It’s summer, and all it takes is turning on the TV to hear the latest pitch to change your eating or your body. But as a psychologist working with patients with problems related to eating and weight, I propose a different approach. Instead of changing your eating, how about revamping key problematic thoughts about eating?
We all carry ideas about eating and weight. For those with an eating disorder, beliefs about food, eating, and weight can impact everyday decisions. Unhelpful ideas can play like a record on repeat looping for hours on end or playing sub-consciously in the background, chipping away at health.
In the segment of our culture preoccupied with thinness and health, some ideas can be experienced as automatic truths – ‘givens’ – regardless of the evidence. I believe several of these ‘givens’ deserve a second thought.
Giving Your Givens Another Thought
1. Givens about healthiness.
Where it starts: Many beliefs start with a seed of truth. Of course, there are some foods with fewer vitamins/minerals or less protein, fat, or fiber, per calorie, than others. Some people have food allergies or health conditions resulting from deficiency or excess of specific micro or macronutrients, either of which may require dietary changes.
Where it can lead: When ideas about healthiness become extreme, the thoughts lose any nuance or flexibility. “All or nothing” thoughts tend to lead to negative feelings about eating including guilt and anxiety. They can also result in problematic behaviors: binge eating, feeling out of control when eating even a small amount, or avoidance of foods that are essential for staying psychologically and physically healthy.
Questions to ask: To challenge these beliefs, get specific by asking exactly what you mean by unhealthy? Does having a piece of cake make you a LESS healthy person? Why or why not? Are people who eat cake in moderation at greater risk of disease? And, for whom is this food problematic: for a person with anorexia nervosa who needs to renourish her or his body? For a college athlete with high caloric requirements for optimal psychological and physical performance? For any person who has the food in moderation?
Alternative ways of thinking about it: For someone requiring weight gain, many foods casually labeled as “bad” are often the VERY ones that will promote health, through weight restoration and nourishment. For many people with an eating disorder – from ARFID to atypical anorexia nervosa to bulimia nervosa – flexibility in food choice is a sign of health. It can also be helpful to be objective when evaluating food. Label what you mean by “unhealthy,” and check assumptions about macronutrients with a trusted dietitian or clinician: while fat and sugar get a bad rap, a diet devoid of these items entirely may be insufficient in macronutrients.
2. Givens about needing to be a certain weight to be happy.
Where it starts: This belief can start with messages in the news and media, well-meaning remarks from family members and friends, or off-hand comments from peers in the classroom or at work. Associations between weight and positive outcomes are embedded subtly and not-so-subtly in day-to-day dialogue and media: a movie about an overweight person who loses weight and becomes happier and more successful, advertisements promising positive consequences of weight loss like fitting into old clothes, having more confidence, or being more active.
Where it can lead: Believing that you need to be a specific weight to be happy can lead to putting life on hold and missed opportunities. Beliefs in this category can also lead to feelings of hopelessness and defeat when weight loss or maintenance goals are not met.
Questions to ask: What do I think will be different if I lose weight? Does that list include things I could actually do now? What would happen if I—wore the shorts, went to the beach, ate out—now? What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that?
Alternative ways of thinking about it: Consider the characteristics that you value in others. Does their weight matter much in the equation? Consider testing the beliefs through “behavioral experiments” in which you challenge yourself to do the thing that you imagine putting off until you look a certain way. This is a way to test assumptions, tolerate discomfort, and practice fully experiencing life at your current size.
3. Givens about being able to completely control weight (or control what weight is healthy for you).
Where it starts: Of course, to some extent, behavior influences body weight. But, just because body weight is modifiable, doesn’t mean it is completely in our control. The belief that it is may come from people around us, social media, and weight loss industry ads. A related idea is that a specific weight should be enough; this commonly begins when we apply knowledge of population data to our own individual health.
Where it can lead: Overestimating control over one’s weight can lead to extreme behaviors intended to change it. The price paid in emotional health is high. Frustration, self-blame, and other negative emotions can result when efforts to manipulate weight are either unsuccessful or come at dire costs, (including an eating disorder). Believing that a very specific weight is “right” can hinder full recovery.
Questions to ask: Who benefits from you believing that you can completely control your weight? Is your height in your control? And, how silly does it sound to imagine that it is or that it should fall at the population average? What does the research say on genetic contributions to body weight? Is weight ever one specific number?
Alternative ways of thinking about it: Body weight, like most things, is influenced by both behavior/environment and factors that are not in our control (such as biology), and it can be helpful to separate what is and is not in your purview. The ideal weight for one person might not best for someone else. The price paid for an attempt at complete weight control can be steep and, in some cases, can lead to ceding control to an eating disorder.