During the month of November, I decided (alongside a friend, who did her own monthly challenge) to go without takeaway (or fastfood in general), for the whole month.
The ‘rules’ were fairly simple:
- Where possible, cook every meal. This meant that all lunches would have to be something I made or prepared the night before. I wouldn’t, for example, buy a sandwich from a shop as a meal.
- If I’d made plans in October to have lunch or dinner with someone, I kept the plans. But I didn’t make any new plans to eat out. So I went out for dinner twice: once with my parents and once with a group of friends. For all other plans I had to work around it somehow (usually just getting a drink, if anything), rather than just turning up somewhere and hoping I could eat there. If someone invited me out spontaneously I’d usually just get a drink but not eat with them.
- For simplicity’s sake, I decided to forego convenience food like oven pizzas etc, for the most part. I only bought one throughout the month, although I did have quite a few portions of oven chips…
Honestly, I thought I’d bail within the first day or two, so I was pretty surprised that I lasted the whole month. Yay 😉
Still, what surprised me most was how this challenge gave me something worthwhile that I hadn’t expected: an odd sense of clarity on what my brain was doing with regards to food. I’ve always just followed my anxieties about food wherever they led me, but here I practised being able to accept those thoughts, while I did something completely different.
Here’s some of the mental health skills I got to practise this month:
‘What are your takeaways from this month?’ – my friend Alex thinking she’s funny
Skill 1: Expansion – making room for unpleasant feelings, and allowing them to come and go
Food has always been a huge trigger for me — both causing anxiety and alleviating it. I have historically used food as my crutch to deal with anxiety. Or sadness. Or boredom… Or tiredness. Or physical pain. Or just because ‘fuck it, why not’. Equally, I would have rather eaten several donuts and skipped dinner than deal with the stress of having to cook. I spent a lot of time being anxious about my next meal, worrying about what I would be eating, whether it’d be enough, too much, if I’d like it, etc.
By taking the crutch of convenience food away, I knew at least some of those feelings would float to the surface. And if I wanted to stick to the challenge, I also knew I would have to sit with them and not allow them to get in the way of my life.
I should add that this has NOT been an easy month. Within the first week I struggled with many of my usual triggers, including tension headaches and personal issues. People ordered food and ate it in front of me; multiple times people offered takeaway directly to me, and I had to refuse it. That was definitely unpleasant.
But it was temporary, and after a while I really stopped caring. Frankly, I had other shit to do 🙂
Skill 2: Cognitive defusion – perceive your thoughts as the random bits of information they are (‘brain farts’), instead of the objective truths they seem to be.
Here’s some quotes from my brain this month:
‘It’s after work. Buying a snack right now doesn’t count.’
‘Someone else bought you food. Doesn’t count either.’
‘It’s Friday! Go wild!’
‘You’ve got a headache, you can’t possibly cope with cooking right now.’
‘You’ve had a hard day/you’re ill/anxious/angry/sad/hormonal. You deserve it.’
Being able to recognise these thoughts as unhelpful — basically just my brain wanting to take the easy route — was extremely helpful. I was able to just say, ‘Thanks, brain, but we’re not doing that this month’ and move on with making my lunch. I’d liken it to a toddler begging me for sweets. (Un)fortunately, I’m the adult here so I have to make the healthy decisions…
Skill 3: Identify your values, and act accordingly
Here what I valued was pretty easy to distinguish. Having identified early on what sort of actions I wanted to aim for, it was easy to decide what to do.
This also helped with some fringe (or ‘fridge’…) cases, such as my family eating a whole bucket of KFC in front of me.
Related to the above, sometimes I had to make a choice that conflicted a bit with this “value”. For example, having lunch out with my family wasn’t something I’d ‘planned’ (I had planned for dinner) but spending time with them was something I valued more in the moment. Conflicting values is an issue that comes up with ACT.
In those occasions, you really just need to pick the domain you want to focus on more — in this case, a family social — and not let that derail you for the future.
Skill 4: Repeated, committed actions — with compassion
Confession: despite not having fastfood, I have ended up eating a fair bit of chocolate, and drank more fizzy drink than normal. And on one day I did buy an oven pizza. It’s also been difficult to keep these actions up while not engaging in other compulsions; especially as the beginning, and while I was off work for a week I spent a lot of time on my phone.
So I definitely can’t say I have always eaten the healthiest foods every day for every month. I also can’t say that I didn’t butt up against my ‘rules’ a bit. I can’t say that by working on my compulsions in one area, I managed to keep them from popping up elsewhere like some sort of whack-a-mole game.
But on the whole, I actually did pretty good. That’s what I’m aiming for, instead of perfection. It would have been easy to focus on the times I didn’t do as well this month, beat myself up for it, and just give up on the whole thing. I sometimes like to believe I don’t deserve compassion or kindness for making a mistake.
It’s harder to have compassion for yourself when you stray off the path, and then get back onto it. Repeatedly.
Harder, but ultimately much more worthwhile.
How are things now? An update two weeks later:
When I wrote my initial write up of what happened during November above, I was just finishing. So, I was a little concerned about the weeks ahead but optimistic about how I’d cope. A few weeks later I am far better than before — however, I do notice myself slipping into old habits a bit (eating a big old croissant which I had not planned on having as I type this up).
Frankly, this has been the most important thing to realise. A challenge like this isn’t going to automatically reform you into doing something else. The rules make it easy, because there’s a dedicated end point where your brain knows it *could* go back to how it was before. Frankly, it’s far easier to do so!
Does that mean this challenge was for nothing, because I could easily just slip back into old habits? Definitely not, and here’s why:
1. It helped me practise skills in an area I thought would be extremely difficult for me — if not impossible. For a whole month! Now I know what I’m capable of, and become aware of the excuses my brain makes to engage in these particular compulsions.
2. It helped me get back to a clean slate regarding my beliefs. Sometimes we get so caught up in the emotional baggage regarding a certain area of our life, that we have no idea what we’re feeling. I was fighting so many unhelpful beliefs about food, and practising untangling those specific ones for an extended period over anything else made them far easier to challenge them now.
3. I have a better idea of what I want my actions to look like long-term, and what is necessary to make that work. Surprise (!), making sure I have easily accessible food is an important aspect of this habit.
4. Those skills I mentioned before can be applied to all areas of my life.
On that last point, you could liken this what musicians call ‘deliberate practice’. For example, say you’re learning a song on guitar, but a certain technique is tripping you up. In this case you’d slow down and focus in on this area, identifying what the main sticking points are. You would still need to practise integrating what you’d learned into the rest of the song, but it can be useful to hone in on a small area you’re finding really troublesome. Here I was doing deliberate practise with food, but I can move on to another area of my life using the same skills.
So really, the true challenge is now: keeping on top of my values without anything external to motivate me. And with Christmas coming up, and like 1000 Christmas meals with friends, colleagues and family…
Wish me luck?!