Think back: it’s the first day of your new health journey. You started your day off with a three-egg scramble and some fruit. You’re sitting in your office and your stomach grumbles. At last! It’s finally lunchtime. Only, psych, it’s actually 10:15. A snack wouldn’t hurt, right? A cracker pack would probably satisfy. And popcorn! It’s just a snack. The next thing you know, it’s lunchtime, you’ve eaten your lunch, and you’re feeling full, guilty, and shameful, as you’ve consumed almost all of your daily calories. For background, this was me less than one week ago. Sometimes we follow all of the rules in the morning, only to celebrate by breaking them hours later.
Let’s face it, trying to achieve a healthy relationship with food is difficult and often tormenting. Especially since, as human beings, our relationships with food are innate. Michelle May, MD, said, “From the moment we’re born, we’re nurtured with food, rewarded with food, and so emotional connections to food are normal.” The question here is: what qualifies an emotional connection? What’s too much? What’s unhealthy? I want to explore the facets of compulsive eating and how you can tackle it and conquer.
What is Compulsive Eating?
Compulsive eating (in some cases known as Binge Eating Disorder) is an act of overeating large quantities of food in short amounts of time. It is typically followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. It’s also known as “food addiction,” but this phrasing has its snags. What better way to kick an addiction than abstinence? Unfortunately, that isn’t possible in this case, and there’s no Methadone for food addiction. How do we cope without crossing the line?
In my experience, it’s incredibly easy to overeat. What better way to celebrate a day at the office than to come home, continue a show, and explore the fridge? It’s a simple activity that you may not even be aware of. For some, this can manifest into an outing, such as a favorite restaurant or café, frequented after a long day at work. In any case, these behaviors are well-aligned with compulsive eating, and you may not even realize it!
For myself and many, eating is a primary coping mechanism. It provides in-moment comfort and satisfaction. Eating can make time go by faster. It can make awkward social outings bearable. But, it is almost always followed by a deep sense of shame. A natural “solution” to overeating guilt can be a restrictive diet. I eat too much sugar when I’m upset, so I should just quit it cold turkey! No more chocolate, no more candy, and no more lattes! It’s a moment we’ve all had and felt proud of. As you should! A momentous occasion of self-love will put you on the path to success. Or will it? Turns out, restrictive diets aren’t the answer. There’s a cycle: “eat, repent, repeat.” Starting a diet helps us feel in-control and self-empowered. But, as reverse psychology often dictates, we always want what we can’t have. “Just a little bit” can turn into a lot more. Thus, the overeating cycle begins once again. How do you fall out of this cycle? As someone who finds herself in it regularly, I hope that these lifestyle tricks can benefit us all.
Controlling our eating is a daily challenge. If your eating habits are harmful and compulsive, seeking help can put you in a healthy direction. In more cases than not, overeating can involve deep-rooted emotional problems. Uncovering your psychological triggers that drive your compulsive eating behaviors can help you cope. There is nothing wrong with seeing a therapist. Taking a step toward help is a step toward bettering your mental and physical health. If you need immediate help, call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237. They also have a live chat and a Crisis Text Line.
It’s a societal standard to look a specific way. We are all plagued by these persistent physical ideals. In the eyes of the social norm, plus-sized individuals aren’t only disparaged, they are often stigmatized. Bottom line: having an eating problem does not make you a bad person. Likewise, food is not bad. Labeling certain foods as “good” and some as “bad” can drive how you behave toward them. Treat all food the same, and be sure to moderate based on nutritional information, not on your feelings toward them.
Before you eat, pause and ask yourself a few questions. Are you hungry? Are you eating because you’re trying to satisfy a craving or settle an emotion? I’m typing this as I glance at a post-it note on my middle monitor: “Why are you eating?” In many cases, we get hung up on what we want to eat instead of why we want to eat it. Personally, I eat out of reflex. Perhaps this goes back to my childhood with three older siblings; perhaps it’s because the taste of food makes me happy. Either way, it’s unhealthy and for the wrong reasons. Bringing awareness back to your body can help you become back in touch with cues that signal hunger and fullness.
Alter Your Environment
To me, eating is an event. It’s highly anticipated. I can attest this to the environment, whether it’s in front of the television to watch a new show, the seats in the movie theater, or my grandmother’s house for a holiday celebration. Can I tweak my environment or the circumstances in it? If I’m going to watch a show while I eat, then the eating behaviors take first priority. Moving to the kitchen can make me more conscious of my consumption. Going to the movie theater with a finite amount of cash will allow me to have a snack but to a point. After all, aren’t we there to watch the movie? To celebrate with family? That’s what we remember, after all.
Give Into Cravings
As mentioned before, it’s vital that we veto restrictive dieting. Banning foods only makes us want them more! Giving into our occasional chocolate craving is okay, as long as we do so in moderation. This is easier said than done; learning how big healthy portions are is a way to begin. Depriving ourselves of the foods we crave can trigger overeating just as much as our anxieties and emotions.
What to Eat, What to Eat
Eating the right amount of calories isn’t always the solution. 300 calories of one food may only fill you up half as much as 300 calories of another. To solve this, try to eat foods that fill you up so you’re feeling hungry less throughout the day. Incorporating these foods in snacks and meals can help curb your cravings and quiet the midday stomach grumbles.
- Beans – rich in fiber and protein (and easy on the wallet!)
- Cruciferous vegetables – broccoli supports your body’s detoxification system
- Canned tuna – good for heart and brain health (inexpensive, too!)
- Chia seeds – protein and fiber that digests slowly
- Chicken – lean protein
- Greek yogurt – rich in protein and calcium
- Oatmeal – soluble fibers keep you fuller for longer
For more foods to fill you up, visit MyFitnessPal’s website.
Stop a Binge in Its Tracks
Even with the tips above, you may still binge or eat guiltily. And that’s okay. If you feel a binge coming on, you can take steps to stop it before it happens or even once it’s already started. Following a consistent meal plan can regulate your patterns of eating to avoid snacking throughout the day. As mentioned earlier, learning your triggers can help you separate feeling from eating. These triggers can turn “I’m hungry” into “I’m feeling unimportant” or other statements of emotional dismay. Another way to shield yourself from a binge is to remove temptation. Keep foods around that you don’t like to binge on. For me, I (should) try to keep celery within feet of me at all times.
Recognize your emotional danger zone: being aware of your anxieties and moods before you eat can help you dig up your reason for eating in the moment. Going from 0 to 60 is typical for an overeater. Delay bingeing and you allow yourself the possibility to avoid it altogether. Distract yourself by taking a walk, counting your breaths, or calling a loved one. Another method of treating bingeing would be to equate the pleasure taken from food and finding another conduit. Underlying depression can accompany those with an overeating disorder, and finding pleasure in other activities such as fitness, art, or socialization can fulfill you instead.
As a compulsive overeater, the main takeaway is this: focus on you. Your health is yours alone. Instead of focusing on the excitement of losing weight, perhaps focus on the thrill of being in good health. Consider the long-term goal of living your life to the best of your natural ability.
—Madeline Kelly, Digital Communications Coordinator