November 30, 2015

Dear Melissa: I Quit Smoking, But Now I’m Overeating


Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new healthy habits, and figuring out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m helping a woman who quit smoking, but still feels like she’s struggling with portion control.

Dear Melissa, I am off cigarettes for the last 10 months, and seem to have developed a habit of over-eating and lack of portion control, which I am concerned about. I started the Whole30 and lasted 221 days before giving into food temptation. Although I felt somewhat okay, portion control is my issue. I always go back for seconds and end up eating more almonds or olives than I should. Do you have any motivational strategies that I can use? (I am doing this for health reasons and not for weight loss. I have Hashimoto’s and PCOS.) –Maura, Afghanistan Dear Maura, First, congratulations on your accomplishments! I know how hard it is to quit smoking, having watched my Dad go through the process five years ago. (He’s still smoke-free!) You should be proud of yourself for taking that on and succeeding. I’m not sure of the timing between quitting smoking and your 7 months of Whole30, but I’m going to assume you quit smoking first, then began making other healthy changes. In that case, I’m not at all surprised you’re still struggling with feeling in control, even if all of your choices are healthy… because I’ve been there. I’m a recovering drug addict. I’ve been clean for more than 15 years, but I remember the struggles I had getting and staying clean very clearly. When I got out of rehab, I knew I needed to change my lifestyle to stay clean, so I started going to the gym. Having never been on an exercise routine, I began running on the treadmill and working out on the machines. And I quickly traded one addiction for the other. I began working out several hours a day, sometimes twice a day. I was definitely over-training, and it wasn’t entirely within my control. I had a hole I needed to fill, and exercise took the place of drugs. You could say I had a hard time with “exercise portion control.” Was it less than healthy behavior? Yes. But I continued to work on staying clean through therapy, I continued to keep adding healthy habits to my new routine, paying more attention to what I ate, making new friends, and doing well in my new job. And over the course of that first year, my frenetic exercise pace evened out all on its own. I got healthier, learned to fill the hole all by myself, and developed a healthy relationship with exercise. Just like you will develop a healthy relationship with food.

First, Are You Just Hungry?

In your letter, you didn’t say you are struggling with binging on donuts and ice cream and cookies. You’re frustrated because you struggle with portion control—eating more healthy food than you think is appropriate, out of what you perceive as a lack of control. Let’s look at this objectively. First, it’s entirely possible that you’re going back for seconds because you’re legitimately still hungry. You specifically mention nuts and olives, both of which are rich in fat and very satiating. (The fact that you’re not leaning on dried fruit or Larabars is encouraging.) Is is possible that you simply need to eat more, or that you’re not adding enough fat to your meals? This is a really common issue with the Whole30; people are a little fat-phobic, and don’t add enough to each meal to keep them satiated. To figure this out, after a meal or snack, sit still for 5-10 minutes before going back for seconds. Drink some water or tea, relax and let your food digest, and give satiety signals a chance to reach your brain. You may discover after a grace period that you’re not hungry after all. If you still want a little something, before you reaching for the almonds or olives, ask yourself: “Am I hungry enough to eat a hard-boiled egg/deli turkey/more of the protein from my meal?” If the answer is “Yes,” then you are legitimately still hungry, so go eat some more healthy food! If the answer is, “No, but I’d love some almonds or olives,” then you’re just having a craving, or are eating out of habit. If that’s the case, you can use some of the techniques from my “taming the sugar dragon” articles and willpower-conserving strategies to help you create some space and distance, and break the habit of filling the hole left by smoking with food—even the healthy stuff. Keep working at it, and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t “take” right away. You know from trying to quit smoking that changing your habits is hard, and it takes time, practice, and consistency to make them stick.

Second, Give Yourself Grace

However, here’s the main point I wanted to make: It’s okay that you’re still struggling with portion control, especially if most of your food choices are healthy. In fact, it’s more than okay, it’s totally normal. I appreciate that you are concerned with what you perceive as a lack of control, and that you want to feel in control of all your choices, even the healthy stuff. And I’m not discounting how important it is to break unhealthy habits, even if those habits revolve around good-for-you food. But you’ve just been through a major life change, and you’re probably still struggling to fill that hole and find your balance, just like I did when I stopped doing drugs and began exercising. But balance doesn’t happen overnight, and extending yourself some grace through the process goes a long way towards feeling good about the progress you’ve made, and are continuing to make. What I’m trying to say is cut yourself some slack. Use the strategies I outlined above to create an even healthier relationship with food, portion control, and snacking, whether it’s with your Whole30 fare or conscious, deliberate decisions you make about less-healthy foods. But don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself eating “too many” cashews or having a healthy snack because you’re not sure if you’re hungry and olives just sound good. Over time, as you get more comfortable with the idea of being a non-smoker, you’ll have capacity to focus on other aspects of your healthy lifestyle, like continuing to fine-tune your relationship with food. You’ll find your balance. Until then, be patient with yourself, and remejmber to give yourself credit for quitting smoking and sticking to the Whole30 for as long as you did. Best in health, Melissa

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Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition. View More: Melissa Urban is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa and her son live in Salt Lake City, UT. Photo credit: Taylor Gage, She Thrives Blog

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