Twenty years ago I lost 100 pounds and I’ve kept it off ever since. Most folks looking to lose enslaving extra pounds focus on the first part of that little story. But the true happily-ever-after scenario is about learning what it takes to keep it off. Compared to that, losing is easy. It can be done, though if you’re willing to work at it as if your life depended on it. Which, of course, it does. Not only the length of your life, but also the quality—not just the physical, but the mental and spiritual as well.
My book The Hungry Ghost: How I Ditched 100 Pounds and Came Fully Alive, A practical, spiritual program for women craving permanent weight loss and complete freedom from food obsession explains what I did and what you can do, too. There are no tricks, just seven simple promises to make to yourself: Healing, honesty, humor, no regrets, listening, lovingkindness and freedom. Included are plenty of resources—the slogans, organizations, books, prayers and more that helped me. And plenty of very specific guidance on how to eat.
Because I understand that you really want to know what to do right now, here’s my gift to you: the Feed-the-Hunger Plan. It’s distilled from decades of my own tried-and-true experience. Nothing nutty, just good solid advice for every part of you.
We are all grown ups here, so these are suggestions. But they are working for me:
GNE’S FEED-THE-HUNGER PLAN
Start right this minute to achieve a healthy body weight and a clear mind. Buy a notebook. Writing things down makes them real and plain. Spiral-bound is fine. Until you get the notebook, any old scrap of paper will do. I’m serious about starting now. Procrastination is not an option. In the notebook you’ll write down what you plan to do. This will keep you clear and honest.
I’m giving you a list of things to do. There is some flexibility within these guidelines, and as your recovery progresses they will evolve and change, but do not skip any strategy. They all work together for your greatest good. Full recovery is not just about dealing with extra food and adding exercise. It is about your whole life, one day at a time. Follow these five principles, diligently as best you can (notice I did not say perfectly!), and I promise you will succeed. Promise.
Okay, open your notebook and begin.
1. PICK A PLAN OF EATING
You must decide exactly what you will eat and how and when you will eat it. Choose one of these options:
The 3-0-1 Plan
Serve yourself one moderate (not piled high; not skimpy) plate of food. Sit to eat and don’t take seconds. Do that three (3) times a day. Have nothing (0) in between meals but decaf tea, decaf coffee or water. Do it one (1) day at a time. Every day. If you mess up, start over at the next meal. Do not have fried, sugary or heavily-processed foods. Never, ever skip a meal. Never, ever eat your personal binge foods, the ones you can’t stop eating once you start, the ones you feel you have to have, once they’re on your mind. Drink eight glasses of water a day.
The 3-0-1-Plus Plan.
If after 21 days, the 3-0-1 Plan doesn’t click for you, if you’re not losing (or gaining if you’re underweight) and not feeling saner around food, do the 3-0-1 Plan, and eliminate refined sugar which for most people with major weight issues acts like a drug and sets up those excruciating cravings. Read labels for sweeteners. Anything that says “syrup” or ends in “-ose” or “-ol” is a dangerous sweetener. Just because something says “no sugar” or “no sugar added” doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain sweeteners that will make you crave more sweets. When in doubt, leave it out. The fresher and less processed the food, the safer it is for you. Alcohol is liquid sugar, so eliminate it in all forms.
The Food Addict Plan. (I lost 100 pounds with this plan and have kept it off for 15 years. I never have cravings. This is still the way I eat.)
Buy a food scale (many supermarkets have those little spring-platform ones; Williams Sonoma has a good digital one for $50), measuring cups and measuring spoons. Eat no sugar, wheat or flour. Ever. Many overweight and obese women are food addicts in that these substances are toxic to them exactly the same way that alcohol is toxic to the alcoholic or cocaine is to the cocaine addict. (This is not hyperbole but fact; you can save take my word for it, or read Food Addiction: The Body Knows by Kay Shepherd which explains the science.) Read labels. You may need to tweak the plan—increasing or decreasing amounts—to suit your activity level or other health needs like allergies or lactose intolerance. Never, ever do so by yourself. Always consult with another person who completely understands what you are trying to do. Ideally that person is using this food plan too, or something close to it, and is free from food obsession and excess pounds the way that you want to be. (More later on personal support systems.)
1 cup whole non-wheat grain (oatmeal; grits; kasha; etc; measured after cooking)
1 cup dairy (yogurt; unsweetened soy milk; skim milk)
4 oz protein (fish and white meat chicken or turkey are best; if you must eat heavier with dark poultry meat or red meat, do so no more than 3 times a week; two eggs will also do—two whites equals one whole egg)
1 fruit (a cup of berries, ½ a medium cantaloupe, a 6 oz apple, orange, or pear, etc; avoid bananas, grapes, cherries and exotic fruits; they’re too sweet)
1tsp oil (olive; cooking)
1 cup raw vegetable (lettuce; carrots; tomatoes, etc)
1 cup cooked vegetable (string beans, broccoli, asparagus, etc.)
3 oz protein (fish, chicken, etc) or 1 cup beans or lentils
2 tsps oil (there are a few brands of salad dressing that don’t include sugar; use 4 tsp)
1 cup raw vegetable
1 cup cooked vegetable
3 oz protein
2 tsps oil
1 cup grain (same as breakfast; or ½ cup starchy vegetable such as peas or winter squash; 8 oz white or sweet potato)
1 cup dairy or 2 oz protein
Use small amounts (a tablespoon or less each) of spices and sugar-free condiments such as mustard. Don’t eat anything not mentioned on the food plan, especially cheese or nuts which are binge foods for most overeaters and are calorie-monsters as well. Space meals no fewer than four hours apart and no more than six hours apart. Try not to eat the same food more than three times a week. Never let yourself get ravenously hungry. If you have low blood sugar, at first you may need to divide up your meals and eat every three hours. Never eat a carbohydrate (grain) or fruit without a protein to balance it out. (And vice versa.) If you’re not sure about a food or a certain practice, skip it until you can consult with a knowledgeable source from your support system. Be sure to drink lots of water; sometimes we think we feel hungry when in fact we are thirsty.
What’s your overall food plan going to be? Write your specific choice in the front of your Feed-the-Hunger notebook. Then, each day in your notebook, write down precisely what foods you will be eating, at what times, and call or e-mail that information to a support person to “commit” your food. Once you’ve done this, you don’t have to make any more food decisions for the day. Freedom!
2. Design a Human Support System
If you’ve been using food to manipulate your emotions, when you stop you’ll probably feel empty, lonely and confused. You need to surround yourself with helpful, loving, respectful people. Going solo is not an option. As you build your support system, experiment cautiously, thoughtfully. Keep an open mind. Note: Beware of anyone who seems not to listen to you or who insists that you follow only her direction to the exclusion of all others. While we need to listen and learn from others, food fundamentalism isn’t good for anyone.
• Friends. You must have at least one solid friend who totally supports what you are doing and ideally either did it before you (and you can emulate her) or is doing it with you. Check in with her daily.
• Groups. You need a group of friends so you have enough phone numbers to make at least three phone calls to give and get support each and every day—especially during those times when you’re tempted to hurt yourself with food. E-mail is good, too, but real-time conversations are precious and powerful. Your best bet is to attend meetings of organized peer support group such as Overeaters Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous. Based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, these programs offer strategies and support for learning how to live without excess food and food substances that are toxic to you. Even if you can’t find face-to-face meetings, you can plug in to phone meetings. Go to oa.org or foodaddictsanonymous.org for specifics. Listen for what’s healthy, what works. Pay attention to people who are taking action to resolve their difficulties. Take what you like and leave the rest. Make one-on-one phone calls to group members for support. Go to meetings and try to be helpful (without being controlling). Don’t listen to the little voice that tells you these people are nuts or that you know better than they do. Listen and learn. This is a lifetime project. If the relationships in your life are problematic (when we change, it can shake things up with others) Al-Anon, a 12-step support group for those who have an alcoholic in their life, might be helpful. (BTW—the emphasis there is not on how to cope with difficult people, its on how to learn to be strong and healthy for your own sake.) For those whose emotions are running away with them, the self-help group Recovery, Inc., created by Abraham Low, M.D. in 1937, is very transformative. In small peer-lead groups, you learn specific ways to change your thoughts and stop working yourself into a frenzy of suffering and despair. Go to recovery-inc.org.
• Psychotherapy. Seek out a psychologist or psychiatrist if your emotions are running you ragged. A huge proportion of women who have eating disorders are also survivors of sex abuse; recovery from that is possible but it’s hard, hard work. Many of us suffer from depression and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ask trusted friends, co-workers or medical professionals for a referral to a good therapist. Mortgage the house, put off the cool vacation, skip the Starbucks, work a second job, twist arms, barter to pay for it. You’ve got nothing if you don’t have you.
• Other healing options. Reiki is powerful form of energy work that can be done hands-on or from a distance. After a brief training, you actually can give yourself healing treatments—very empowering! For more info, go to reiki.org. I’ve also had lots of healing from hypnotherapy (visit the National Guild of Hypnotherapists’ website at ngh.net) and Emotional Freedom Techniques (emofree.com) where you learn to heal yourself by tapping on the same energy meridians used in acupuncture. You might also like sandplay therapy, a type of art therapy where you create revealing scenarios using objects that are spiritual archetypes (ask doctors and friends for a referral). Massage is a great way to learn to receive nurturing, relieve tension and improve your body-awareness.
• Mentors. There’s a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Open your mind and heart, put it out to the universe that you are ready. Someone will step up, often from a surprising place. Mine have been yoga instructors, karate and tai chi teachers, spiritual directors. Just don’t glom onto everyone who looks at you with a smile—take it slow and easy. Run your sense of a new teacher by your established support system and your own intuition. And don’t make mentors into gods—if you put people on pedestals they will always fall off. They’re human (just like you!), no matter how wise and wonderful.
• Service. No matter how low you feel, you have something to give. Help someone every day, consciously, lovingly, with awareness of how this connects you to each other.
• Medical care. Do not neglect for one minute your physical health. Tell your doctor what you’re trying to do and see her or him right away when your health isn’t right. A good one will understand (or try to understand) and be supportive.
What’s your human support system going to be, starting today? Write down your plan in the front of your Feed-the-Hunger notebook. Be very specific, as in, “I will attend the FAA phone meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, call Karen every day and make three calls to other friends.” Then, every day on the page where you write down your food for the day, also write what you’ll do to get help from others. Also include one small way you’ll offer support to another.
3. CREATE A WAY TO GENTLY MOVE YOUR BODY
Start by doing one thing every day, no matter how small. Maybe you’ll just do some slow, deep breathing and feel the breath moving in, moving out. Then, maybe it’ll be just stretching when you first wake up, taking a walk around the block or putting on music and dancing. Start with five minutes a day; add more minutes and more activities each week until you’re doing at least four 30-minute sessions of vigorous activity weekly. Join a gym. Find a pal who’ll join you. Mix up forms of exercise so you don’t get bored. Exercise burns calories, builds overall stamina, dissipates crappy emotions and puts you in touch with your long-neglected physical body. Tai Chi, chi gong and yoga connect body, mind and energy in the most amazing ways. Check them out—many gyms have them, as do town rec centers and community college adult ed programs.
About the personal scale: Weigh yourself once a month, no more, no less. If you don’t like the numbers, make sure you are following your food plan exactly and honestly and are moving your body regularly. If you don’t know what numbers make sense for you, consult your support system. If you are prone to undereating and underweight, work with a doctor, therapist or dietician (or all of the above) to keep yourself honest—bulimia and anorexia are real and immediate threats to your life. If you are following your food plan and not losing or gaining weight to reach your ideal, discuss changes to your food plan with someone from your support system who has what you want. If you do what they do, you’ll get what they have.
A note about sleep: Sleep deprivation, science now tells us, is just as destructive to our consciousness and health as being strung out on alcohol. Make giving your body enough sleep top priority, every day. Caffeine is the enemy of good rest and good health. Eliminate.
What’s your plan for moving and honoring your body? Write it in the front of your Feed-the-Hunger notebook. Be very specific, as in, “I’ll walk a mile in the park on Sunday, go the gym on Tuesday, etc.” Then, on each day’s page, write exactly what you’ll do for that day.
4. DEVELOP A PLAN OF ACTIVE SELF-NURTURANCE
You must have at least a half hour to yourself daily. No exceptions. Make a list of healthy things that make you feel warm and cozy, like nestling under an afghan with a fun novel or splashing water on your face, and refer to it when you’re feeling needy and your brain goes blank about what to do. What makes you feel good? Maybe it’s a hot bath. Clean hair and fingernails. Nice-looking, comfortable clothes and shoes. A neat and orderly underwear drawer. Fresh flowers. Knitting or crocheting or doing ceramics. Writing pages and pages of your feelings in a journal. Here are some other possibilities—ways to feed yourself without abusing yourself with food. (If you struggle with giving yourself permission, call a friend and ask her to give it to you! I promise, she will.)
• Slather on sweet-scented lotions or oils
• Light a scented candle
• Go to the library, wander through the stacks and take out whatever speaks you—a whole pile of novels, memoirs, travelogues. Don’t forget the section of movies, music and books on tape.
• Pick up new do-dads for your hair, a new hairbrush, a different conditioner while you’re food shopping and not buying the junk you used to stuff into your poor body.
• Send thank you notes to people who’ve done something nice for you. Send one to yourself in the mail. Doing something nice for someone, as long as we do it willingly and lovingly without resentment, can restore us, especially if we’re swamped in self-pity.
• Pet your dog or cat.
• Get your hair cut just the way you like it; at the end, make your next appointment so you don’t forget and let it get all draggy and annoying.
• Drink a cup of hot herbal tea.
• Go through your photo albums.
• Call a trusted, nurturing, supportive friend.
• Go to meditationoasis.com and listen to a guided imagery.
• Have a nice nap.
• Take a walk in a nearby nature site—or around your back yard.
• Tend your houseplants.
• Color, in a coloring book or on a blank piece of paper. Don’t forget to breathe in that eau de Crayola!
How will you nurture yourself daily? Write your specific custom-tailored-for-you list of options in the front of your Feed-the-Hunger notebook. Then, each day write what you’ll do for that day.
5. REACH OUT TO A POWER GREATER THAN YOURSELF
You must develop some concept, however rough or vague, of a higher power, a source of love, strength and guidance that’s not your own self-willfulness, racing thoughts or ego. Something—an energy, idea or concept learned, found, imagined or borrowed—that you can let guide and direct you and your life if you lean into it, breathe into it, surrender to it as best you can. Don’t worry about nailing the concept or trying to be 100 percent gung ho; plugging in to the greater good works even if your willingness to do so is only the size of the proverbial mustard seed. Find what concept, entity or energy feeds your soul and makes you feel centered, safe, whole and strong. Then dedicate some time daily to connecting with this higher power, both with prayer (talking or writing “Dear God” letters to this source) and meditation (listening to this source). Start with a minimum of five minutes of quiet when you first wake up in the morning (or as soon as possible) and work your way up to at least 20 minutes twice a day. There are tons of daily meditation books that can get you started. Or try guided meditation CD’s that you buy in bookstores or podcasts from meditationoasis.com. Check out the Serenity Prayer, page TK. Don’t confuse this step with religion or religious practice, if that line of thought is an obstacle for you. Just show up and reach out. (Religion is fine if it works for you; if it doesn’t, let it go and focus on spirituality.)
What’s your plan for reaching out to a power greater than yourself? Write your specific concept down in the front of your Feed-the-Hunger notebook. Then, each day write what you’ll do for that day.
Okay. Now you are set. Just do the best you can one day at a time and you cannot fail. Promise.
WANT THE WHOLE STORY?
The full version of my book The Hungry Ghost, which includes more examples and stories of what works for me, is available at Amazon. Stay tuned for the next in The Hungry Ghost series, The Well-Fed Ghost, a book of meditations for filling your hungry, hungry soul. Due out in 2015.