It's normal to crave food.
But it's not normal to fear it.
The anorexic may be the most extreme example of fearing food, but many people cope with the fear that they won't be able to control themselves around food, particularly foods they crave.
Janet is a good example of this. "I'm afraid if I have M&M's in the house, I won't be able to stop eating them so I never allow them in the house," she explained. "Why is it that other people can have foods like that around and be in control when I can't?"
I knew that Janet could have the type of control that she admired in others, but she was convinced she was different. Fortunately, Janet was game to try an experiment. She had already made a great deal of progress with eating and weight in our work together, so she trusted me to try something new with her.
I instructed Janet to make sure that she had a small serving of M&M's after dinner every day, without fail.
After a week, Janet returned.
"I've done what you said,'' she told me. "But I don't seem to want that many M&Ms each night."
"Okay," I said. "Keep doing the same thing, but now, if you don't want as many M&M's, you can decrease the quantity. But, if you really don't want M&M's that day, that's okay, too."
The following week, Janet had this to say: "I don't really want M&M's much anymore. I find that I can have them in the house without feeling like they have control over me. I have some occasionally and that's enough."
"Did you feel it would happen this quickly?" I asked.
"Not at all," was her response.
So what happened? Was it magic? Truth is, it's simply psychological logic.
Although Janet had let go of a lot of rigid thinking about food and dieting, she had hung on to one rigid food rule. Since chocolate was her favorite food and she thought of it as fattening, she felt she had to strictly forbid herself to have it or lose control.
As soon as she did this, it was like saying to herself, "Don't think of pink elephants." It was a guarantee that she would overvalue M&M's and think about them more. This over-focus on the feared food increased cravings and made natural control impossible.
Why did the simple treatment work? Reversing the psychological messages from "I must not eat chocolate" to "I will have chocolate each day," the psychological deprivation that has been built up with time begins to go away. In turn, the food's value begins to diminish to where it should be naturally — still a favorite food, but not something that has to be consumed as if you'll never get it again.
The result is real enjoyment of chocolate again, feeling relaxed while eating it, reaching a feeling of satisfaction after a reasonable portion, and reclaiming natural control.
And once the psychological deprivation is gone, you have choices rather than a compulsion to eat. You can choose to eat the chocolate or not eat the chocolate.
In the "old days" you felt you had to eat it all right away because you knew you would be forbidden it later.
Janet is finally free of her fear of losing control of M&M's. "If I'd known I could get this under control in this way, I would have done it long ago," she said.
Not everybody trustingly dives into letting go of self-defeating habits. But once you do just that, the progress is rapid. Then you can go about enjoying food with celebration and natural control.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at [email protected]