Welcome to Dear Melissa, where we answer your questions about transitioning into or or maintaining a healthy Whole9 life, helping you figure out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking to an Army wife who needs a healthier way to send Dad off to deployment, and an all-or-nothing kind of guy who can’t seem to ride his own bike post-Whole30.

Dear Melissa,

I would like some advice on emotional eating. I used to be really bad about it and I passed the habit onto my girls (ages 2, 8, and 9). My husband is in the Army and every time he left in the past, we would do a junk food night. Last year he had to leave unexpectedly on one of my girls birthdays, and to cheer her up we had pizza, candy cake, crap crap crap!

He is getting ready to deploy in a few months and I’m trying to figure out a different, more healthy way to comfort ourselves when we are sad. As far as healthy choices for food goes, we have gotten the hang of that, but I’m the type who turns to food when I’m sad. Do you have suggestions on healthier coping for the family?

DH, Manhattan, Kansas


I applaud you for even asking the question – and for the awareness that you exhibit around this issue. That alone is a huge win.

You need to gather together as a family before your husband deploys, but that doesn’t have to be synonymous with junk food. You’re smart in wanting to nip this habit now, before the kids get any older. Saddling them with the powerful association of Love = Junk Food will only set them up for food failure later in life.

Make it a big event, involving the kids, and make it special—but take the focus off the food entirely. Make it about the family time, the memories you are sharing, the traditions you are creating. You can eat, of course, but the “celebration” shouldn’t center around food, it should center around Dad.

Have a fruit kabobs contest, letting the kids make up their own rainbow and you and Dad “judging” each entry. (Everyone wins, of course.) Eat your dinner outdoors on the grass, or go to the local park and pull up a picnic bench. Work some fun events into the day—maybe a game where you all tell a funny story about Dad, or you all draw a picture of the family for him. Or create a skit, song, or dance with the kids ahead of time, and have them do a surprise performance for Dad.

If your kids ask why you’re not having pizza, ice cream, or other kinds of junk food, explain it to them in a way they’ll understand. Say, “When we eat pizza and ice cream, Daddy doesn’t feel very good, and you kids get really tired. We all want to feel good and have lots of energy today! As long as we are all together and having fun and celebrating being with Daddy, does it really matter what we eat?” Get them to agree (and involve Dad in the discussion to back you up) and you’ve immediately changed the dynamic of these events.

Best in health,

Dear Melissa,

I am a 100% or nothing kind of guy. The Whole30 plan works so very well for me and I don’t have too much of a problem keeping to the plan (feel good, sleep well, work out with gusto, have less gut issues, etc.) but after my Whole30 (or 45 or 60) is done… I fall of a cliff and my transition is carb-y (or crappy). I go from 100% compatible with the Whole30 to elbow deep in a bag of chocolate chip cookies faster than you can say “Mister Christie.”

My wife cannot understand the all-or-nothing rigidity that I have to put on my life to be successful. She would love for me to just “eat in moderation” but I have no success with “moderate” at all. I have read and re-read the transition chapter in It Starts With Food and I have planned to follow the transition to a T, but when I open the door a crack, I have significant transition issues. For so many reasons, I feel like eating 100% W30 for the rest of my life but this may cause life issues (wife, family, friends, travel, etc.) but when I moderate… I forget the “moder” and just eat!

Can you provide us with additional advice when transition = failure?

-DJ, Kingston, ON


Let me tell you a little secret—just about nobody does well with “moderation.” It’s a bullcrap concept, to be honest, created by diet gurus who sell tons of books by telling people what they want to hear—that they can still eat all the junky foods they want, as long as it’s in “moderation.” (What does that even mean? Eat just one cookie a day? Or eat as many cookies as you want, as long as it’s only once a week? Or eat 7 cookies a day, as long as you only take one bite per hour? You see my point…) The truth is (and habit research shows) that most people do far better with a black-and-white goal. That’s why the Whole30 works so well for you—you know exactly what is expected of you, there is no grey area.

I encourage you to work through some of the mental aspects of your carb-a-palooza post Whole30—are you indulging because you think you’ve been so good/healthy you can afford to slack off a bit? Are you looking to these foods as a reward? Are you not truly making a conscious, deliberate decision to eat something off-plan, instead giving into stress, emotion, or other factors? Is there peer pressure from others to just “relax” and eat like a “normal person?” (Note, a “normal person” is the last person I’d want to model my eating habits after. Just sayin’.) Ultimately, you have to figure out the emotional/mental/habitual underpinnings of these post-Whole30 binges.

However, figuring all of that out could take a long time, and we need to address this now. So, it’s time to set some black-and-white rules around your non-Whole30 eating habits. Sit down when you’re not stressed, tired, or hungry, and commit (on paper!) to a clear course of action. You may write something like, “I will allow myself up to two off-plan servings of food/drink per week.” Keeping the plan flexible (you can decide what those are, and when they happen) is critical—you still want to make conscious, deliberate decisions in the moment about what/when/how much to eat. The “up to” part of this rule is important too, because you need to set the mental image that you may not decide to go off-plan at all during the week—it’s not a necessary part of your diet, it’s totally optional.

Your “rule” can change from week to week, too—if you have a family event or vacation coming up, you can write out a new rule, like, “I will eat as many off-plan foods as I want this week, but I will only eat one serving, and when I return, I will do 7 days of the Whole30.” Keep the overall concept flexible, but keep the rules air-tight at the same time.

Finally, do what you need to do to make this as firm a commitment as the Whole30 was in your head. If that means telling people, go ahead. If it means signing the piece of paper, or posting it on your fridge, or reminding yourself of your commitment every morning, go for it. (If you want me to tell you what to do, I’d be happy to–but I’m not sure your wife would be very happy about that.)

Know that some people are going to think you’re crazy/rigid/obsessed with food because of these “rules” you are putting in place. Don’t give them an ounce of attention. This kind of plan wouldn’t work for everyone, but based on what you know about yourself, if you believe it will work for YOU—that’s all that matters. And remember, this is just a transitionary stage! Keep this plan in place until you’ve got enough of a handle on the emotional issues (and enough distance from your last carb-a-palooza) to test out riding your own bike. If you crash and burn, that’s okay—you’ve always got the Whole30 and your self-implemented rules to get you back on track. If you succeed, then you’ve established your own form of “moderation.” Yay! Just don’t call it that, okay?

Best in health,

Do you want to add your two cents? We welcome your input! Share your best advice for DH and DJ in comments.

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Remember, we aren’t answering technical questions via this column, nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.