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Want to guess my most common client complaint? It’s “How come I was doing so well for a while and then I just went back to eating like I used to?” Unfortunately, there’s no short and breezy explanation to that crucial question except to say that changing unhealthy habits generally involves a repetition of the pattern of relapse and resume.
I usually feel resistance to using the word relapse and for many years I wouldn’t use it at all. But it feels right when we associate it with a lapse of better judgment or a lapse of doing what you know is best for yourself—like eating three pieces of leftover pizza when you come home from a dinner out or finishing off the pint of ice cream you’re saving for another night. Relapse means to lapse again, but implies the state isn’t permanent.
The good news is that relapse is usually followed by resuming healthier habits under guidance of your better eating angels—enjoying smaller portions, slowing down chewing, and saying no to food when you’re really not hungry. But then, even while you’re feeling proud of your new intuitive eating skills you can’t help but feel plagued by the nagging fear of relapse. And so it goes until you end the pattern.
As to why it continues, in my experience, it’s indicative of having mixed feelings about eating better all the time and the long, long time it can take to change habits. One way around this is to pay attention to the tension that builds within you when you eat well. Sure, you’re aware of feeling proud, but you’re probably not as conscious of how hard you’re working to eat intuitively. This hard work of thinking more rationally about food and eating mindfully can build up a head of steam of its own until you start to resent all the energy and effort you feel you need to put into eat more healthfully. Hence, relapse.
Another reason you swing back and forth between better and worse habits is that you simply don’t have the skills you need at a high enough proficiency to eat the way you want to all the time. You need to eat in many situations many times to know what to do in each of them. You might do great at home, then have problems at dinner with friends. Or feel comfortable eating surrounded by nutritious foods but get thrown off balance when you have tantalizing food choices you haven’t run into in a long time.
Each relapse, though it feels as if you’re going backward, is actually a way to identify what you didn’t know and catapult you forward. There’s no way to get around the process, so you might as well accept it. By doing so and knowing that resumption is right around the corner, you have one less stressor that might make you want to eat.
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