Solving The Bread Dilemma

Jul 18, 2019

"When I eat bread, it's like a monster comes out. I have to stay away from it. Sugar too."

And that started my coaching call with Beth, a client who came to me for help losing weight and stopping binge eating. We had already completed several sessions and talked about her food difficulties, goals, and lifestyle but something in her voice told me, “This just got real. It’s honesty time.”  I love those moments. As a coach, it’s when I get to begin my most meaningful work. 

Beth continues to tell me how the last few days have been terrible, eating wise. She felt drained from work, yet the work kept coming. For the next 3 months, it wouldn't let up. Instead of sleeping enough, or walking outside to deal with the intense pressure, she bought and finished a box of crackers. Then cake. Then lots of bread, one slice at a time, until the loaf was gone.  A Mars bar wrapper on her desk stared at her, reminding her of more things she must have eaten but right now can't even remember. She knows it is the crackers fault, she assures me.

When I gently ask her more about it, she says there's something she can't explain. But something bad happens, always involving her, and bread and sugar. She tells me the last 3 days are just an example of a long-standing pattern, and exactly why she must never ever buy crackers. Or bread. Beth doesn't know what exactly the problem is, whether it lies in her mind or body, or why other people don't seem to have this inner beast. But she vows for the hundredth time to eat no bread, seeing no other option.

Except she adores bread. Some toast with her eggs always seems like it belongs. A few crackers to eat with a salad make it satisfying. And sweets are just so alluring! Especially when traveling, the airport lounges and restaurant buffets seem to offer endless varieties of buns, croissants, cookies, and baked goods cooing gentle relief from her jet lag, a soothing easy snack to put in her stomach.

"Food is always there. Like a good friend, and it doesn't want anything from you". 

We continue to talk about her life and the role food has played, and it becomes clearer and clearer that food equals comfort.

When she is lonely, or stressed, or tired, food helps. Once she makes the decision to go find a gelato shop or stop by a convenience store, she knows she won’t be alone. She looks forward to the crunch, the chewing, the salty or sweet flavors, the quiet in her mind of not worrying about the next day's meetings or deadlines. During her lowest and most overworked weeks, she pushes everyone away. She doesn’t have to explain herself that way, and no one will judge her. She retreats into her private quiet world, with food.

We talk about the distresses and pain she feels, traveling constantly for work, not having a social circle or even a daily routine. I mention how normal it is to want comfort and to seek solutions to alleviate our own pain. "Nothing is wrong with you", I say several times. “That is all of us. When we hurt, whether it’s a physical injury or psychological pain, anything that offers some easing of that pain is going to imprint on us. You have been attending to yourself in the most loving way you knew how.”

Now she is crying, sniffling, apologizing. There's nothing to be sorry about, of course, feelings are a big part of food discussions, so I remind her to feel free to feel. I’m glad she knows she is safe with me, that all the things on her mind are fit to share in this space.

We talk about bedtimes and waking times, how consistency and a routine would be a welcome predictability in her schedule. We talk about staying part of the world instead of ducking out when we feel upset. That our tension and frustration can be lightened by just sharing a space with other people, even random strangers in a coffee shop.

She tells me she had thought maybe of going into Starbucks to work, just to be around other people. I love this idea. She seems to as well.

We commit to a bedtime for the coming week and sketch out a plan for the groceries in her fridge. Before we wrap up the call, I ask if she had breakfast yet, and she said no, what she would love is a bagel at Starbucks.

And I freeze. Silent. Why did she say that? Is she just going right back to the out of control, bread-associated binge eating? "Will you be okay with that?" I ask. "I mean, if you're going to eat a bagel and carry on, that's perfect. You can focus lunch and dinner on proteins and veggies and be fine. But are you going to jump the counter and slap the barista and steal all the bagels...."

And now she's laughing.

No, that won't happen, she says calmly. She won't be buying packs of chocolates and crackers for home, but one bagel in a public place is not going anywhere problematic. She looks calm, relieved, and like talking has soothed something deep.

And I smile because we both know now that there never was an intractable problem with bread. Avoiding bread would never have cured the issue the way we will. Week by week, we continue talking about Beth's pain, distress, and comfort. Together we're planning out how to stay awake and present in life, even when it's hard. We'll practice letting people in and letting stress out through movement, self-care, and connection. And since we are handling the real problems, we can eat bagels along the way.

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