That M&M joy

This post was written by Stephanie Kirschner, LPC.  She can be reached at stephanie@recover-restore.com

A note before you read: Regarding the following information, it is important to acknowledge that individual experiences vary. Some people are following specific health plans that restrict certain foods and substances, and we want to honor and support those commitments. Others need to learn to lean into the fears they may have surrounding food, practicing mindfulness and challenging unhelpful thought patterns and restrictive tendencies. If you have questions about how to proceed on your journey toward health, please consult with a counselor or trusted advisor.

When we were little, my siblings and I adored Disney movies. I guess that kind of came with the territory growing up in the 90’s. Our parents were strict about when and how much we watched, though, so movie time was a very precious commodity.

After bath time on Saturday night, the four of us in our nightgowns would snuggle up on the couch with wet hair and excited hearts. Dad would choose the movie, and Mom would prepare little personal popcorn bowls for each of us.

Somewhere along the line, Mom started hiding M&Ms at the bottom of our popcorn bowls. I remember experiencing a rush of pure delight each time I saw those surprise colorful candies peeking out from beneath my small pile of popcorn.

As I got older, my perspective shifted, and I developed an increasingly keen awareness about what types of food were “ok” and “not ok” to eat. I gave in to the pressures, stipulations, and ideals proposed by the world, and that pure, authentic M&M joy that had been so strong in me as a child was buried deep down below the surface.

Where did that sense of joy go?

Our society loves to bombard us with mixed messages about food. Eat this. Don’t eat that. This food is good. This food is bad. Here are ten foods to incorporate into your diet. Here are ten foods to avoid at all costs. You should eat this. You should never eat that. The list is endless.

For those who have dealt with an eating disorder, and oftentimes for those who haven’t, these types of messages can be upsetting and confusing. We may develop fears of certain foods, and these “fear foods” can begin to hold an extraordinary amount of power over us. Instead of learning how to incorporate the foods we love into our diet in a healthy manner, we either anxiously sprint in the opposite direction, or we collapse and give up altogether. Rather than adopting a realistic and moderate approach to nutrition, we pursue extremes as an attempt to avoid losing control.

So, in the midst of all of this, how can we go about finding that sense of joy again?

Here are three tips that have helped me on my journey:

1. Treat Yourself. Daily. 

Considering the high-paced, efficiency-conscious culture in which we live, it is especially important to take daily, intentional steps to care well for you. Some ways to do this include sleeping enough, exercising regularly, and getting a hefty amount of fresh air and sunshine.

{To my fellow Midwesterners - good luck with that last one, my friends.}

I'd like to suggest that another way to prioritize your health is to treat yourself every day to something sweet. Or salty. Or spicy. Really, whatever you're into should work. Just make sure you do it daily, and make sure it's something you consider a treat.

(And please don't try to get away with "treating yourself" to carrot sticks, or we might need to have a talk later.)

But how on earth could eating chocolate or ice cream or fries or hot cheetos be healthy, you ask in horror? Well, I'd like to make a case that it is - or at least, it can be. It's all about how you do it.

Exposing yourself to reasonable quantities of your fear foods helps you incorporate them back into your diet in a healthy manner. Though it may feel at first like you are “giving in” or “losing control”, it actually takes away the power that the food once held and puts it back into your hands. You are also less likely to overeat or binge on days when you do decide to “cheat”, because you won’t have a “this-is-my-only-chance-to-eat-this-ever-again” mindset.

A super quick guide to treating yourself well: 

a) Make it special. If you're eating a slice of cake, dress it up a little. Rather than standing at the open fridge and using your hands to inhale the entire cake in 30 seconds flat, cut yourself a reasonably sized piece, put it on a pretty plate, and use a fancy fork. Trust me - it's a lot more satisfying this way. 

b) Take your time with it. Sit down at the kitchen table or on a comfy couch to enjoy your treat. Savor each bite at a time. Focus on the flavor and texture. Allow yourself more time than you think you need. This may feel strange at first, but you strike me as someone who catches on quickly.

c) Invite a person (or people) you love to participate in your treat session.

Note: This one is optional. As an introvert, I understand the desire and need for alone time. I do believe, though, that one reason the M&M memory is so lovely in my mind is because of the people who were with me when it happened. I felt safe, known, and valued. I believe there is something extra special, even sacred, about sharing yummy food in the presence of loved ones. Find someone with whom to enjoy your treat if that is something you feel would be beneficial to your healing process.

2.  Stop “shoulding” on yourself.

Yeah, you heard me. Stop it. There are going to be days when you want to eat ice cream. Make the decision to eat the ice cream, and move forward with your day. Don’t get hung up thinking about how you really should not be eating this or you really should be eating kale instead. Should, should, should. Blah, blah, blah. You made the decision to eat the ice cream, it is delicious, and you are fine. It is ok to eat ice cream sometimes. Enough said.

3. Quit It with the Qualifiers

Consider the following scenario: You're halfway into an amazing triple chocolate chunk cookie when another person walks into the room. "That looks incredible!" he/she exclaims, jealously eyeing your trip-choc-chunk-cook. "Here, have some!" you suggest, generously extending the remainder of your cookie to your new friend. "Oh no, I just couldn't! I'm being good today," they say, smiling smugly as they saunter towards the exit in all of their judgmental glory.

We've all had some version of this story happen to us at some point. Think back to a time when something similar happened to you. It may have been when you were a child or teenager, or it may have been last week. Do you notice any particular feelings or emotions when you reflect on that memory? If you're at all like me, you may remember feeling somewhat guilty, and maybe even ashamed. 

Labeling food as good or bad - or referring to ourselves as good or bad based on what we do or do not eat - raises several issues. For one, it attempts to attribute morality to a piece of food, which is a rather ridiculous notion if you think about it. Additionally, forcing food into a single, one-dimensional category like this may lead to an inaccurate or limited perspective on diet and nutrition.

For instance, would you consider spinach to be a good food or a bad food? Good, right? Me too. However, for my dad who is exceedingly susceptible to developing kidney stones, eating too much of this high oxalate food would be a very bad decision. 

Conversely, most of us would probably consider chocolate to fall under the column of "bad foods." However, chocolate, and dark chocolate in particular, is rich in minerals, and eating appropriate quantities has been shown to be good for your skin. 

See what I mean?

What is a bigger issue than moralizing food, though, is that this act of food labeling forces you into one of the morality categories.

Like the character in our hypothetical cookie scenario, we are at risk of hinging our – and others’ - value and character on what foods we choose to consume or resist. Doing so oftentimes evokes feelings of guilt and shame, especially for those with a history of disordered eating or body image issues.

Let’s give others and ourselves a break and ditch the qualifying words – good, bad, etc. - when referring to our food and ourselves.

It is one of my greatest passions and privileges to provide support to individuals who have a history of restrictive eating, binge/purge tendencies, and/or other body image-related concerns. If you are struggling with one or all of these issues, my hope for you is that you begin to rediscover your own version of M&M joy whatever it may be. I believe that that joy, no matter how deeply buried in your heart of hearts, can be found again. And I believe today is the perfect day to start looking for it.