to learn some relaxation exercises. Imagine the benefits of starting every meal “emotionally neutral.” Imagine the freedom of ending each meal contented and at peace. That is what the practice of mindful eating provides.
Consider the alternative. Every meal is a battle. The time period after every meal is a battle with self-condemnation. That is no way to live. Embracing every meal as a time to celebrate the goodness of God’s provision and a time to steward your body allows you to regularly practice mindful eating.
3. Enjoy What You Eat.
If mealtimes don’t become enjoyable, you’ll quit. God meant food to be a blessing, not a battle. This is why fad diets only work short-term. They don’t produce a lifestyle we will embrace; they produce a strained habit we’ll keep up until we reach a certain number.
Don’t allow yourself to label certain foods as “bad.” In order to feel satisfied you will have to eat less of calorie dense foods, but that shouldn’t make them off limits. But learning contentment with a healthy portion is much more sustainable than banishing desired foods from your diet. Food rules lead to food splurges.
“I began to look at food for what it was: a gift from God designed to keep his creation alive. Food was not designed to be entertainment, comfort, or a God substitute. He did mean for food to be enjoyable—hey, taste buds, right (p. 120-121)?” Sheryle Cruse in Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder
4. Consistent Exercise.
Something is better than nothing and something can lead to more. Anything you can do to increase the amount of movement in your day is a win. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Going for a 10 minute walk on your lunch break.
“The problem is, many people start out exercising for a week, feel only the suffering, and then give up before the mental benefits kick in (p. 116).” Gary Thomas in Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul
The best form of exercise is cardiovascular; something that increases your heart rate for an extended period of time. This burns more calories, strengthens your heart, and builds lean muscle.
Exercise increases your basal metabolic rate – that is the number of calories that you burn when you’re doing nothing. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you may not see the same results on the scale that you would if you were only dieting. But remember, our goal is not a number; our goal is to be a good steward of our life and body.
What are some windows of time when you could add more movement to your day?
What type of activities could you add during these windows of time?
“Psychologically, the endorphins that follow a hard workout are an excellent way to manage stress and feel better about life in general (p. 37).” Gary Thomas in Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul
5. Manage Your Stress Well.
When we mismanage stress, two things happen. First, we tend to seek relief in unhealthy ways. Second, our body produces a hormone called cortisol. Both of these things are counter to our goal of being a good steward of our body.
What are your unhealthy habits for relieving stress?
What areas of life are you neglecting or mismanaging that add to your stress?
What changes could you make to reduce the level of stress in your life?
When we engage these questions we are beginning to take ownership of our lives in a healthy way instead of just letting life continue as-is. Live with the expectation that you are going to “happen to life” as much as life “happens to you.” This active mindset is vital to continuing healthy life practices.
So, what is this cortisol hormone? Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, like reproduction and the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. These functions of cortisol are supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the offending stressor.
When cortisol production becomes a way of life (i.e., living stressed) it does many things: impairs the quality of sleep, increases the body’s energy stores (i.e., fat) in the abdomen area, increases craving for sugar-based foods for quick energy bursts, suppresses the immune system, creates muscle tension that leads to headaches, hampers your sex drive, creates an irritable stomach, and suppresses serotonin production that leads to depression.
Hopefully you can see the simple changes you listed above can make a huge difference in your life if you maintain them. If you realize that stress is a key factor in your efforts to have a healthy relationship with food, the following resources are recommended.
6. Don’t Overschedule.
God simply asks you to be a good steward of your 168 hour week. When we forget this we live in the perpetual stress (see previous point) of unrealistic expectations for ourselves.
But overscheduling does more than illicit stress. Overscheduling makes for erratic eating patterns. We allow ourselves to get too hungry before we eat. We have to eat fast; which is usually not healthy. We fail to enjoy the experience of eating; which means we feel like we “deserve” more treats later.
Overscheduling makes it very difficult to live within a level of hunger between three and seven (see tool you began using in step two). When we overschedule, we wait too long to eat and allow our hunger to become so intense it is hard to be content with healthy portions. We also realize it may be a while before we are going to eat again so we over-indulge; even if we don’t fall in a bulimic binge-purge cycle, overscheduling places us in a feast-famine pattern.
Read Matthew 6:34. Often we just think about this verse in terms of worries about the future. But when we overschedule we are trying to cram tomorrow’s work into today; which is another form of forcing tomorrow’s worries upon today. Having realistic expectations for your schedule each day is another way to live in obedience to this verse.
7. Do Things You Enjoy.
When you’re trying to overcome an unhealthy relationship with food it is easy for life to become more focused on what you can’t do or shouldn’t do rather than what you were created to do. God created you with particular talents and interests, engage them.
When we fail to do things we enjoy, then we begin to feel like life “owes” us a few treats or exceptions. The problem is that when we’ve struggled with disordered eating, those exceptions are forms of self-abuse; our rewards are actually punishments. But the less we allow ourselves to enjoy life, the less clearly we can see this.
Read Psalm 37:4 and Galatians 5:22. Delight and joy are central parts of the Christian life. God wants these things for his children. The desire for joy is God-given. The design for joy is also God-made in two senses. First, God designed the moral code that prevents our pleasures from running away with us into destruction. Second, God made each person uniquely with particular interests and passions. When you pursue hobbies, interests, passions, and causes that invigorate you, you are celebrating God’s design in your life.
8. Avoid Lying at All Costs.
Nothing is more dangerous than a lie. Binging is not more dangerous than a lie. Starving is not more dangerous than a lie. A lie leaves you alone with your sin. Honesty allows you to always fight with people by your side. A lie means you’ve not only sinned, but that you are continuing to align yourself with your sin.
At this point in your journey you’ve likely made significant progress. Lying maybe as tempting as it was in the beginning of your journey, but in different ways. Early on we don’t want to admit we need to change. Once we begin to make progress and enjoy the fruit of our new found freedom, we don’t want to admit we slipped.
We began this journey by realizing that progress would involve good days and bad days. We would get defensive when anyone would imply that we might “always eat right.” But once we feel like we’re “doing better” we quickly lose our willingness to acknowledge our failures. We become the source of the expectations we once resisted.
Allow people to know the real you. This is the only way to live the adage “one day at a time.” When we live falsely, we are always trying to live up to what we’ve presented (promising we’ll do more in the future) and think about what we’ve told to whom (living in the past). Honesty is freedom.
Read Exodus 20:16. Now, hopefully, you can see why lying made God’s top ten. There is as much hope as you are honest. God wants you live in emotional-relational freedom and he knows that lying results in emotional-relational bondage. Commitment – if you feel like you might have been anything less than fully honest with someone in your support network, make it clear immediately.
9. Use a Healthy Thinking Journal.
The focal point of this journaling tool is different from the one we introduced in step 3. We want you to focus less on food, as if calories and food groups were the most important thing, and more on the general healthiness of your thinking process, realizing as you think in healthier ways you will only expect from food what food can provide and eat in ways that care well for your body.
Notice that this journal takes longer to complete. It is more than an “in the moment journal.” The first five questions are about things you can answer in a moment of food temptation, while the final two questions will require the perspective that comes with reflecting on the temptation later. By this point in your journey, this longer perspective should be both reasonable and a sign of your growth.
The final question should be a point where your spiritual growth is more prompted by your personal Bible study, prayers, and reflection than the content of this study. It is a major marker of growth and source of personal encouragement when you realize that each moment of temptation is becoming a time when you learn things about God and yourself which actually contribute to your health and deepen your relationship with God.
10. Value Small Day-to-Day Choices.
No healthy choice is too small to make a difference. Often our temptations seem emotionally larger than our obedience is practically significant, so we neglect our simple obediences. Conversely, our “small” temptations don’t seem like a major setback, so we overlook the compromises that result in us re-engaging our old, unhealthy relationship with food.
For example, if your struggle is overeating, realize that on average cutting just 100 calories a day results in losing approximately 10 pounds in a year. Or, if you struggle with over-restricting, texting a friend in a moment when old lies start to ring true again is a great way to gain the external perspective to see what is most important again.
Make a list of the “small” daily choices that you realize make a big difference in your health.
Application: Whenever you feel overwhelmed, identify the smallest, relevant choice that moves you in the direction of a healthy relationship with food. Don’t succumb to the false idea that you have to overcome a temptation in a single choice. You don’t. You just want each choice to be a step towards God’s best for you.
11. Clean Out Your Closet.
This one may be hard. But your goal in life cannot be to get to a place defined by a pair of jeans in your closet. Too often, when we have had an unhealthy relationship with food, life satisfaction is defined by getting to a certain size waist. Articles of clothing become the “finish line” and we feel an inability to rest (be satisfied with life) until we reach that goal.
When this happens, what we tell ourselves is “motivating” is actually a source of self-abasement; we declare ourselves “not good enough” by a standard we see every day when we decide what we’re going to wear. We entrench a battle to be content with good body stewardship into our daily routine. If we were talking to a friend about any other area of life-dominating struggle, we would call this sheer folly.
“Cleaning my closet was a more invasive task than just getting rid of clothing. My closet represented a lifetime of armor used to create a perfect and beautiful exterior to cover a dark, empty, twisted interior of lies, torture, and sadness (p. 186).” Carolyn Costin & Gwen Schubert Grabb in 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder
Application: Go through your closet and dresser. Remove any article of clothing that does not represent a healthy or realistic expectation for your body at this time. Give these items to a charity. Any article of clothing that might represent a healthy expectation for your body in the future should be packed and put in storage out of daily or weekly sight. Only clothes that can be worn during the next three months should be left in your closet or dresser.
Caution: If this exercise creates a significant amount of emotional distress, do not attempt this by yourself. Invite someone from your support network to be with you while you complete this task. But do not transfer the emotional responsibility for this task to them. Their presence is to support you as you make a wise but difficult choice.
Read Matthew 5:27-30. Removing articles of clothing from your closet that are not realistic or healthy for you is one of the appropriate “radical amputation” steps Jesus would advocate for to remedy your unhealthy relationship with food. To allow a pre-occupation with your body image to derail your life is an alternative form of lust; the equal-but-opposite expression of lust Jesus is describing in this passage where we fixate on the body image of another person. Remember, in this study, we are not trying to develop a biblical diet plan (as if God has a preferred menu), but gaining a healthy relationship with food. You will not have a healthy relationship with food when you daily expose yourself to the standard of an unrealistic body image in the form of “skinny jeans.”
12. Implement More Healthy Food Habits.
Hopefully you’ve reached a point in your journey that strategies are no longer seen as saviors. When we initially realize our unhealthy relationship with food, we are prone to think a new set of habits will set us free. This doesn’t mean that new, healthy habits are useless; it just means that we need to engage healthy habits with reasonable expectations if we are going to sustain them and realize their benefit.
If you struggle with over-eating, consider these healthy habits:
- When you’ve finished dinner, floss and brush your teeth. This helps establish that once you’ve had dinner, you will not snack afterwards.
- Don’t drink your calories. Beverages tend not to be filling and allow you to consume more calories than you realize. Drink water instead.
- Have an afternoon cup of soup. A primary diet killer is being hungry. A cup of soup tends to be low calorie and curbs hunger. Your “progress” may be slower in the first month, but your consistency will produce better results over the course of 6-12 months.
- Eat a high fiber diet. Fiber works to slow the absorption of sugar and slows digestion which leads to feeling satisfied longer.
- Increase your consumption of dairy products which speeds up your metabolism.
- When you eat at a restaurant, which is known for oversized portions, ask for a to-go box with your meal and put half of the meal in the box before you begin eating.
- If you want a “good dessert,” order it at a restaurant. It will be better than what you buy or bake and you won’t have the extra servings at your house.
If you struggle with over-restricting, consider these healthy habits:
- Plan ahead what you’re going to eat; whether it’s at home alone or out with friends. If you’ve chronically erred on the side of “not enough,” don’t continue to give yourself that option.
- Choose new foods that you want to try (i.e., food adventures) and allow the experience of eating to be as satisfying as the taste of food.
- Identify qualities that you admire about people of all body types. If you struggle with the desire to restrict yourself from healthy eating, rehearse the things you genuinely enjoy about people that have nothing to do with weight or shape.
- Eat consistently throughout the day so you do not get overly hungry and feel like you have to eat “a lot” to be satisfied. This helps minimize some of the conflict of conscience that is associated with food.
- Refuse to believe that nutrition from multi-vitamins and supplements are the same as eating. 100% of your daily vitamins and nutrients from a handful of capsules is not sufficient fuel for life.
13. Learn to Deal with Criticism.
Until we learn to deal with real criticism we will live haunted by perceived or potential criticism. To the degree that comfort eating or punitive restricting is a temptation for you, you will have to be able to withstand criticism to sustain a healthy relationship with food.
The reality is, you will disappoint people. And, not everyone will approve of how you look, what you think, or the things you prefer. Unless you can withstand people voicing their displeasure, disapproval, or disagreement, food will remain your never-rejecting refuge. So, how do you deal with criticism?
- Know what’s most important. Getting lost in criticism means we’re allowing secondary or tertiary things to supplant what is most important in our lives because those things are most important to somebody else.Have friends with whom you’re authentic. It’s less of a big deal for someone to know your weaknesses when the people you are closest to already know those weaknesses and love you anyway.
- Own and learn from your mistakes and failures. Often responding poorly to criticism has to do with avoiding areas of needed growth. The effort you’ve put to reach this point should be significantly alleviating that dynamic.
- Repent with humility but not shame. Humility is glad to grow and learn. Shame is embarrassed that growth and learning was needed. Humility is healthy and freeing. Shame is toxic.
- Don’t get distracted from what’s most important. If the legitimate criticism was not about something central to our life, then we want to grow and learn without diverting too much energy from what is most important. If the legitimate criticism is about something central to our lives, we are even more grateful this individual had the courage to bring it to our attention.
Read Proverbs 27:6. The process at this point about dealing with criticism is an application of this proverb. The “faithful wounds of a friend” are a grace of God. When we fear them we necessarily run from God. When we run from God, we will do something; in the context of this study that is either comfort eating or self-punishment through starvation. Having people from your support network help you sort through when feeling criticized would derail your progress is an important way to continue growing.
14. Practice Self-Compassion.
Often our biggest critic is not “out there.” Instead, we are our biggest critic. It is often in the context of this internal battle that self-esteem becomes the perceived answer. Contrast these two definitions of self-esteem and self-compassion.
- Self-esteem is the belief that I am worthy of full acceptance just the way I am; therefore, self-esteem is brittle or defiant in the context of needed changes.
- Self-compassion is the belief that we are flawed people in need of change but that echoing God’s grace towards our self is the most effective and God-honoring way to facilitate that change; self-compassion can remain humble and authentic during the process of change.
What does self-compassion look like practically in the context of gaining a healthy relationship with food?
- Refusing to berate yourself for setbacks in your growth while having the courage to acknowledge them.
- Not over-compensating (eating or restricting) when you get off your plan, but being content to start fresh with your next balanced day of eating.
- Enjoying the process of growing more than the destination of reaching particular goals.
- Contentment with the body and season of life in which you experience life.
- The ability to focus on what you want out of life more than what you’d like to change about yourself.
“You could say that the biggest key to my recovery was learning how to take care of myself in a real way, instead of starving and always trying to lose weight (p. 93)… Many times I’ve said I wish my body could be a separate person from me so that I could apologize to it for the pain I’ve put it through for the last 15 years (p. 255).” Carolyn Costin & Gwen Schubert Grabb in 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder