Thinking differently – Which wolf are you feeding?

I recently came across a T Nation article that made reference to the old Cherokee 'tale of two wolves'. This got me thinking, on 'thinking differently'.

A tale of two wolves - thinking differently
A tale of two wolves

I really liked the article which I would recommend you all read. While it applies to gym environment, the idea that we can learn to see obstacles in our life as a challenge or opportunity, is a crucial and transferable one. Importantly, it is also a simple idea that can have a profound influence on our relationship with food. It is an idea that falls under the umbrella I call 'thinking differently'.

What is thinking differently?

Many individuals who have an unhappy relationship with food often fall into the trap of seeing a momentary lapse or distraction from the dietary guidelines to which they are trying to adhere, as a failure. This type of 'all or nothing' thinking  is not helpful when it comes to fostering a sustainable and healthy relationship with food. Any self-perceived failure, can then result in negative thoughts and feelings that spiral into subsequent compensatory behaviours. These compensatory behaviours, such as eating a comfort food without awareness, again breach the guidelines the individual is trying to follow, and so the cycle continues. I talked a little about this cycle here, but one of the best ways to leverage as opposed to fall foul of this scenario is to shift our perspective.

A great way to do this, especially when it comes to food is to adopt the principle that nothing is off limits. This doesn't mean we should seek out junk food of high caloric density and scant nutritional value, but it appreciates variety and 'fancy' are a natural and healthy part of a balanced and sustainable way of eating. If it is not 'disallowed' it removes many of the habitual associations of failure with which many are familiar when attempting to adhere to a dietary protocol.

The author also explores how the tale of two wolves can teach us that we can all practice seeing and thinking about the world around us differently. In my the article linked above, I talk about a lot of the ways in which obese or overweight people tend to think. For many different and varied reasons, these ways of thinking have arisen and then become habitual. This is why I frequently encourage clients who complete a food diary with me to annotate their lapses or self-perceived 'dietary failures' as learning experiences (LE). So engrained are their responses that even recognising opportunities to note down LE can be tricky at first. But if they can habitually learn to seek out improvement as opposed to the self-defeating negative spiral of failure, then they are well on their way to creating a perpetually self-improving way of thinking. We can literally practise our way to a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food, by thinking differently. We just need to feed the right wolf.

Where I would disagree with the article is the author's assertion that those we see who tend not to 'feed the right wolf' are either pathetic and/or annoying. We all have been on our own individual journey to where we are now, and it is crucial that we do not rush to judge so readily anyone's behaviour. Thinking differently is something we can all learn to do, and just because someone isn't there yet, doesn't mean they can never be.

Image of a wolf eating the tale of two wolves helps remind us to think differently
Which wolf are you feeding? The tale of two wolves can be a great reminder about thinking differently

That said, the article, the transferable nature and the imagery of the 'tale of two wolves' is a great one to apply to the gym, our relationship with food, or life in general. Have a read of the T Nation article linked below and of course please do share this article if you enjoyed it. As ever, I'm always keen to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me andy@acbcoaching.com.

https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/which-wolf-are-you-feeding

Stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person

Stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person

Sorry if using the word fat offends you, but I needed your attention. By the end of this article, I want to try to convince you of something important. That is, if you are serious about wanting to lose weight and keep it off, you have to stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person. While you will have to do this as well as doing and eating all the right things, there is an upside to learning to think differently. It will make everything else much easier. It will boost your chances of maintaining change, something which is a far more challenging prospect than just losing weight in the first place. Many of the clients I work with have lost lots of weight. Lots of times. The issue is not so much weight loss, as it is maintenance of that loss. I believe that an absolutely key part to achieving ‘maintenance’ of a lower weight is learning to think, speak and feel differently about both food, exercise and yourself.

The context of Obesity

Obesity can technically be defined as a case of excess adipose (fatty) tissue. When it comes to the management of obesity however, it is not helpful to view it with such simplicity. This is the first trap that people might fall into. Losing and maintaining a lower weight should be considered as multifactorial issue. Obesity is caused and perpetuated by an interrelated and often complex combination of factors.

Image displaying the numerous factors involved in obesity. These complexities are why talking like a fat person can have adverse affects
The multifactorial nature of obesity

While it is generally accepted that in the the majority of cases, people get to this diagnosis of being ‘obese' from consuming more calories than they expend, there are plenty of different ways they achieve this. The contribution and salience of these factors above will also differ from person to person. All this means that when we want to manage or treat obesity in a given individual, we are not just dealing with one factor in isolation, but many, in a broader and often shifting landscape. People’s lifestyle circumstances change. Their friends change. Their jobs change. They move houses, have kids, get divorced etc. etc.  Suddenly, the simplicity of its ‘just a case of excess fatty tissue’ or ‘just a calorie balance problem’ starts to seem an inadequate explanation in the context of making a lasting change. Food is everywhere, everyday. What we eat and how we feel about it can be influenced by a thousand-and-one different things.

How not talking like a fat person can help

All hope is not lost however. Just because people become obese for a host of different reasons, and it can get really complicated, does not mean there are not similarities that we can leverage. One interesting thing is that a lot of these similarities are in the ways people think and feel (and subsequently talk). This is why ‘fat’ people, often talk in a certain way. They often over-generalise ‘I’ve always had a sweet-tooth', magnify problems and think in all-or-nothing and extreme ways ‘I had a chocolate pudding yesterday, I’ve blown my diet’. They are also often very judgemental and negative of their own past, current and even future behaviour. ‘I couldn’t resist that chocolate pudding, i’ve got no willpower’. Since our thoughts feelings and behaviours interact with one another (see video below) these ways of thinking can start to act as commands. In thinking and speaking in a certain way, obese individuals  fuel a pernicious cycle that can damage self-esteem and lead to increasingly unhelpful behaviours like emotional eating.

If we can help people to think differently we can start to interrupt the unhelpful ways of thinking that undermine an individual’s attempt achieve and maintain a lower weight. Talking like a fat person abdicates responsibility from their goals. It permits failure, again and again. The trouble is most people don’t even notice they do this.

Talking like a fat person can also sends mixed messages to those that might be able to help us. When we don’t give people a clear message about our behaviour and expectations, we often permit them to sabotage our attempts too.  This can be really subtle. Saying something as innocent as saying their is a certain type of food that you ‘shouldn’t’ eat or referring to food as a ‘treat’ are two classic examples. In creating these rules, we tempt our (and others’) inner rebels to break that rule. Tell a kid not to touch something, you know what will happen. How many times have you been cajoled into indulging in a ‘sneaky’ chocolate bar or bit of ice-cream by a a partner or friend when you are a diet. ‘One won’t hurt’ they say. You indulge, then guilt follows. These are the very real consequences thinking and speaking in a certain way. We must change them to change the dynamic they create.

The good news is that we can enter that cyclical process from a different angle. We have another way in which we can work towards our goals. Its not just about working harder, its about working smarter. Thinking differently. We can speak in a way that allows us to own our responsibilities as opposed to abdicating them to others. If you you don’t make a choice, someone or something will make it for you.

How do I do this?

To get you started, first just try to recognise these common examples in everyday language:

  • over-generalisations
  • exaggerations
  • all-or-nothing thoughts
  • should and shouldn’t (when it comes to food/exercise)
  • negative self-talk about the your current, past or future self.

Once you’ve noticed them, try to identify if it was either aligned with your goals, or potentially unhelpful. Remember, there is often very little remarkable about the way in which people have lost weight and maintained that weight loss. Despite the marketing and the AMAZING transformations, these changes normally happen gradually, through balanced and consistent decisions, without fanfare.

If you’d like to know more please don’t hesitate to contact me (on twitter @acbcoaching or by email - andy@acbcoaching.com) and of course if you enjoyed this article, please do share it with anyone you think it might be of use.

 

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a tricky topic. Whenever I talk to the people about the sort of work that I do and mention emotional eating, people will readily identify with this aspect. ‘Yeah, I definitely think I do that, is that bad?’

The fact is, we are all emotional eaters to some extent or another. We know that eating (or not eating for that matter) is intricately related to how we think and feel. Take a situation when you might have gone food shopping when you were very hungry. Now compare this to a similar situation, but you are feeling very full. You’ll probably have made very different decisions. Even if you haven’t, you’ll certainly think and feel differently about what you are putting into your basket. From very early on, the food we eat becomes entangled in a web of developmental experiences that relate to how well we emotionally attach to others (or not), how well and how we learn to regulate our emotions, and how we relate a range of emotional experiences with those of hunger and satiety.

Piece of bread with a sad face drawn on it with ketchup
The food we eat is intricately linked to how we think and feel

The connection is even prominent in our day to day vocabulary. We can ‘swallow our pride’, we can literally become ‘fed-up’ with someone, or something. How many sitcoms and movies have you seen where the protagonist is encouraged by (usually her) friends to crack out a (usually large) tub of ice cream to help regulate, avoid or manage their emotionally turbulent roller coaster of a story line? Despite its prominence, it would be foolhardy to assume that emotional eating is necessarily maladaptive, or symptomatic of an underlying issue.

Is emotional eating, comfort eating?

Emotional eating is also often oversimplified. People tend to jump to the conclusion that we eat emotionally, because we are seeking comfort. In fact, there are multiple potential explanations for the cause of emotional eating in each of our lives. Yes, some people do eat to regulate emotions, others might do so to avoid, or block them. People sometimes eat to communicate emotions to themselves or others or in response to trauma or stress. Cognitive models of emotional eating explain some patterns as a result of certain schemas. Does the individual feel entitled, abandoned or deprived?

Just as there is no single cause to an eating disorder, there is no single model that would seem to fully explain the cause of emotional eating in a given individual. It is highly context specific and as ever, there is no easy answer.

What do we do about emotional eating?

If emotional eating is problematic for an individual, it is first useful to understand if there are any deficits or difficulties in the process of of managing emotions for an individual.

We might want to look at how well someone can recognise their emotions. Some people have become so disconnected from certain feelings that they can no longer easily identify them. This can be known as Alexithymia -basically an inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. In other situations, people are not disconnected, but cannot place a given emotion. Feeling fat for example, can often be the expression of another unrecognised feeling or emotion. A lot of people feel fat from time to time. A good question to ask yourself in this situation is “I wonder what else I might be feeling?”

Examples of different emoticons displaying different emotions
For some, it can be difficult to recognise or name emotions

Having recognised the emotion(s), it is then a case of learning to tolerate them. If we are to disconnect any sense of maladaptive relationship between a given emotion and eating behaviour, the individual needs to be able to ride the initial impulse of escaping, avoiding or quietening that emotion.

This can be helped through the process of validation. Emotions are a part of all of us. They are used to communicate or pass on information within ourselves, and between ourselves and our environment. Some of us need to learn that It is not ‘right or wrong’ to feel anything. Guilt is a good example. Have you ever asked yourself why do we ‘feel guilty’?  One function is that it helps regulate social boundaries. We might feel guilty after minor (and major) indiscretions. For example, I still feel a pang of guilt when I think back to the actions of my 14-year old self. I still vividly remember walking into my brother’s room, who was diligently working away on an essay. In a misplaced bid for attention, I flicked the off button on his PC - cue utter chaos. In the aftermath, while I may have denied it at the time, I didn’t feel great about it. The behaviour or action may have been ill-advised, but the emotional response was appropriate. If I had somehow learned at an early age that both my actions AND my emotional response to those actions as inappropriate, I might have developed other ways of managing that emotion. Some people also then learn to associate what they consider to be ‘unacceptable’ emotions to core self beliefs. E.g. I shouldn’t be feeling this, therefore I’m flawed/I'm a bad person. We must all learn that most emotions are an entirely natural and necessary response to our behaviours and environment.

Wordcloud of the word shame
Failure to validate our emotions can often result in feelings of shame

Finally, we come to management. We can all learn to develop a set of skills to manage our emotions. Whether we need to improve our communication skills, assertiveness  or ability to soothe ourselves without food, we still cannot begin the process building emotional resilience without first learning to recognise, tolerate and validate the emotions we feel. It is is a complex process, and takes time, so for now, I’ll leave it there.

picture of a man looking satisfied around food
Effective emotional management and resilience can help move us towards a healthier relationship with food

In another post, I’ll cover some of the strategies that might be useful to deploy throughout this process. If you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to email me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or follow me/tweet me (@acbcoaching). As every, any shares to people you might think would benefit from reading this post would be much appreciated.