TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Trust your hunger and make peace with food


About Eve

Eve Lahijani graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Economics and Business and went on to earn her Masters in Nutritional Science at CSU Los Angeles. She is now a registered dietitian for Vitamineve, a nutrition counseling service, and a nutrition health educator at UCLA. Eve’s Fiat Lux seminars on body image and proper nutrition have given many UCLA freshmen the tools necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with food.


I’m the speaker before lunch, so if you’re anything like me, you have one of two things on your mind: What’s for lunch, and where’s the nearest bathroom?

You’ve been sitting there for a while so some of you are probably going to go to the bathroom first. And when you go to the bathroom, you never stop yourself, look at your watch and tell yourself, “It’s too early. I’ll just wait ’til my usual bathroom time.” We don’t do that. Then why do we do that with our lunchtime?

In regards to going to the bathroom, we never think, “Oh, I’ve already gone three times today and I don’t want to overdo it. I’m just going to ignore this feeling.” Then why do we do this with our hunger?

It seems like so many of us have an unnatural relationship with our hunger. I know I certainly did. So I want to share my story with you, but this isn’t just my story. This may be the story of the person who’s sitting next to you. This may be the story of somebody you love. This may even be your story.

You see, it wasn’t that long ago that I was a student here at UCLA myself, and although I was a student here, the last thing on my mind was school. Instead, I was obsessed with food, eating, and my weight. In an attempt to control my weight, I’d go on diets, cleanses, I’d push really hard at the gym, I’d avoid entire food groups and skip meals. There was only so long that that would work before I’d find myself bingeing out on bowls of milk and cereal and eating massive amounts of cakes and cookies in just one sitting. The rule of thumb was the more restrictive I became, the bigger my binges got.

I felt so uncomfortable with myself that this radiated to other aspects of my life. I wouldn’t want to go out with my friends because chances are they’re going out to eat, and I was actively trying to avoid food. I wouldn’t go on vacation because on vacation there are these large bodies of water called swimming pools, and what you have to wear to get into a swimming pool? A bathing suit. Would not be caught dead in one of those. I didn’t get involved in romantic relationships because rumor had it that when you’re involved romantically, eventually bodies get close, and I was too ashamed to let anybody near mine.

So I was left with no one and nothing except food. So food became my only friend and I hated that. So according to my students, it was more of a frenemy situation.

So I was desperate and I was hungry for answers. So I went to grad school to get my Master’s in nutrition, and in grad school I was so excited to learn more sophisticated tools for depriving myself. I was. It’s funny to you, but I was excited. I was so excited to learn the government standards of what I should and shouldn’t be eating.

But as you could imagine, the more I learned, the more alienated I became from my own body. The more alienated I became from food. Meanwhile, the restricting and the bingeing was just getting worse and worse. And this went on for about a year after grad school until I had enough.

Dieting wasn’t working for me. It never had. And I made the choice to stop dieting forever.

And once I made that choice, everything changed. I practically had to relearn how to eat. So some of you may be thinking, “Well, Eve, that’s easier said than done.” And you’re right. It may have been the hardest thing I ever had to do, but the most valuable. So that’s why I’ve dedicated my career as a dietitian to help my clients, my students, and even some of my friends make peace with food. And I want to share some of that with you today.

I had to do three main things. The first part was reconnecting with my own hunger. It may seem obvious to you, but the reason why many people eat has very little or nothing to do with hunger. They eat because they’re bored, they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re tired, they need a break. Maybe they’re eating because food is available or if they’re students, they’re eating if food is available and it’s free. Still, others try to ignore their appetite, suppress it or control it.

In grad school, we had to learn long equations to try to predict how much food somebody needs in a day. I know now we have apps on our phones that do this, but it’s really impossible to predict how much food somebody is going to need in a day. So what I want to share with you now is the most sophisticated tool for not only telling you how much you need to eat, but when.

Are you ready for this? It’s the hunger fullness scale. This is a tool designed to help you tune in with your own body. Zero and one on this scale, that’s not hunger, that’s famished. Nine and ten on the scale. That’s not fullness, that’s painfully stuffed. Think about Thanksgiving, right? That’s a 9 or a 10.

When I first learned about this scale, I was only familiar with the extremes. But according to this scale, you want to begin eating when you first get hungry, and that correlates with a three or a four on this scale. The reason why you want to make a point to eat when you first get hungry is because that’s the secret of being able to stop when you get comfortably full, a 6 or a 7 on the scale. It’s also wise to eat when you first get hungry because you’re more likely to enjoy your food, you’re more likely to eat mindfully, and your body will naturally crave more nutritious options.

Speaking about cravings, think about what happens to you when you let yourself get too hungry. What types of foods do you crave then? Naturally you crave the fattiest, oiliest, cheesiest, deep-fried thing with fries and a milkshake. Sound familiar? What happens to your eating behavior when you let yourself get too hungry? Chances are you’re eating really fast, not really paying attention. In fact, one of the biggest predictors of overeating is letting yourself get too hungry in the first place.

So when it comes to a healthy weight, when it comes to energy levels, when it comes to your ability to be in a good mood and have stamina to get through the day, learning how to eat when you first get hungry and stopping at fulness is the foundation. Although what you eat is important, it turns out how you eat is just as important. And for some of us, it’s even more important.

Speaking of what to eat, that’s the second area I had to come in terms with. Because whenever I was on a diet, well the diet told me what to eat, and that was no longer an option. So instead of listening to others’ opinions of what I should eat, I became silent and I tuned into my own body and I fed my body what it was craving, even if it was my mom’s delicious lasagna or my brother’s brownies — not those kind of brownies.

And it was amazing because I was actually tasting things for the first time because my mind wasn’t filled with judgment and guilt. And I actually found that my body actually craved nurturing foods, nourishing foods like vegetables and fruits. I actually like my sister’s kale and quinoa salad. And I’m not just saying that because she’s sitting somewhere over there, I really mean it.

So the third area I had to come to terms with had to do with when my eating didn’t go the way I wanted it to. If I accidentally binged or overate, you see in the past, whenever that would happen, I’d push really hard at the gym or I’d punish myself with a cleanse or a new diet. But I was committed to feeding myself with love no matter what. So food was no longer a punishment and it was no longer a reward, so I found myself comfortable in all types of food situations around any type of food.

And so I’ll never forget the first time I was able to have Girl Scout cookies in my house and actually forget that they were there. Anybody who struggles with food knows what a big deal that is. Meanwhile, my labs are better than they’ve ever been before, my weight stabilized to where it is now, and the best part is that my mind is obsession-free.

But what’s really interesting is to see how making peace with food affected other areas of my life. You see, as I learned how to listen to myself, I became better at listening to others. I became more empathetic. As I made a point to trust myself, I became more trusting in my relationships and more vulnerable. And as I became more loving to myself and actually love myself, I learned what it meant to love someone else. I became who I wanted to be, both personally and professionally. And that’s when I realized that making peace with food went beyond my physical health. It wasn’t just about the way that I was eating. It was about the way that I was living.

So something my father taught me when I was really young is the way we do anything is the way that, is the same way we do everything. And that applies here as well. Think about it. When you make a point to listen to yourself and trust yourself and treat yourself with unconditional kindness, this affects you on a day-to-day basis. It affects who you are in your relationships. It affects how you show up for work and at school. These things make up our communities. Our communities affect our economy, our country even. After all, how could you be at peace with others if you are at war within yourself?

So I want you to imagine: what will your life be like when you move beyond the opinion and judgment of others and you learn how to listen to your own inner voice? Imagine: how will your life transform when you have the courage to trust yourself? And how will your life feel when you learn how to tune in and treat yourself with love and kindness, no matter what?

When I asked myself these questions, I felt like the world is a safer place. I felt like I matter and that anything is possible. I guess you could say I felt free. I felt at peace. And that’s my hope for you, that you find peace and freedom when it comes to food and your eating, and that peace and freedom radiates to every other aspect of your life.

So some of you may be thinking, it sounds like I’m saying you could have your cake and eat it, too. And to those of you, you’re absolutely right. Thank you for listening.