When COVID began in spring 2020, I had been trying to lose the last five pounds my body had been holding on to since my son was born eight years earlier. I was hitting 5:45 a.m. CrossFit classes five days a week, doing intermittent fasting to control my daily calorie intake, and I had been trying for more than a year without success. It was incredibly frustrating! Then the pandemic hit, and I ended up gaining another 10 pounds on top of that. But I've lost 13 pounds in the past three months by using the concept of calorie density in conjunction with primary foods.
What Are Primary Foods?
I first learned about primary foods when I joined the Slim on Starch program in April. I got to work with therapist Kiki Attonito, MA, CAP, RYT, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology and specializes in addiction. She told POPSUGAR that primary foods are "the enriching aspects of life that nourish us on a soul level." They're the relationships, hobbies, places, and things that feed our happiness and enrich our lives and give it meaning.
Food Used to Be My Primary Food
"I lost sight of the reasons I was trying to eat and be healthy in the first place - to be able to spend time with my family and do the things that I love."
"When we connect with people, plug into engaging pastimes, and dive into our primary foods, we rewire our bodies and brains to recall the true hits of joy that come from connection with life, as opposed to with food," Antonio explained. This was so key for me to learn. Through my decades of dieting and struggles with body image and trying to lose weight, thinking about food and how I looked had become my main purpose in life. I was so focused on what I was eating, when I was eating, how much, and what I weighed, it was pulling me away from the true joys of life. I lost sight of the reasons I was trying to eat and be healthy in the first place - to be able to spend time with my family and do the things that I love.
All the things I used to love doing before trying to lose weight, like painting, drawing, knitting, learning to play banjo, singing with my husband, and sewing, were all pushed aside, and food became my obsession: my primary food. With food taking center stage over my thoughts and my life, I didn't feel inspired to do those other things. And because I was eating whenever I wanted to feed that need for joy (most of the time I wasn't even hungry), I ended up gaining weight, and then food took over even more of my attention. I felt so stuck because I truly didn't feel happy.
How I Used Primary Foods to Lose Weight
I didn't realize how much emotional eating was contributing to my weight gain until I heard the creator of the Slim on Starch program, Emmie Keefe, say, "If hunger is not the problem, then food is not the solution." I was feeding all my emotions with food, and although it may have worked initially, it never really satisfied what I was seeking. I ended up overeating every single day.
When I intentionally focused on not turning to food for happiness and instead to discovering my primary foods, my happiness skyrocketed and my obsession with food and weight loss started to fade. It wasn't easy in the beginning. I had to really connect with my emotions and not automatically turn to food whenever I felt happy, sad, annoyed, bored, or stressed. I found that talking to myself and saying the statement, "I'm feeling ______, so I need _______," helped tremendously.
Most of the time I was turning to food for joy, excitement, and creativity; I was constantly cooking and baking because I loved how the delicious foods I ate would give my brain an instant dopamine rush. But baking a batch of brownies and eating half the pan never fulfilled those desires - that happy feeling only lasted a few minutes, and I was always left feeling let down (and with a stomachache from overeating). I realized that if I turned to my primary foods instead, I felt more emotionally satisfied. I felt more joy, more excitement, and was bursting with more creativity. I now know that primary foods are more effective in feeding my soul's needs more than food, and I'm able to let food do its job, which is to nourish my body. It also made me feel proud that I was creating new habits to cope with big or uncomfortable emotions without food.
How to Use Primary Foods in Social Situations Where Food Is Involved
One of the most helpful ways primary foods helped me lose weight was in social situations. Food always seemed to be the focus when I was spending time with my family or friends. What restaurant were we getting takeout from? What do you want me to pick up from the vegan cafe? What should we bake together this weekend? I was really nervous about how to turn the attention away from food without feeling sad about it.
Attonito reminds her clients that the number one reason they are with people is for the primary food of socialization, not just for the actual food. She told me that by plugging into the connections around me, the importance of food falls into the backdrop as life itself comes center stage.
I took her advice, and when we had friends over for homemade pizza or got treats from the vegan bakery, I focused on the conversations, and the food really did fall to the back of my mind. Of course, I also combined this with honoring my hunger and fullness cues, making sure I was eating until I felt satisfied. But when I had the urge to eat past that point because I was seeking out the happiness and excitement food can bring me, I satisfied my emotional needs by engaging with the people around me. Attonito calls this "bookending a meal," which means "choosing a primary food from life to use as the proper 'dessert' after that meal." And it was so much more fulfilling than food!
How to Discover Your Primary Foods
Primary foods are unique to you. Attonito said that we draw primary foods from various aspects of life, including from our relationships, social life, career, spirituality, home environment, movement, hobbies, and creativity - anything that brings you happiness and sparks joy in your life. Here's a list of some primary foods to get you started. Use them to feed your soul:
People and socializing: spend time with family, join a hiking group or book club, call a friend
Hobbies: draw, knit, paint, travel, play an instrument, do a puzzle, take photos, garden
Exercise: go for a run, hop on an exercise machine, take a group fitness class, take a walk
Stress-relieving activities: yoga, meditation, listen to music or a podcast
Nature: get outside and enjoy the sights and smells around you
Pets: spend time with your furry loved ones
Screens: watch a show or a movie, or play an online game
Learn: engage in something new to keep life exciting, explore new cultures
Keep reading to see what primary foods I used to help me lose weight. The best thing about primary foods is that the journey of discovering primary foods is never done! These are my main primary foods right now, but who knows what new passions I'll stumble on now that my mind is no longer consumed by food and weight loss. Attonito said, "We get to enjoy discovering and uncovering soul nourishment every day. I tell my clients to enjoy this incredible process, approach themselves and their lives with awe and excitement, and to remember that the process of finding new primary foods is itself a primary food!"