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Structured eating works!

April 7, 2010

At least for me.

I’ve been doing a little better at remembering to eat lately. I’d been having problems with this for a good long while, basically since I moved here.

I’m at home with the animals most days, and it’s seems like it just isn’t important to cook something/eat when I’m not also fixing food for someone else. Social prompts to get past inertia and eat do help, too, so I don’t remember to cook until after Nigel at least calls to say he’s coming home. I’m used to living with more family members around who would prompt me to recognize hunger signals and eat (if only by getting hungry themselves) and do other things around the house. Keeping ready-to-eat food and sandwich fixings at hand only goes so far, and I keep realizing I haven’t eaten anything–or maybe a small snack–when Nigel gets home and it’s time to start cooking. This is particularly less than ideal with type 2 diabetes, since most days by 4 or 5 p.m. my blood sugar is pretty low, so I get dizzy, nauseous, and headachy–and really don’t feel like eating. :-|

(I did copy and paste that paragraph from a mailing list reply, with a little editing, in case it looked eerily familiar to anyone. :) )

I enjoy cooking, but a combination of things leads to kitchen time anomalies and an awful lot of required effort. I’ve also discovered the joys of a mandoline, BTW, and still have all my fingers. Go figure. (I do have a healing knuckle gash from one of the sneaky little julienne tines right now, though.)

So, I can only really handle turning out one cooked meal a day, and have been trying to scale back a bit on the ambition and complexity levels there, so I’m not standing up in the kitchen for hours before we get food at 8 or 9. If we don’t have leftovers or something else which doesn’t take much prep, it just seems like too much trouble to grab lunch once I do realize I’m hungry. Cooking extra and freezing portions just doesn’t happen as frequently as I’d like. That requires remembering to do that, then remembering the food is there.

There’s been some pretty complicated “learning to take care of other people, sometimes to the exclusion of yourself” stuff going on, too.

With the high energy needs I’ve got going right now– least twice the usual, not low to begin with–I was getting so ravenous for energy-dense stuff later in the day that what I was eating wasn’t very well balanced, either. It turned into a definite food insecurity situation, for somewhat unusual reasons. (It was approaching the point it reached when I was back in the US, taking care of my mom. Eek.) Once I ate something, I was starving for the rest of the day/night, and would make massive cheese raids most nights for the extra calories–and was still continuing to lose weight. It got bad enough–and I got to feeling crappy enough!–that I had to try something different.

Enter structured eating.

By now, I’ve got a pretty serious aversion to the very idea of schedules and routines, even though I know I function better with them. More demand sensitivity and resistance at work. There is a huge difference between figuring out what works well for you, and trying to cram yourself into somebody else’s ideas of what (and when) “should” work for everybody.

So, I was more than a little wary of the idea of eating at (even roughly) set times, despite its sounding like it would address a lot of the problems I’ve been running into.

Besides the built-in executive function, inertia, and sensory stuff, I also spent an awful lot of years with a weight obsession, leading to more screwed-up eating patterns and further ignoring hunger sensations. The earlier massive weight gain–and, eventually, the diabetes–came straight from meds messing with my endocrine system, so when “normal” measures didn’t work (and they’re unlikely to!), I went progressively more drastic–and it still didn’t work. That left me with some of the problems I described elsewhere in Weight changes, illness, and “diabulimia”.

Yeah, it’s a complicated mess to try to sort out. But things are looking up.

I ran across an excellent description of how structured eating can help in that more usual “screwed up eating patterns from weight concerns” context, in comments on The great divorce of body and mind over at The Fat Nutritionist.

The post, and that comment thread, are both well worth reading. I’ve enjoyed her work, anyway, with its focus on autonomy and learning to trust yourself.

Whatever the (complicated) reasons for this disconnect between what my body needs and what I seem inclined to give it, the way she described the potential benefits of structured eating–on one’s own terms–made an awful lot of sense:

Despite it seeming as though demand feeding will always provide food immediately upon feeling hunger, what often happens in practice is that you DON’T get fed because of practical constraints. So either you’re eating so quickly that you extinguish hunger signals in the long-term, or you become SO hungry that you scare yourself and set up a sense of food insecurity. Which leads to eating problems down the road…

I want to reiterate: structure is NOT about restriction. It has nothing to do with what amounts you eat (the idea is that you eat however much you want at those times) or even WHAT you eat (you can eat anything you like at those times.) It is entirely about going from a chaotic, and perhaps anxiety-inducing state, to an organized, planned, and reassuring one.

And that’s just a tiny bit of it. Chaotic and anxiety-inducing certainly describes the situation as it stood!

So, I tried the fairly commonsense measure of just saying, “Hey, it’s about 2 p.m., I’ll eat something.” (Deliberately avoiding the “need to” or “should” phrasing, with any luck, to further work around the demand resistance!) This is complicated a little by my, erm, fluid sense of time, but it’s worked out pretty well anyway; the time may be a little off, but I’m consistently remembering to eat lunch. I’ve also been trying to grab snacks when Nigel calls to say he’s leaving the office, a couple of hours after supper, and at about 2 a.m.

Guess what? I’ve been feeling better in general. The fatigue, brain fog, and muscle pain have improved, not to mention other symptoms of swinging blood sugar. My blood sugar seems to be a lot more stable in general (I have misplaced my glucose meter :/ ). I have more energy to do stuff, including buy and prepare food. And I’m wanting to eat more fruits and veggies again, now that my energy needs are getting met better.

That workaround seems simple, eh? I feel more than a little silly for not taking a similar approach before, but I think a lot of it was due to its seeming harder than it’s turned out to be without setting alarms!

This evening, I am planning to meet up with Nigel on his way home from work, to do some grocery shopping. We’re about out of convenient and fairly nutritious things to eat, like yogurt, canned tuna, fruit, oatcakes, and cheese. I do a lot better if I keep handy things like that, which don’t take a lot of prep. Even with the combo of mild dairy protein allergy and lactose intolerance (not a problem with cultured stuff), the dairy products are easy and nutrient-dense enough to be worth it.

BTW, I was interested to run across mention of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, when I was trying to find what I wanted at The Fat Nutritionist. It explained an awful lot, both personally and what I’ve seen from other people. Just look at the “Results” section, and that was on a “semi-starvation” 1,560 calories a day!

Official daily energy recommendations these days, and their self-fulfilling sex-based differences, are another topic I don’t want to get off on right now. I can’t help but notice, though, that the recommendations for women (2000 calories) are skirting really close to a level demonstrated as dangerous, even before further restrictions. Even normally, the 2500 recommended for men isn’t nearly enough energy to keep me healthy.

Edit: OK, so I can’t leave that topic alone. :) Especially after running across something in a comment on a newish post at The Fat Nutritionist:

I frequently see the 3700 number thrown around as average intake — even though the USDA found average reported daily calorie intakes of 1785 (women) and 2638 (men) 2005-2006. (http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/12355000/pdf/0506/Table_1_NIF_05.pdf )

No matter how accurate the reporting is, that’s a huge gap. Might (a) believing that you should be taking in less food energy than members of another group, and (b) acting on that belief, much less (c) applying/transferring that belief to kids, lead to decreased physical size–and the perception that you need less food than said other group? Hrm.

I can’t help but think of Net Nutritional Success on the Great Plains: The Remarkable Heights of Equestrian Nomads in the Nineteenth Century again, with its observation that “women were about the same height as men relative to modern height standards”.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 7:00 pm

    This is fascinating. Thanks for writing about your experiment with structured eating…I’m very interested to hear more about how it goes!

    • urocyon permalink
      April 12, 2010 11:24 am

      Thanks. It’s continuing to go pretty well, but these are early days yet. :)

  2. April 8, 2010 1:19 am

    Hey, that’s neat. Your issues around food, time, and remembering to eat sound somewhat similar to mine — I don’t usually get so lost in time that I forget to eat *anything,* but sometimes I do wait so long that my hunger becomes really severe, and ravenous, and I can hardly stand to wait however long it takes me to cook something.

    (I also tend to lose my ability to think about what I want to eat, and how to make it, when I am too hungry! So clearly it’s best for me to start thinking, and cooking, before my hunger becomes noticeable, since for me “noticeable” and “crisis” are really close together.)

    For me, though, there’s the added problem of scheduling eating around my daily problems with nausea. I wake up seriously nauseated, to the point that if I eat right away, I’ll feel horrible and possibly throw everything up. So I have to wait long enough so that I’m not sick anymore, but not so long that I start to be sick from hunger! Lovely, eh?

    • urocyon permalink
      April 12, 2010 11:28 am

      I also tend to lose my ability to think about what I want to eat, and how to make it, when I am too hungry!

      Oh yeah. Sometimes I just end up staring into the fridge and cupboards. That’s one way keeping handy snack items like yogurt and fruit has helped–when in doubt, just grab that. *shakes head*

      The nausea problem doesn’t sound fun at all. :( I can’t eat for a couple of hours after I get up, partly because of some nausea from allergies (post-nasal “drip” hardly describes it). Sounds like yours is even lovelier to deal with!

  3. April 8, 2010 1:24 am

    (Also, yes, totally with you on the Recommended Daily Allowances tending to be too small for me. I’ve pretty much always needed a lot more calories because of my size and activity level, and even though I am no longer at my *peak* activity level, and no longer growing, as well, I still probably need closer to 2500 than 2000 calories per day. The suspiciously small calorie allowances for women seem to grow out of a general societal inability to imagine that some women might be a lot bigger than, oh, 5’4″ and 120 lbs., and that those women might want to eat enough to maintain themselves at that larger size rather than diet frantically until they reach the ideal).

    • urocyon permalink
      April 12, 2010 11:47 am

      *nods* Energy requirements come straight from lean body mass. If you don’t eat enough, you’ll have one hell of a time developing more of it. Which just seems like common sense, but…

      Oh yeah. Those attitudes turn prescriptive pretty quickly. On the darkly amusing side, when I was younger, my goal was to reach 125 lbs. (at probably 5’7″ then, and a large frame/lots of muscle mass starting out). Thank goodness, it didn’t work, though I started looking pretty sick at 140! A lot of people even seem to have trouble imagining that women a good bit over 5’4″ can “reasonably” weigh over 120-130.

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