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Eating Healthy and Overcoming Food Addiction

An Interview with 'Dinner Diva' Leanne Ely, Co-author of "Body Clutter"


Chocolate cream donut with a bite taken out of it
Johanna Parkin/Photodisc/Getty Images
Millions of women are interested in eating healthy but have a hard time doing so because they struggle with food addiction. If eating is simply a function of taste -- a sense we satisfy -- why are we ruled by food and food obsession? We want to eat this...but we know we should eat that. We beat ourselves up for eating something we think is 'bad.' We socialize, comfort, reward and punish ourselves with food. So how can we come to terms with what we eat?

One woman who's conquered her food issues is Leanne Ely. A certified nutrition counselor, cookbook author and columnist, she's also the Dinner Diva, offering tips through her website savingdinner.com. Ely co-authored the bestselling book Body Clutter which takes a unique approach to excess weight as clutter that crowds our lives. Ely spoke to About.com about what it takes to physically and mentally resolve food issues, and how she lost 65 pounds as a result.

With alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, you go cold turkey and don't touch the stuff for the rest of your life. But you can't do that with food.

Ely: Baloney. Yes you can - you avoid the foods that are a problem for you. Fish and vegetables aren't the issue. Chocolate is. There's no way on earth that you have to eat a piece of chocolate. You eat it because you want to. You can abstain from chocolate and it's not going to hurt you. But if you say you have to abstain from fish and vegetables, I'd call you on it, because that's not the problem.

Food addictions are all about pasta, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese - things Oprah talks about on her show. You have to look at your own addictions. You can eat what you want if you account for it.

If you truly can't live without chocolate, buy a bag of miniature Dove bars. When you need it, eat just one. But if it sets you off on an eating binge, then you need to avoid chocolate. Abstain from those foods that are problematic for you. It's that simple.

What's the worst food choice we make?

Ely: We choose poor quality foods instead of the best quality foods. We don't eat because we're hungry. We're looking for mouth entertainment. We ask "What am I hungry for?" and nibble a little here and a little there, saying "No, this isn't it…no that's not it." We eat something sweet and follow it with something salty, looking for that one thing that satisfies us.

Food is fuel. It's not entertainment. We don't need entertainment every time we eat. If a meal is healthy, like grilled vegetables and chicken, we're eating quality foods that fuel us. If we fill ourselves up with the best quality foods, we're adding to our lives.

Women have this intense emotional connection to what we eat. Why is that so?

It's the way we're raised. Our mothers consoled us with comfort foods. Family gatherings, birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, funerals – everything is centered on food. But we lose our grip on what's real when we eat this way every single time.

We approach food as if it holds greater meaning for us. It's not love - friendship - acceptance. It's an object. A bag of candy. The pleasure we get from it lasts less than a minute, but the after effects are forever.

Shift your thinking. Instead of you working for food, think of food working for you. Change your attitude and things will turn around. You'll get out of the downward spiral of not eating well. Good quality food cleans your body – they do for the inside what shampoo and soap do for the outside.

What do we think we know about nutrition and eating right that we've gotten all wrong?

Ely: We use nutrition information to pig out. Look at trans fat - we think if we don't eat trans fats, we're eating healthy. We're wrong. It's all about calories and simple math. If you eat more than you need, excess calories become fat. Yet we still think if it's healthy, we can just strap on the feedbag. It doesn't work. Counting calories works.

What triggers a woman to make changes in her eating habits and lifestyle?

Ely: It depends on the woman. Some will change for an upcoming event: a wedding or a class reunion. Usually it doesn't last. Lasting change happens because of a health scare or a moment of truth, like a photograph.

For me, it all came down to a conversation I had with a friend. I'd gained a lot of weight but didn't want to admit it, so I crammed myself into size 18 pants that were too tight. Then I saw a photo of myself and was horrified. I thought, "I can't believe I have these ginormous arms! We could eat off them for a week." I said to my friend, "I don't know who I am anymore. I'm not a 237 pound woman."

Since then, I've lost 65 pounds. I was wearing a size 18 and now I'm a size 8.

But before I could begin to lose weight, I had to accept who I was and where I was in my life.

You mentioned Oprah earlier. Watching celebrities struggle with weight - how does that impact women's lives?

Ely: Oprah verbalizes the stuff we all worry about inside. Her programs understand where women live, as opposed to other people who don't get to the meat of the matter the way she does. Weight is a hard and painful burden, and when we see Oprah and other celebrities lose weight we get excited and think we can do it ourselves. It's easy to lose weight. The hard part is keeping it off.

In your book Body Clutter, you're very candid about your own struggles with food and weight. Why go down that road?

Ely: Here's why. When we bare our souls and open our kimonos, that's when we touch other women's hearts and souls. We show them a way out and a destination. But we have to have a place to start. We have to come to terms with where we are and make peace with ourselves. You can't start on a journey until you know where you begin.

We have to have a bit of adventure inside of us. We're shaping our bodies and sharpening our minds. Exercise isn't torture. It's a way of loving ourselves so that we can appreciate the body we're given. It's hard work, and I know there are women who don't want to hear that. We all want that easy button. But the flip side is that sense of accomplishmnent, that "hot damn, I did it!"

It all comes down to this: You just have to take care of yourself the very best that you can.

Originally published October 17, 2007

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