05/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Change Old, Ingrained Eating Habits

This photo speaks to me in the most primordial way. I am a Leo, astrologically speaking, and an occasional carnivore. I also enjoy eating with my hands and have been known to voraciously enjoy my food. And for this very important post, I didn't want to use a tacky stock photo of someone nervously tapping their fingers next to a bowl of peanuts. It needed to have some weight, some gravitas. Because this is serious business. At least it is for me.

For the last few weeks, I've been keeping a journal of observations on how I eat, what I eat, what triggers my eating, what's working and what isn't. I've been feeling physically out of sorts for a while and winter sure doesn't help. I simply don't move my body as much in the winter and that's a big part of it. But there was something more, something deeper to untangle and it was time to face the music.

I want to point out that this detective work I was doing on my own behalf came from a place of loving observation, not condemnation. This was the perfect exercise for me to experience that the old, mean-spirited and hyper-critical voice in my head had virtually disappeared which was stupendous news.

So, here in brief, is what I've observed about myself:

On a day to day basis, I am not in touch with my natural instincts around food.
I often eat because it's breakfast, lunch or dinner time and not because I'm hungry.
I occasionally use food as a means to distract and disassociate from the moment.
I sometimes eat to combat stress.
I can use food and cooking to procrastinate.
I eat too mindlessly too often.
I sometimes reach for foods that don't make me feel good but have long been a source of comfort.
I will often resist what makes me feel good. (What the?!)
I desire to be more comfortable outside of my comfort zone.

What I also know is this: I am going through major change. And along with the tumult and discomfort inherent in change, also comes this feeling of being ungrounded, which is no freaking day at the carnival, let me tell you. It brings up a lot of fear. So, I've found myself wanting to cling to patterns that are comfortable and familiar just to feel grounded. But the reality is, those old ways of being no longer serve me. I have to create new ways to cope, ones that are life-affirming and make me feel good instead of keeping me physically and emotionally incapacitated.

I love this quote by the brilliant numerology expert, Christine DeLorey:

Feel your fear, accept its presence, and allow it to move through you, and out of you. This process develops courage, and the ability to recognize those things which really do need to be feared, and those which need not be feared at all. Your feelings are your senses and instincts which, in turn, are vital to your survival.

Here's the other major thing I figured out from my observational experiment:

I do not allow myself the space to fully feel and acknowledge my feelings. This pattern was set in childhood. It is so old and obsolete and I am still, blindly following its lead. I need to slow down, breathe and acknowledge to myself what I'm feeling. I need to assure myself that everything's alright and that I am safe. This is a new pattern that will take time to gel but one I am forever committed to returning to.

Again, another liberating insight from Christine DeLorey:

You will learn that your feelings are your only means of activating personal freedom. We have all been conditioned to believe that emotional expression denotes weakness and is "negative." In fact, emotional expression is our strength, our own self-healing mechanism, our only means of freedom, and the ultimate tool of creativity.

Now, with this new found knowledge, I tried another experiment. I removed what I suspected to be "trigger" foods for me for one week and ate a very simple diet full of clean, organic animal protein and all the fruits and vegetables I desired. The foods I removed were coffee, alcohol, soy, wheat, sugar, dairy, red meat and my beloved salty, snacky treats. I also made a lot of green smoothies where I'd throw handfuls of dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and chard in a blender with berries I'd frozen in the summer, a banana, some papaya or pineapple and water and blend until smooth. I had a lot of energy that week. I started to feel great. I was definitely on to something.

The question became, could I realistically sustain this? Wouldn't it interfere with my social life? Would I begin to feel lonely and outcast? Would I feel deprived? I love a good pizza and a cocktail from time to time. How could this ever work? I honestly don't know.

But I do know that I don't respond well to absolutes. Ideally, I believe in finding balance. I like the idea of simply following what feels good for my emotional and physical well-being one day at a time. Noticing whether my body is saying "yes" or "no". Trusting myself to make decisions in the moment that are in my best interest and to catch myself when I hit slippery slope territory, when I'm building backwards momentum and not feeling my best. Right now, this is what makes sense to me.

When I look back on my long relationship with food, I hit on some remarkable memories that are significant reminders of how far I've come. My ex-boyfriend Joe, whom I lived with for many years in my twenties, recently shared that one of the things that endeared him to me was that I used to like to smoke Camel Lights and eat mint chocolate chip ice cream at the same time! I mean, come on! That's hilarious -- my ersatz version of a menthol. I totally love it. But, I'm just so grateful it would never occur to me to do that now!

So, from what I've learned so far (and I'm sure there's more to come), these are my steps for changing your outdated eating habits. I firmly believe that excavating the truth -- your personal truth- - will truly set you free.

Observe yourself in a loving and kind way, not a critical one.

Get clear on what your triggers are. Be honest with yourself about them and know that it's OK.

See if you can begin to cut your triggers off at the pass by kindly acknowledging how you're feeling in the moment and breathe deeply into your body.

Write about what you're feeling in a journal if you need to.

Begin to take notice of your authentic hunger cues. Let yourself get hungry before you eat and see how that feels.

Observe what foods make you feel good and which ones make you feel bad.

Try removing those foods one at a time (or all at once if you're up to it) for a while and see how you feel.

Find a movement/exercise practice that allows you to get out of your head and into your body.

This is excerpted from the blog Real Food Rehab.

copyright 2010 dana joy altman/realfoodrehab