Want to know a powerful secret about how to eat more healthfully, tailor your food intake to meet your body’s needs and cravings, and attain and maintain a comfortable weight for life—all without dieting? You won’t find this secret in any diet book, plan, or program. In fact, it’s not even actually about food, but how we overeat and about everything else in life.
When you manage your life more effectively, you’ll turn to food less often for coping, comfort, or excitement. With improved skills, you’ll get the best out of life—rather than life getting the best of you—and you’ll use food for nourishment and occasional pleasure. With effective life skills, you’ll learn to rely on other people and your own internal resources, not the act of eating, to get you through the day.
You may be thinking: Life skills, what on earth do they have to do with my nightly Dove bar cravings, ritual after-work drive-thru at McDonald’s, Ben and Jerry’s binges, and ransacking the kitchen cabinets to overeat when there’s nothing good to watch on TV?
Life skills are strategies and behaviors which we all should have learned in childhood, but didn’t because our parents were teaching us from their own—often dysfunctional—histories, distorted perspectives, limited knowledge base, and imperfect abilities. As it turns out, and as eating disorder experts know, your competence with life skills has everything to do with ending mindless, non-hunger times we overeat.
The way you deal with life, the people you choose to surround yourself with, how well you take care of yourself physically and mentally, how you handle stress, the way you balance work and play, and your ability to achieve your goals all impact how, what, when, and how much you eat or overeat. When the rest of your life is out of whack and you’re not in sync with your emotions and aspirations, you’re all the more likely to turn to food to perk you up or chill you out.
What are life skills?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), life skills are “abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” Life skills are the solution to your emotional and compulsive eating problems, and it’s not just troubled eaters who need these skills; we all need them.
Effective life skills help you do all of the following and more: relax and let loose constructively; soothe your ruffled emotions; sustain motivation and achieve goals; make effective decisions without driving yourself crazy before, during, and after you make them; develop and maintain healthy relationships; find purpose and passion that is unique to your talents, interests, and abilities; and take such exquisite care of your body and mind that you wouldn’t think of using food or poor self-care to harm it. To put it quite simply, when you learn to manage your life better, you won’t look to food as your best buddy.
Think about it: When you’re stressed after a horrid day at work, when everything that could go wrong did, wouldn’t you be better off soothing or distracting yourself from your internal distress without polishing off a box of Oreos after you arrive home? When the kids are driving you nuts on vacation, wouldn’t you love to be able to stick to eating healthfully and taking your daily walk rather than treating yourself to an ice cream cone just to stay sane? When you’ve been notified that you’re about to be laid off, wouldn’t it be wonderful to calmly and coolly lay out and follow a plan of action rather than crawling under the covers with half of the food in your refrigerator? But many of us overeat to calm ourselves.
The life skills you need to practice—which anyone can learn at any age—that will help you have a positive relationship with food and your body can be categorized into several different areas: wellness and physical self-care; handling emotions; living consciously; building and maintaining relationships; self-regulating; problem-solving and critical thinking; setting and reaching goals; and balancing work and play. Let’s briefly review these categories so you can understand how increasing your competence in these areas will vastly improve your eating habits.
>> Skills for wellness and physical self-care involve always taking the best care of your body—visiting the doctor when you’re sick, getting enough sleep and rest, and doing as much prevention as possible to keep yourself in the pink. When you love and value yourself, you enjoy taking good care of your body—food-wise and otherwise.
>> Handling emotions effectively means being comfortable with (not fearful of) feelings in general, building internal resources for coping, self-soothing, and enjoying pleasure, and seeking support from others when you need it. When you handle your emotions effectively, you manage your food intake far better.
>> Living consciously means being skilled at not wasting time ruminating over what has already happened or agitating about what might happen. That only stresses you out, a mega trigger for unwanted eating. We have only the present moment, so enjoy it. When you live mindfully, you’re more likely to eat mindfully.
>> Building and maintaining relationships is dependent upon choosing emotionally healthy people for intimates, making sure you’re getting what you need from them, and setting and holding to appropriate interpersonal boundaries. When you’re upset, turning to people is the key to not turning to food.
>> Self-regulating means not living at extremes and generally avoiding overdoing or underdoing. This includes giving up all-or-nothing thinking and behavioral patterns. When you keep yourself in relative balance, stress plummets and it’s easier to eat normally.
>> Effective problem-solving involves not basing decisions solely on emotions, but on using the cognitive part of your brain to do what’s best for you in the long run. Emotions are important, but no more so than rational, evidence-based, critical thinking. Improve problem-solving, and eating will be less of a problem.
>> Successful goal-setting and maintenance includes neither chronically over-reaching nor giving up easily. It involves tolerating inevitable frustration and seeking healthy gratification down the road—preventing you from making impulsive food choices as if they had no consequences.
>> Staying in work-play balance means you won’t feel guilty relaxing or having fun (which ruins your pleasure), nor will you feel so resentful while you’re working that all you can think about is snacking. Valuing work and play equally helps you not view food as the only pleasure you allow yourself, and it helps you enjoy a variety of healthy pastimes.
Think about how you’d rate yourself on the above skills. Don’t make judgments. Just be curious and compassionate about your competencies and imagine how becoming more proficient in each of these areas will improve your relationship with food. As you practice skill-building, you’ll be less stressed, find more joy in life, move toward reaching your potential, grow healthier, watch your self-esteem sky rocket, and take better care of your mind and body.
As your life gets fuller and richer, you can overeat less and your eating habits will improve and you’ll feel more confident and competent. And best of all, you’ll know you did it all without going on a diet.
By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MED