As I’ve been transitioning out of the weight loss phase and settling into my right-sized body, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dance of maintenance. Specifically, what does it mean to eat this way sustainably in the long run? What do I want maintenance to look like for ME? What kind of lifestyle do I want to have, and how does my food fit in?
My Recovery Journey and Maintenance Transition
I started my recovery 279 days ago, and started transitioning to the maintenance food plan with an addition of grain at lunch 149 days ago. After watching the numbers on the scale plummeting for several months and arriving pretty quickly in a body I’d never seen in my adult life, I had a lot of unsettled emotions around adding this grain to lunch. I, like most of us, was afraid that the numbers would start going up again.
My Weight Loss Graph
(I started my recovery in October 2016, but I lost 15 lb prior to starting my program)
After months of celebrating the numbers going down, it took me a while to make the emotional and mental shift to celebrating the numbers staying stable.
Because I’d never been in a body this size before, this was all new territory. There was a period of body scrutiny as I faced the natural question about what my goal weight should be. Originally, my goal weight was 140, but when I got to 140 I felt that there was still plenty of fat left to lose and adjusted my goal to 135. Then 130. I got down to 128, and although I was still at a healthy BMI, I decided that I didn’t need or want to be that small.
In retrospect, I now understand how simple (but not necessarily easy) the weight loss phase is. There’s comfort and reliability in the external authority that the weight loss plan provides. It was easy to put my full trust into it because I knew that it was just right and that it worked for the goal of losing weight.
But when the goal changed, so did the authority about what I should be doing with my food, and it became hard to know what and who to listen to. Taking control of my own food decisions again was a big deal. It felt scary, and crazy making.
At first, I added one thing at a time, slowly, with the support of my buddies and mastermind group, and waited a week or two in between changes. But eventually, taking control of my food decisions again got my saboteur all stirred up. I didn’t break my commitments, but I started changing my food plan too often.
The more food I added, the hungrier and more confused I got. I didn’t know what information or feedback to rely on, and I would change my food plan and goal weight sometimes daily depending on my hunger levels. My mental chatter was in full swing, about my quantities, about my hunger, about my weight, about beverages, about grains, about exercise, about my body… in short, it was stressful.
Finally, I got fed up with how much time and energy I was spending thinking about food, weight, and body image. I went back to the basics, and remembered that the point of this way of eating was freedom from food obsession, and I missed the peace I had felt during the weight loss phase.
I decided to let go of my fixation on the couple of flabby areas of my body that I thought warranted losing another pound or two (I eventually let go of this and decided it was just skin that would tighten up over time with exercise) and let go of the number.
I stopped weighing myself daily, and decided that the goal wasn’t to land at goal weight, but to settle in and get my peace back. I decided to let hunger guide my food decisions, not my weight. I put up a boundary about not changing my food plan more than once every two weeks, and to involve my buddy and mastermind group in each food plan change.
Looking at my weight chart over my whole maintenance transition phase, I can see that I’ve been living in my goal range for over a month (including a dip below my range, just to explore what that felt like). That is a win worth celebrating!
My Maintenance Phase
Customizing My Own Food Boundaries
So now that things have stabilized, I want to share what’s been happening as a result over the past couple of weeks.
At this moment in my journey, I am in the process of learning to trust myself and my support system with my food decisions, and learning how to listen to my own body signals. We go through the weight loss phase trying to ignore our body signals (because at first they are mostly cravings) and blindly trusting the external authority of our recovery program. I was satisfied for a pretty long time by the attitude of “I am doing this because it works for me and because my recovery program said so and I trust it.”
But lately, there’s been another voice in my head that has been questioning whether all of the recommendations are really working for me. I initially thought this was my saboteur and I referred to this voice as my “inner rebel.” But the longer I tried to suppress this voice, the louder and more rebellious it became. I spent the weekend journaling about it and talking with some of my support people about it, and I realized that this is not my saboteur. It’s the part of me that wants to honor my needs, live in integrity, and understand the reasons why I do what I do.
I have realized that my needs are different now than they were during the weight loss phase, which means that the reasons why I do this way of eating are also different than they were 5 months ago.
5 months ago, I was eating this way because I wanted to lose weight and wanted peace around my food. I still want to have peace around my food, but what is different now is that I continue to eat this way because I want to thrive, and I want my eating to support, not hinder, the active, full, purposeful life I want to live.
So that begs the question: What is the reason I am doing this?
This questioning started a few weeks ago when my quantity boundaries were getting increasingly sloppy, and it wasn’t messing with my weight. I was questioning whether or not precisely weighed and measured meals were serving me, so I embarked on a 14-Day Challenge to find out. My peace returned, and I found out that weighing and measuring my food did serve me.
But then I went to a fancy restaurant for my anniversary which involved 12 gorgeous, bite-sized courses (no sugar or flour) and let go of any concerns about quantities or ratios for that meal. Then I went on a week-long road trip and ate two planned and measured meals per day with one “close-enough” meal out at a restaurant each day. I was surprised to return to my scale after this vacation to find out my weight hadn’t budged. This started a period of boundary testing, where I continued to push my quantities boundaries to see where that boundary was. I began putting unmeasured soy milk in my coffee. I upped my veggie amount to 12 at each meal. I started counting avocado as a veggie rather than a fat. I tried coarse ground corn tortillas. The part that was so hard about this was that it didn’t mess with my weight, or my cravings. I seemed to be getting away with it.
This kind of evidence and experimentation is bound to unravel a system that is based on the assumption that these kinds of behaviors and small deviations will cause me to gain weight or lose my peace with food. Were these experiments giving my saboteur ammo, or was I learning something valuable about myself?
Right now, I am thinking that the food addiction recovery journey is a developmental process similar to growing up. Maybe the weight loss phase is like being a child, happily doing and trusting what the adults tell you to do. Then there’s the rebellious adolescent period where we engage in some healthy boundary testing to see where the edges are, but the “adults” in our life (or our support system) are still there to catch us and reign us in when we go too far. Maybe I’m maturing into a food-addict grown up, learning responsibility, how to take care of myself, and make my own decisions.
The question I’m sitting with right now is: How far can I stray from the mothership and customize my own program, while still living happily, healthily, and free of food obsession?
I suppose this question is precisely the reason that maintenance can be challenging, because everybody’s answer is going to be different. There may be a one-size-fits-all weight loss food plan, but the maintenance food plan is going to look different for different people based on their bodies and their lifestyles.
How & When Do Our Boundaries Serve Us and NOT Serve Us?
For some, this might sound like a dangerous question, especially when we put so much energy in to trusting and surrendering to our program. But I think if someone were to ask me this question 3 months ago, it would have been true that immaculate boundaries as laid out by my program were serving me perfectly. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about them. But I’m in a different place in my journey now.
So I spent the weekend reflecting on and journaling about the question: what are MY food boundaries and why? My no-sugar and no-flour boundaries have never been up for debate in my whole recovery journey. I understand the rationale for them, and I have no doubt that they continue to serve me into my maintenance journey.
But I’ve recently been questioning whether my 3 meals/day boundary is serving me. Because of travel, camping, hiking, adjusting mealtimes to my summer schedule, and exercising more, I was finding myself pretty hungry in the afternoons. I normally get hungry about an hour before dinnertime, and this hunger doesn’t cause me any distress.
The problem has been that lately I’ve been getting distressingly, low-energy, cranky-type hungry around 3:30, which is way before my normal dinner time at 7. I’m eating the full maintenance plan and my weight is stable, so I didn’t know what to do about it. I really wanted a snack, but I was committed to my boundary of nothing between lunch and dinner. I accessed my support people, meditated, journaled, napped, reminded myself that hunger was not an emergency, etc. I was keeping my boundaries strong, but I was still distressed.
Then I realized that NOT eating between lunch and dinner was having some negative consequences. I wasn’t going on hikes that everyone else was going on because I was too tired and stressed about my low energy. I was not eating dinner with my husband because he gets home at 7 and I couldn’t wait that long to start cooking dinner. I was a little cranky and impatient when he got home because I was 7-hours-since-lunch hungry. I wasn’t feeling free. I was feeling inflexible, and like a slave to my mealtimes.
The idea of having a snack didn’t even occur to me, because I have a boundary there. I thought that urges to snack were caused by my saboteur, so I shut that line of thinking down. But spending time around “normal people” who were watching this whole thing started to slowly change my thinking. They kept telling me I was being too strict and irrational for not allowing myself a snack, and that my grumpiness about it was negatively affecting other people. So I started to entertain the idea. But the idea of adding a snack into my life caused an explosion of mental chatter. Should I have a snack only on these kinds of occasions? What should I have? Is this bar with dates okay? When should I have it? What about exercise days? What if I only have one IF I’m hungry between 3:30 and 4:30? Should I take it from dinner food or just add it? and on… and on… and on…
So I asked myself – what is the point of this boundary? How has it served me, what do I value about it, and what is the rationale behind it? And I realized that the answer was automaticity. I didn’t want to eat between lunch and dinner because I valued the uninterrupted periods of not eating, and I didn’t want to disrupt my beautiful automaticity. But my body was asking me for more fuel in the afternoon.
By questioning the rationale behind this boundary and interrogating how it was or wasn’t serving me, I arrived at the question: how could I get a little more fuel in the afternoon, without having to rely on willpower to make any food decisions in the moment?
Eureka! I decided to try building a small 4th meal into my day (every day, because I decided it had to be all or nothing) and write it officially into my food plan. I designed it so there would be the least possible mental chatter around it. For me, that looks like setting a snack time window, just like with meals, and precise measurements around it. This week I’ve committed to 1/2 of a protein plus a fruit or 1/2 of a grain. (For example, apple and 1 oz nut butter, rice cake and nut butter, flourless crackers and hummus, etc). This has been such a relief, and it has helped my energy so much. And it has not tempted me to break my boundaries, in fact, it has strengthened all of them up because I feel safe and supported by my food plan again.
So, I suppose the whole point of this post is to explore the idea that eating for recovery is about creating boundaries where we truly need them, and not wherever we don’t. Finding out where we truly need boundaries is a messy process and a little bit scary. At first, we trust and rely on the boundaries laid out by our recovery program. But then we begin to find our own way, and define our own boundaries. I believe that if we don’t do this, we are less likely to truly buy into and care about keeping those boundaries strong.
If we don’t understand WHY we have a need for a boundary, I believe we will be more likely to break it.
I thought I’d share my own personal boundaries, which I have crafted over many months of careful experimentation, social support, and reflection. I’m open to the idea that they will change over time, along with my changing needs and my lifestyle.
Katie’s Food Boundaries:
- VEGAN: No meat or dairy products, with locally sourced eggs on occasion.
- SUGAR: No sugar (or sweeteners of any kind)
- FLOUR: No flour
- MEALS: 3 meals per day and 1 afternoon snack, with nothing in between.
- QUANTITIES: Weigh and measure all meals according to my food plan.
- BEVERAGES: Caffeine, kombucha, beer, and wine are allowable on occasion (no liquor), 1 drink only, and I am not allowed to have beverages two days in a row.
These are MY boundaries. These are the boundaries that I need right now to protect and support my peace around food and to allow me to be happy, healthy, and free of food obsession.
Maintenance dancers, what has been your experience with this process? How have you crafted your own boundaries to serve YOU? What has it felt like to take control of your own food decisions again? What kinds of support have helped you on your journey? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. Just for fun, here’s a cute photo of me (in the middle, with the dorky hat) and my wonderful family at the Grand Canyon last week! ❤