How I Managed to Eat Healthy and Stop Yo-Yo Dieting on a Full-Time Teaching Schedule
3 years ago I was teaching music full-time in an inner city school.
I had over 300 students across 7 grade levels and no classroom.
I was exhausted, unhappy, and stressed.
My health suffered. I had put on 20 lbs that year alone.
I had no energy and every few months, I had to purchase new pants because the last pair were too tight.
I was miserable and tired of going on diets and losing weight only to regain it and then some. I knew something needed to change.
I decided to take a different approach when I came across an online program that promised to teach me to cook without recipes. It seemed perfect for me because I wanted to be able to throw meals together in a pinch, even when I was dead tired.
I came through the course with flying colors.
But I realized something.
Even though I ate healthy meals daily, I was also binging periodically on salty and sweet foods whenever I was stressed out or upset.
I realized that it wasn’t enough to know what to eat. I needed to learn how to manage episodes of stress eating that kept me from reaching my goals.
Today, I deal with stress in a healthy way — without food. I’ve lost 50lbs and have more energy and confidence than I once did.
In this article, I’ll share what I did in hope that something here might work for you.
For me, it began with letting go of a traditional “diet.”
Simplify Your Meal Plan
The first thing I did was simplify the way I ate by not excluding any food group.
For years I had excluded carbs from my diet, believing they were keeping me fat and unhealthy.
After watching In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan and reading Foodist by Darya Rose, I was convinced that there was no basis for my fear of carbs and I allowed myself to eat carbs from real food sources once again.
This means, for example, that I was now regularly eating rice and potatoes.
This change had a profound impact on my relationship with food right away.
First, I no longer felt like I was depriving myself. These foods are so delicious, especially when prepared simply with simple ingredients.
Secondly, it had a very surprising benefit of dramatically reducing my sugar cravings.
As a bonus, by adopting the simple rule, “eat real food,” I got back a ton of mental bandwidth and made it feel a lot easier to feed myself healthfully.
Tackle Stress Head On
For a long time, I accepted that stress was just part of my job.
I really regret that I spent years just pushing through my chronic fatigue, depression, and eventually even fainting spells.
Not only did stress make me terribly unhappy, but it also was at the root of all my after-school and late night “munchies.”
When I started to realize how much of my eating was the result of stress, I decided to finally do something about it.
Here are the 2 big steps I took to tackle stress:
1. I began a meditative practice.
I started meditating using an app with guided meditations. But a meditation can take many, many forms. It can be sitting and focussing on your breath, walking, exercising, and many other activities. The only requirement is that you pay attention to the present moment.
I started with just 5 minutes here and there at school wherever I could grab them – in my classroom with the lights turned out, in my car… even a closet a few times.
I eventually built a toolkit of different mindfulness techniques including urge surfing, and mindful eating which helps you get through any craving (even ice cream-my personal vice!) without giving in.
Through mindfulness, I was able to reduce stress, enjoy my life more, even in difficult circumstances, and learn to stop using food to comfort myself.
2. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep is the thing that made everything easier when I finally prioritized it in my life. When I stopped pushing myself to get one “last thing” done. . . when I stopped thinking it was better to stay up and get “me time” than go to bed early and get a solid 7-8 hours….I realized that sacrificing sleep for “productivity” was actually anti-productive.
The more sleep I got
The more self-control I had
The less stress I felt
The more effective I was at my job
Once I saw how much of a force multiplier sleep was, I found it easier to do things that supported good sleep like turning off screens an hour before bed and being more productive earlier in the day so I would feel relaxed at bedtime.
Truly making sleep a priority meant that I had to get a lot of other things in my life “together.”
Focus on Self-Compassion
Have you ever
- Felt like you constantly self-sabotage?
- Gone “off the rails” when you weren’t perfect?
- Missed one day and then tossed off days or even weeks because of that one mistake?
- Let small setbacks get the best of you?
Setbacks, mistakes and failures are all part of the process. Yet, when we can’t tolerate imperfection from ourselves, we are basically saying to ourselves “failure is not an option.”
The problem with that is failures are where we get the data that helps us to ultimately succeed.
If you are a person who struggles with the above bullets, trust me…you’re not alone.
I beat myself up countless times and have tried to eat my way out of the misery.
What finally turned things around for me might surprise you. It was self compassion.
Before I actually started doing the work of being kinder to myself, this sounded like a load of ….ahem…you know….
I thought that self-compassion was the LAST thing I needed. I needed to be tougher on myself…lay down the law and stop accepting this behavior from myself.
But, paradoxically, the kinder I was with myself, the more my standards naturally rose as to how I allowed myself to treat myself. As I removed the negative self-talk, harmful behavior also began to vanish.
I began to shift my thinking from what I had to do to what I wanted to do to take care of myself.
This was probably the most important work I have ever done in my life.
Before I worked on self-compassion and loving myself, I would start diet after diet, in an effort to win acceptance from others.
Because I didn’t feel worthy, being thinner always felt like a desperate need. I needed to change “right now” because otherwise, I wouldn’t be accepted.
This lack of patience with myself stifled my ability to learn and grow. I expected myself to be perfect and as an educator, I know what this does to my learning ability. Yet I continually beat myself up if I didn’t like the way I looked or if I ate something that I wasn’t “supposed to.”
By shifting my mindset from perfectionist to learner, I allowed myself to be more focussed on wins and learn from my mistakes. I started to enjoy the process which led to more success.
Building up my self-compassion gave me the ability and resilience that was missing and had always hindered my past weight loss efforts.
Here are the steps I took to build self-compassion.
- Let go of shame.
This is so hard yet so worth it. You need to recognize the triggers that cause you to feel unworthy whether it’s a parent who comments on your weight gain or a show that portrays unrealistic beauty standards as the norm.
When you experience shame moments, it’s critical to reach out to someone who you trust and share that story. Telling the story and receiving an empathetic response is a catharsis like you’ve never experienced before.
It also teaches you that you aren’t abnormal and you’re not alone. The things you fear are part of what makes you human and connected to other humans.
2. Practice critical awareness.
The key word here is practice.
Being aware that media shapes our beliefs about beauty isn’t quite far enough.
We need to apply this awareness to our daily lives by recognizing moments of comparison and questioning the messages we receive again and again until we know in our bones that they aren’t reality.
For example, a guilty pleasure of mine was this teen drama I used to watch with portrayed young, attractive ladies with perpetually perfect hair and makeup, perfect figures, perfect accessories.
Sometimes, I would catch myself feeling down and having seemingly “out of nowhere” thoughts of dieting to lose weight out of a fear of not looking pretty enough.
Through practicing critical awareness, I became aware of what was stimulating those thoughts and could remind myself that by portraying these unrealistic beauty standards and sending the subtle message that I would be happier if I looked like them, they could sell more shampoo and makeup to me on the commercial break.
That’s one example of how I practiced critical awareness. But you can also use it if you notice that you compare yourself to other women as well. Where do you think the message that you need to look like that person came from? Is it realistic?
When we notice ourselves feeling unworthy because ur appearance, we can take the opportunity to reflect on why a particular standard is being promoted and who benefits from our belief that we aren’t good enough for not meeting that standard.
When we let go of belief that we aren’t good enough without perfect hair, makeup, and a slim waist, then we can focus on taking of ourselves for us, not them.
Start With Small Steps
I never wanted to hear that small changes could help me reach my goals. For some reason, it never seemed like enough. I wanted to make sudden and drastic changes and thought that would get me sudden and drastic results.
Again and again, I would go “all in” and then hit a roadblock and then BAM. I would be back at square one. I suddenly tried to eat perfectly and do everything right — meal prep, exercise 5 days a week, wake up 2 hours earlier every morning — only to become burned out and frustrated. I would eat something off my plan or miss a workout and then everything would fall apart.
I would rebound by indulging in all my go-to stress foods and say “Screw it. I’ll start over on Monday. My diet is already blown.”
Worse, I started expecting this to happen and stopped believing that things could ever change.
But then they did.
The power of embracing small changes gave me the ability to make profound changes over time.
Here is how I implemented small changes to change my eating habits and lose 50 lbs.
- I set up one tiny goal
I knew that one of the most important changes I could make to get healthy and lose weight was to cook for myself so I started with the goal of putting the knife on the cutting board when I got home from work. This was small enough that I could do it no matter how exhausted I was at the end of the day. And it often caused a domino effect that led to doing more than just that tiny step.
For example, after putting down the knife, I might cut up a nearby fruit or tomato. This might lead to preparing a salad or roasting a batch of veggies.
Eventually, I could prepare a delicious, healthy meal for myself within 30 minutes of pulling in my driveway, practically in my sleep. . . which was handy since often, I was half asleep by the time I got home.
2. I used my reward-based learning system to my advantage
If you’ve ever taught kindergarten, you understand the concept of positive reinforcement.
When we praise our students for their hard work and good choices, they are much more likely to repeat that. This is because their brains produce the chemical, dopamine, when they receive that smile, back pat, or verbal praise.
Well, we, as adults, can use this on ourselves too!
When we are trying to establish new habits, it is so important to give ourselves a reward that genuinely pleases us and produces that chemical reaction in the brain. It takes 2 seconds and doesn’t have to cost a cent.
Some examples are:
A 2 second dance move
Doing a fist pump
Shouting “I’m awesome.”
Get creative with it. Do what genuinely causes you to light up. I find that even feeling a little silly actually helps me loosen up and feel happier, thereby releasing that good old dopamine.
Each time I came home and succeeded in putting the knife on the cutting board, I celebrated. I did something goofy like a little dance or smiled. I got excited about this tiny step which released dopamine helping drive me to repeat the action again. Plus it made it fun!
3. I focused on the habit instead of results
No matter what else happened, I made it my mission to carry out that one tiny goal.
Even if I didn’t build on it at all. Even if I ordered in. I knew that if I could make that one action automatic, then I could start to build on it to make the next action automatic.
Later, I learned I was building a habit ladder. This is when one behavior naturally gives rise to next and the next in a logical way. The ladder I was building would eventually help me to carry out tasks that seemed effortful now in an effortless way down the line.
You can use these elements to make any change.
Just think about a big habit you want to establish and work backwards to the teeniest, tiniest step you can take that will get the ball rolling.
For example, if you wanted to walk every day, you might put your walking shoes right by your bed or the front door.
Or if you want to tidy up your bedroom in the evening, you might begin with just one item.
Then, get clear on what will trigger the tiny step.
For example, “after I brush my teeth, I will pick up one item and put it away.”
The magic behind this approach is that you can do this even after the most exhausting day you’ve ever had. It takes very little effort and willpower.
Shift Your Focus from Eliminating the “Bad” to Adding the “Good”
I had a restrictive mentality that led to moralizing my choices so that if I made a “good” choice, I was “good” and if I made a “bad” choice, I was “bad.”
This led to shame, guilt, and a downward spiral due to beating myself up.
When I stopped thinking about what to stop doing and shifted my focus to adding positive changes, I felt less deprived.
For example, I used to approach my goals by thinking about all the stuff I would avoid whether it was chips, chocolate, or fast food.
Then I realized that if I shifted my focus to what I was adding to my healthy diet, I felt more positive and thus more motivated to continue making healthy changes.
For example, instead of saying, “I can’t eat sweets after dinner,” I would think, “’l’ll eat veggies with dinner every night this week.”
Other examples of positively framed changes
“I’ll have a sip of water between my 3rd and 4th class. “
“I’ll walk around the block after lunch.”
A bonus to thinking this way is that when you reflect on how you’re doing, you’ll be more likely to remember all the healthy things you’ve added to your lifestyle. Feeling like you’ve succeeded will lead to more positive change.
Keep Getting Back on the Bandwagon
Finally, I kept getting back on the bandwagon.
Yes, I fell off many times.
As I went about implementing all these changes, I had countless missteps, failures, and setbacks.
Nothing new here.
Missteps and setbacks are part of the growth and learning process.
I know this didn’t resonate with you at first, so I’ll state it again.
Missteps and Setbacks Are PART of the Growth and Learning Process
The reason I devoted two lines of writing to that sentence is because I wasted too much time trying to get it “right” the first time.
The problem is, in doing so . . . in trying to get it “right”, I actually prolonged my learning time and yes, prolonged my results.
Trying to not try to be perfect is far easier said than done.
You may not achieve this right away. This is where the need for patience is paramount.
Whenever you notice yourself getting down on yourself for skipping your habit one day or eating something you didn’t want to eat, simply be aware of it. That is the first step. Then, be gentle toward yourself. Recognize that it is coming from a place of wanting the best for yourself, but that it’s not serving you anymore. Thank yourself for your concern and let yourself know that instead of beating yourself up, you’re going to use it as an opportunity to learn. Then be amazed at how you start to grow.
Are you cringing at all this talking to yourself? I did too. But the fact is, evidence shows that people who actively use positive self-talk are the best performers in every arena of life.
When I embraced positive self-talk as a daily practice, it made a huge impact on my ability to get through failures and setbacks.
I stopped throwing my hands up just because I ate a bit too much or missed a couple of days of cooking. Instead, I say, “Hey, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s see what you can learn from this and next time, it will be easier to make a better choice.”
I then remind myself where I was headed, and gently move myself back in the right direction.
Right back on track.
Have you succeeded in changing your eating habits after years of struggle? How did you finally do it?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.