Sweets and scales: trading one high for another

January 18, 2009 | 28 comments

This post is part of a series about re-thinking my relationship to food, which I call “The Saint Diet” to remind myself that the ultimate goal is deeper union with God. You can read all the posts on the subject here (scroll down to see them all).

When I first realized that now was the time for me to make some radical changes in my relationship to food, it was exciting. God was clearly leading me down a brand new path, and I really felt like this might be it, a path to finally breaking unhealthy attachments to certain foods that had plagued me all of my life. It sounded like fun to see what he had in store! And then I remembered:

Aw, man, but I’m pregnant!

And it got a whole lot less fun. In fact, if it weren’t for the overwhelming confirmation I’d received multiple times in Adoration that now was the time (along with my obstetrician’s agreement that this would be a good thing to do), I would have done what I usually do and shoved it all to the backburner of my life until pregnancy and breastfeeding were over. Being pregnant left me unable to use any of the tools from my old bag of tricks: setting exciting weight loss goals, imagining getting into those size 10 jeans, creating colorful Excel graphs tracking pounds lost per week, following strict diets laid out in books, etc. With all of this off the table, I was lost. How do you break unhealthy eating habits without spreadsheets and scales and diet books?!

I was praying about this one afternoon, and a clear answer came to me:

When you are motivated to do it during pregnancy, you’ll be motivated for the right reasons.

When I “heard” that in prayer, something big clicked for me. In fact, I realized that the thinking that “I can’t work on food issues now because I’m pregnant” was indicative of where my mentality went wrong in the first place. If the drive behind previous efforts had truly been to achieve a healthy detachment from nutritionally void foods, to treat my body as a temple by nourishing it with quality, nutrient-rich foods and break my addictions to those foods full of processed sugar and white flour that harm me spiritually and physically, I would have been more motivated to do it during pregnancy since that would benefit my unborn baby as well; but that’s not what was really driving it.

I didn’t realize it until now, but in all my previous efforts I was looking to replace one worldly high for another: I would give up the “high” of the rush of pleasure from eating a bowl of cookies n’ cream ice cream; but I would replace it with the “high” of seeing a five-pound drop on the scale. The satisfaction I got from my efforts did not come from a deep, still place of joy at letting go of attachments that hindered my relationship with God, but from seeing how effectively I controlled the numbers on the scale to meet my goals on my timetable. I was like an alcoholic who quit drinking by smoking pot all the time. I was still seeking a high in something other than God.

This also explains why I have never been able to achieve long-term changes in this department: because once my weight would level off and I’d stop getting that high from seeing lower and lower numbers on the scale, that old high of a sugar cookie or huge plate of fettuccini alfredo would start to seem awfully appealing.

By prayerfully examining all of this while pregnant, learning how to get motivated to make these changes when there’s no high available to me, I have learned more about my issues with food in the past few weeks than I had in the past 17 years combined.

I’ve learned that I can’t make the scale an integral part of any long-term healthy eating strategy, because I will be too tempted to become addicted to it as a new high in relation to food issues.

I’ve learned that the spiritual part of getting my food issues under control is going to be the hardest part. To let go of seeking highs in any form — to learn to eschew the pleasurable rushes that come with control and short-term payoffs and seek only the slow-moving, deep-rooted peace that comes with when we begin to break our attachments to those things that come between our relationship with God — will require a level of spiritual maturity way beyond where I am now.

I’ve learned that to truly free oneself from an addiction to an unhealthy substance is a slow, sometimes painful, often boring process that involves just taking it one day — sometimes one hour — at a time.

I’ve learned that I have so much more to learn than I could have imagined, and that it’s silly for me to think that I have all the answers right now.

I’ve learned that I cannot do this without God’s help.

I want to add the important disclaimer that I am not suggesting that these lessons apply to everyone. In fact, one of the biggest things I’ve learned lately is just how much the process of detachment is a completely unique process for each individual — especially when it comes to food. There is truly no one-size-fits-all approach. I’m only offering my experiences in case it’s interesting at all to people struggling with similar issues.

(Also, I should add that I’ve been going over all this in detail with my doctor, and would recommend that anyone who’s pregnant do so as well.)

So this is foreign territory for me, tackling gluttonous, addictive, unhealthy eating habits without any of my usual substitute highs. On the surface level, it’s so much more mundane and, well, boring than when I’m getting on the scale every day and relishing the illusion that I’m totally in control. Yet without all the noise of my own controlling thoughts and immediate worldly payoffs, in the silence that’s left I am finally beginning to hear the still, small voice of God.

photo credit: amyliagrace


  1. Anonymous

    We have had the same epiphany vis a vis food issues at the same time.
    I also substituted the excitement of the dropping pounds…which became ounces ..which then stopped at my approved weight.. now what? oh yeah.
    celebrate with? food, of course.
    and the cycle begins.. But the 5 events which triggered a reordering of the brain all happened 3 weeks ago..leading to a desire once and for all to be released from the 24/7 always disappointing love affair with food.. with the help of padre pio ( yes! I saint I had been afraid of) is the one who popped into my mind as my go-to helpmate in this adventure of replacing food fixes with a deeper prayer life.
    Although I do not feel deprived..due to eating properly..
    I do feel at a loss sometimes when an emotion which normally triggered a food tranquilizer must now be dealt with maturely. A passing moment of boredom, happiness, frustration, sadness, joy, irritation, hurt feelings etc. is no longer sedated with a half a box of cookie crisp or sugar pops. etc etc.Padre Pio is one powerful intercessor. As I mentioned to my confessor Saturday, ” You would be ashamed and embarrassed for me if you knew just how much food had controlled me.” Stay well Jen and keep writing.

  2. Juli

    You have given me the inspiration to not stop the eating healthy (which I’ve recently just started to lose weight) when I’m pregnant again. Which, if I am on our normal schedule, should be in a few months. Probably right after I’m at my desired size.

  3. Heather

    Such an excellent post. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Carmelle

    Yes, it does feel that way for some people…

    They try to quit one bad habit only to start on another one. Food, I believe is most addictive, and trying to stop eating our favorite foods (which most of the time are unhealthy food choices) can be very, very hard…

    Stop, think it over, and look deep and hard into yourself…are you letting food control you? Or are you going to say “Hey, this is enough! I will not be a food addict!”

  5. Bonnie

    I’ve been following your food/body issues with much curiousity. I even tried the S Diet when I read about it here, but another S – stress – got in the way.

    After gaining weight with my pregnancy I just didn’t know what to do. I’ve lost weight before, but that was through some very unhealthy behaviors that I refuse to do now that I’m a mother. But I just don’t know how to lose any other way.

    Also, I too just posted about weight, though mine is not quite as er, um, holy as yours. 🙂

  6. Sandy

    There’s been a blog post running around my head for about a week now titled “Food is my drug of choice.” In dieting this month, I’ve been reminded once again how often I turn to food for comfort, to calm me, to deaden unpleasant emotions, to squelch anger. I’ll write the post and put it on my weight loss blog. Mind if I link to this post?

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

  7. Dawn

    That all sounds good and right. Hope it “sticks”! (The habits – not the weight. LOL!)

  8. Kate

    I pray that you stay motivated with the healthful/mindful eating throughout this preganancy. it sure does get difficult when a nice piece of ice cream cake is staring you in the face!
    What better time to start taking care of yourself than during your pregnancy. As an added bonus to keeping weight gain in check, you’ll pass those fasting glucose tests with flying colors.
    I have gestational diabetes (insulin dependent)currently with baby #6 and the docs told me she’ll be about 13lbs. This is a very real possibilty as my last baby was over 12lbs (and like you, I love ice cream and pasta!). I hope I didn’t scare you. Just another thing to keep in mind as you reconsider your diet. Blessings to you and to your health! Wish me luck as I deliver this overgrown darling!

  9. Jennifer #2

    the key word in your post for me is “gluttonous”–I’m a gluttony mcglutterson.

    and the thing is our culture is gluttonous. its the by product of our never-before seen prosperity.

    our culture is so gluttonous that even the Catholic church has redefined FASTING as two small meals and one large one.


    And if you mention going a day without food, people will say “that’s dangerous.” or “that’s crazy.” or even “that’s not possible” even when the person suggesting it has a bmi of 30+

    *please google “intermittent fasting” to see the latest research: FASTING IS GOOD FOR US*

    What’s going ON? I wonder–how did we get to this place?

    and here’s another thing–being prone to weight gain is a blessing in this regard. it forces us to wear our sins on our sleeve.

    to wit:

    my normal weight family member who does not put on weight easily told me during a busy day of setting up tables and chairs for a family wedding reception turns to me and says, “I’m starving. [self-righteous] I’ve only eaten half a banana today.”

    I wonder who she thought ate the two donuts I saw slip down her gullet during the course of the days events? (probably ME)

    but you see she doesn’t even REALIZE what she eats because she doesn’t pay a consequence.

    I don’t think there are many Americans who have a healthy relationship with food. Honestly. I don’t. I can’t think of one person right now.

    Do you know CS Lewis’ bit about the pork chop striptease? Hilarious. he was using it as a metaphor for sex but it applies directly to food.

    And what is the FOOD Network but a pork chop striptease?

  10. bearing

    Hoo boy, Jen, you’re really hitting me where it hurts.

  11. Anonymous

    With my doctors and under strict supervision I lost while expecting. It was a bit hairy and I used weight watchers. I learned that all those salads were good for me and I didn’t mind them. I saw my doctor weekly. I also participated in EXERCISE by walking a mile every day at work over lunch with a crowd of ladies. I’ve learned lots of good things and ways but I’m a slider all the way. I need to stay motivated. We went to wheat breads and pastas but I still have trouble with wheat pasta. I’m rooting for you. You seem to be doing it right.

  12. Marian

    Thank you for writing this.

    I’ve had an extremely stressful few years now, in which the challenges before me each day usually take all of me. I have put off dealing with some of my unhealthy eating habits during this time because, according to conventional wisdom and my own sensibilities, a time of great stress is not a time to give focus to ONE MORE THING–the strategizing to eek out opportunities for serious exercise, giving extra thought to menu planning, food choices, nutrition, or counting grams of whatever.

    But that’s just it. No, there really ISN’T opportunity for lots of exercise or focus on food right now. There’s just me and my emotions and spirit in the midst of the fray… And so where are they going when they’re in pain?

    If I even scrape up the focus to add exercise, eliminate white flour,or whatever, that small amount of focus can easily get consumed by all of those thingsm leaving them as the Issues, without enough oomph to get me all the way to God,the Source, the root. I don’t know if that made sense to anyone but me.

    God knows where I am in life, and He’s still what I need. Maybe it’s the perfect time to get straight to the point. In a way it’s just God and me, with blurred idols and food issues in the way. For me, maybe it’s not about the specifics at this particular time and season. Maybe just NOT letting anything get in the way and making BETTER food choices (without necessarily worrying if they’re the best–maybe that’s for another time)and instead forcing me straight to HIM, without the distraction of the specifics I can’t always get to anyway, is what He’s calling me to… No “highs” and no other focus to get entangled in, either.

    Again, maybe that little ramble only makes sense to me, but I do thank you for writing this post to evoke it. =)

  13. Berji's domain

    Step one for me was to resolve to never own a scale- it makes me very dissatisfied with my body.
    Not that I don’t care what I weigh, but I have to teach myself to care about being a healthy (and reasonable) weight, not being society’s “ideal” weight.
    Just not having access to that control mechanism really helps me, and I notice the difference when I go somewhere where there is a scale to obsess over 🙂

  14. Pam H.

    What do you think about the organic, locally grown movement? I lost 25 lbs on the South Beach diet, but have gained almost all of it back. I find ordinary food boring (have, all my life), and look for things to eat that make eating more interesting. Mostly, that was translated “fattening”. Lately, however, I’ve been enjoying looking for healthy foods that support local farmers and are raised sustainably. I don’t have time to become terribly preoccupied by this, which some people seem to be, and which also seems unhealthy, but it does make the process of eating a little less tedious. And, I hope, helps out those farmers who are trying to make a living the old fashioned way.

  15. Multiple Mom T

    I just want to say you are very brave. Eating healthy for the sake of eating healthy is extremely challenging! Way to Go!

  16. Charlotte

    I would love to be over my body issues. It is happening slowly, but I'm accepting that it may always be an area of struggle for me.

    With regards to losing weight, it has been freeing to not view any certain foods as "bad" or completely off-limits. With this view, I usually end up preferring healthier, more nutritious foods. But when I want some fries or chocolate or ice cream, I have some. The key for me has been to eat mindfully–eating when I'm hungry & stopping when I'm not hungry & paying attention to what my body needs. This was a new thing for me. It sounds simple, but I was just accustomed to eating when it was meal-time & eating until I felt "full." Sometimes I only need a few bites of whatever I'm eating & sometimes I need a couple of servings. I've lost the 25 pounds I gained last year after some health issues without depriving myself & while enjoying food. Every now and then I still eat to comfort myself or I over-eat because whatever I'm having is just too good and I want to have more. I try to recognize this when it happens & address the root issue. I forgive myself & move forward. Then I don't eat again until I'm hungry. I've learned that I feel better–I'm more alert & more energetic when I eat more protein, reduce the amount of sugar & carbs I'm consuming, and exercise regularly. So most of the time when I choose those healthier foods and choose to work-out, it's because I know it's what my body needs & because I ultimately want to feel good. Of course, there are times when I really want a piece of cheesecake & having energy just doesn't seem as important. So I eat it & try to make sure I don't have anything else to eat until I'm hungry again.

    This may not be the best way for everyone to approach food and eating, but it has been great for me.

  17. Carrien

    Before I was pregnant every attempt to get healthier was tainted by the suspicion that it was vanity. And, there was the rebellious part of me that wanted to insist that people like me as I was not to change myself to be accepted.

    Being pregnant for the first time changed all that. What I ate was building the cells of my baby, and I ate better than I ever had in my life. And I was really skinny after when nursing because I kept it up.

    It’s when I’m not pregnant or nursing tht I add another 10 pounds or so because I have less of an urgent reason to eat well. Like this past year since my youngest turned one. I relaxed, a lot. And I gained 10 pounds.

  18. Anonymous

    Food can really only be bad insofar as one’s attachment to it is immoderate or gluttonous. Celebrating with food is a good thing. Using food to help us be festive on a holiday (such as Christmas or Easter) is a GOOD thing. It should also, of course, be temporary. Using food to help us be penitent (as during Lent, when we fast or give up certain foods that give us pleasure) is also a good thing. This should also be temporary. Most of our food should be simple and nutritious. But white flour is no more evil than watching an entertaining film is evil.

    Eating merely and exclusively to live and with no enjoyment of food is like having sex ONLY in order to reproduce, with no desire to create or enjoy pleasure.

    The virtue is a mean between two extremes. Most of us are more tempted to be gluttonous than to be overly-ascetic, but temptations to both extremes can exist. Just my thoughts.

    –Elizabeth B.

  19. Anonymous

    I have a question, though it’s not related to food. I’m also a former atheist. I’ve been going “solo” for a while in regards to religion, but now I’m leaning towards Catholicism.

    Anyway, you said you “heard” an answer during prayer. What is that like? Is it like a thought in your head that didn’t come from you? (as weird as that sounds) Do you hear another voice in your head that isn’t the sound of your own thinking? Is it different for everyone and you just have to figure it out for yourself? I’m a bit flummoxed by all this, after years of atheism.

    I would much appreciate any guidance anyone can give on this!


  20. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Kacy – I have his soups cookbook and LOVE it. I need to get the other one as well.

    Marissa – I love questions like that. Your guesses are correct, though it would probably be helpful if I elaborated a bit. I think I’ll do a post about it — thanks for the idea!

  21. Marissa

    Ok! Glad I gave you a post idea, especially since you threw your other ones away. *grins*

    Thank you so much for your blog! I’ve really enjoyed reading through it. You’ve basically been the gateway through which I started seriously investigating Catholic Christianity instead of listening to anti-Catholics. I think I was led here at the right time.

    Often what happens to me is the thought-that-isn’t-mine comes and goes so quickly that I’m like “Waitaminute, what?” before I realize what it ‘said.’ Should it be like that? I’m usually still a bit skeptical of the answer, because I don’t know if it was some part of my subconscious answering for me or not.

    Like I asked yesterday who I should choose for a patron saint, and I got “Thomas Aquinas” in a flash. I’ve admired him for a long time. Did I get that answer because my subconscious answered for me, or because that was God’s answer?

    Or, more personally, a friend of mine recently died. I asked if he was in Purgatory or Heaven, and got “yes,” and then felt, if not peaceful, less emotionally wrecked. Obviously, I deeply desire that to be true, so how do I know I’m not fooling myself here?

  22. Jen

    I haven’t had a chance to read this whole post, but I know where you’re coming from. After the birth of my third baby in three years, I couldn’t use my old tricks to lose weight because I was breastfeeding (I didn’t nurse my first two). For a long time I was angry about my weight, like it was something that happened to me not of my own doing. The more I thought about it, I would contemplate about Jesus, and how he ate, and didn’t use Weight Watchers. He wasn’t fat, so it must be in His will somewhere that I was not fat. Then, I started noticing friends who had either just as many kids as me, had them as close together as me, or had more, and seemed to not exercise every single day or diet and still maintain their weight. I realized, when a friend told me about healing through contemplative prayer, that my answer lay in Him. That I laid in Him. My true self. Not the “false” self I was trying to be. Just a thought…gotta go catch them troops to give them a bath. 🙂

  23. Anonymous

    Like you, I’m a bit addicted to highs, especially food-induced highs. I love food, and that’s pretty obvious to tell by looking at me.

    I think you’re right, though. Ultimately, you have to choose your real love here; food or God?

    Even the methods of losing weight or the attitude you have in the process can get in the way, clearly. So what’s better? Losing weight for your glory and self-satisfaction, or because it is what your Father wants for you, for the good of you, your family, and your relationship with Him?

    Whew, now that I’ve re-read your post and said what I did, I know I don’t have any excuse not to put it into practice! There are definitely some responsibilities to this whole faith thing!


  24. Cookie Diet

    I love your story, and I am glad you have been able to get really close to your solution. I have recently found my solution as well. Let me know if you are interested in it.

  25. Benedicte

    Hi jen,

    thank you for this blog on food issues…I don’t have those, but I think I have something else, and your inspiration to separate gluttony from addiction just gave me an idea…
    I suffer from what I call “paralysing stress”, which can go from being stuck on something at work with stress levels going up and up, to being literally frozen, unable to even get up from my chair and go for a walk around the block to calm down. Right now, these few days I’m suffering from that (there’s something big coming up at work next week), and yesteray in Adoration I nearly gave up praying because stress was even paralysing that…but I held on, kept saying my rosary without even understanding what I was saying…and suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration: that yes, there was a core in me that was permanently stressed (probably because of my very stressful childhood), but that the adult “me” could be separate from that, and that the way to do it was to keep doing little things, all the time. Added up, these little insignificant things would round up into a whole big lot at the end of each day, even if each felt tiny, and even if in stressful days I wasn’t able to even judge that there were important to do. The important thing is to keep doing them…
    What your blog confirmed is that by doing each of these little things for God, then overall, the big task is done for Him too, even and especially in days when the paralysing stress is blurring my thoughts so much. Today is only day 2 of the new “me” with this new solution, but I can tell that it’s a lot better than the usual “paralysing stress” days…
    I hope you have a good day! Thanks for your blog, I love reading it!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      What an inspiring thought, Benedicte! Thanks so much for your comment.

  26. kendra @ orangerie

    This Saint Diet of yours really helped me when I read about your findings long ago! I, too, am easily addicted to flour and sugar and cannot simply moderate the amounts. For me, it’s all or nothing! However, that was unrealistic until I learned to substitute things like Stevia and xylitol for sweeteners and flour replacements like flax meal.(The ladies at Trim Healthy Mama finally helped me do this!) Anyway, i wanted to thank you for contributing your piece of my weight problem puzzle!


  1. Is Losing Weight Like Finding Your Way In the 100-Acre Wood? | This Felicitous Life - [...] which is similar to the Perfect Health Diet that Pat and I are following.  Jennifer wrote a really inspiring…

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