“Overeating,” Part II: Don’t Overdo Self-Control

     To recover from binge eating, you are not aiming for heroic control of everything you put in your mouth; and this is a very important point when discussing overeating.   

     In the FAQ sectionof my website, I suggest that people struggling with overeating should consider how they define overeating:

“Some people who are trying to diet restrictively might consider breaking their low-calorie diet with a regular meal/snack/dessert to be overeating. Many with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists; and I think sometimes there can be an element of “being too hard on yourself” involved in what you perceive to be overeating. You are the only one who knows for sure though, so trust what you think/feel about your own eating habits (but also know that if you think 2,000-2,500 calories a day is way too much, you will need to change your perspective).”

     In other words, make sure you aren’t holding an unrealistic standard for yourself.  

     Let’s say you are trying to maintain a 1,300 calorie-per-day starvation diet, and you “overeat;”  you likely aren’t overeating at all, but instead simply giving your body what it needs.  When this happens, you may hear faulty messages telling you that you “have no self-control…and might as well binge.”  Remember that voice making excuses for binge eating is from the lower brain – those reasons are not logical or rational – and don’t need to be given any value.  Of course it makes no sense to go back to binge eating because you have eaten more than your restrictive diet allowed; but when a binge urge is present, those thoughts might seem appealing.  The best course of action is to abandon the restrictive diet, not abandon your resolve to stay binge-free. 

     But, what if you determine that your overeating is true overeating – not binge eating, but also not you simply being too hard on yourself?   

     My advice is to acknowledge it, but put it aside for now. I’ve come to believe that tackling too much at once might actually prevent you from overcoming your main problem: binge eating, and here’s why: 

     Recent research shows that too much self-control is not good for you. The following is from The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can DoTo Get More of It,”  by KellyMcGonigal:

“Just like some stress is necessary for a happy and productive life, some self-control is needed.  But just like living under chronic stress is unhealthy, trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy. It’s too big a burden for your biology. Self-control, like the stress response, evolved as a nifty strategy for responding to specific challenges.  But just as with stress, we run into trouble when self-control becomes chronic and unrelenting. […] You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely.” (pg. 49)

     When recovering from binge eating, I think it’s best to use the “nifty strategy” of self-control for binge eating only (at least at first, until you gain confidence in your ability to remain binge-free).  If you start trying to view every non-hungry craving as neurological junk, or try to detach from every thought encouraging you to eat a few more bites, you might wear yourself down.  This doesn’t give you a pass to overeat all of the time; it only means if you choose to have a few more bites (or another serving) when you are already comfortably full, don’t worry about it.         

     To  help you put your overeating and other eating imperfections aside for now, it helps to write those habits down (go get a pen, or your iPhone!;-)). That way, you know aren’t ignoring those problematic eating behaviors, or brushing them under the rug.  You are fully acknowledging your eating imperfections, but disconnecting them from your binge eating recovery.  Keep your list in a place where you can come back to it after binge eating stops. You may find that some of the problems go away on their own, and you also may find that what you considered “overeating” simply isn’t a big deal after recovery and there is no need to address it.  Conversely, you may find that some of the eating problems do indeed interfere with your life and you need to work on them.  Welcome to the world of normal eating! 

     Another benefit of having your problematic eating habits (non-binge) written down, is that you’ll be less likely to fall for those lower brain messages that tell you that you “might as well binge” because you aren’t eating perfectly. You can detach from those messages, remembering your list and that you will work on any other eating problems after recovery if you deem it necessary. 

     Don’t feel like you have to finish your list right now; instead, add to it over time. If you ever find that you’ve eaten in a way that isn’t ideal, but also not out of control or binge-like; then just add it to your list, and acknowledge that it’s something you may need to address at some point.  Don’t over-think it; don’t dwell on it; don’t put yourself down because of it; and most importantly: don’t think that you’ve already given in to your lower brain so you are destined to binge.  Actually, feeling like you might have overeaten, but not following that with a binge is actually a very positive sign.   

10 thoughts on ““Overeating,” Part II: Don’t Overdo Self-Control

  1. Thank you very much for this post, Kathryn. It’s exactly where I find myself right now, and is the approach I have been taking, though I wasn’t sure if it was exactly “right”. This makes complete sense to me, as I have been in that place of feeling worn down by trying to be “perfect” – and of course that’s impossible, because I’m human. I agree, the main thing right now is not my weight, not whether I take a few too many bites of a delicious meal, or have a reasonable snack when I’m not physically hungry; the main thing is no binge eating. And no binge eating is wonderful! Thanks so much for the book and all your help through this site. God bless you in this work.

    1. I’m so sorry my response time is slow right now. Thanks for commenting here. I’m glad this makes sense to you, and that putting aside worries about eating perfectly is helping you focus on the true problem. I think eating ‘reasonably’ is a good way to think about it. I hope things are going well!

  2. Hello Kathryn Hansen πŸ™‚ I just wanted to tell you that you saved me. Your book saved me. I’m 21 years old and after years of suffering I’m finally recovered. From the first day I picked up Brain over Binge, I stopped binge eating, completely and entirely. It happened overnight. So thank you thank you thank you. I was in my bed a few days ago, about to sleep, and I felt so happy, I couldn’t hold my tears back. Because I’m finally free πŸ™‚ so again, thank you. You changed my life

    1. Wow, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s very powerful. I apologize it’s taken me so long to respond to this. I truly appreciate you taking the time to write; it means a lot to me to know the book has helped you be free:-) Congrats on your success, and I wish you all the best in the future.

    2. December 20, 2012It’s almost initbvaele that Binge Eating Disorder (BED), or compulsive overeating as it is also known, will lead to other addictions. ALL chemical addictions affect the number of dopamine neurotransmitters. Dopamine has been called the pleasure neurotransmitter but would be better described as the motivation/reward impulse of the brain. Addiction decimates this essential neural transmitter so that only more of the substance can produce the reward pop .Substance abuse researchers say that the brain adaptions that result from regularly eating so-called hyperpalatable foods – foods that layer salt, fat, and sweet flavors, proven to increase consumption – are likely to be more difficult to change than those from cocaine or alcohol because they involve many more neural pathways. Almost 90 percent of the dopamine receptors in the vental tegmental area (VTA) of the brain are activated in response to food cues. Brand-new research also shows direct evidence of lasting and fundamental injuries to a part of the brain that helps us regulate our food intake, the hypothalamic arcuate nucleus. Within three days of being placed on a high-fat diet, a rat’s hypothalamus (the area of the brain that responds to the hormones that signal hunger and satiety, pair and maternal bonding and certain social behavior) shows increased inflammation; within a week, researchers see evidence of permanent scarring and neuron injury in an area of the brain crucial for weight control. Brain scans of obese men and women show this exact pattern as well. Playing with potato chips is a lot closer to playing with amphetamines or heroine than most people believe. The new pioneering research is helping us to appreciate a holistic and integrative approach to addiction. I was first senior research fellow in NIH Office of Complementary Medicine. Using food addiction as template, THE HUNGER FIX addiction plan integrates personal empowerment, spirituality, along with whole food nutrition and restorative physical activity.

  3. Dear Kathryn,
    I am writing this post out of depression. I have dealt with body image issues and food obsession for over 2 years now. I am 20 years old. I am almost done with reading your book. For a while your book opened up my eyes to the reality of my situation and how it is a neurological problem with overeating. Here is the thing though, my binges for the past two years have only been like 1,000 calories of overeating at one setting at a time as opposed to 8000. So i am not sure if i can consider it a binge eating disorder, but i have. i have gained almost 20 pounds since it started. it all started with me over restricting myself, just like you explained in your book.
    for a while your book helped me and i was able to detach myself from my urges to binge or overeat, but recently my constant hatred for my body and intense desire to lose weight has been causing me to relentlessly obsess about the whole situation. I am confused and distressed. All i want to do it lose weight and i feel like if i simply just stop binging, i wont lose the weight because my binges were never as extreme as yours. I constantly am obsessing about weight and food and constantly distressed and depressed. I just dont know how to approach the situation or get out of it, and it has been two years of me trying to get out of it. I feel like im in a trap that i will never get out of. All i want to be able to do is be free, not obsessed with eating, but just be able to eat healthily and lose the weight. Please, if anyone has any tips or encouragement, feel free to share. I am desperate.

    1. I’m sorry you are struggling, and I truly apologize that my response time is very slow right now. I understand your concerns, and I know it can be difficult for people when there is a strong desire to lose weight. If you are eating too little in an attempt to lose the weight, it is going to be extremely hard to detach from the binge urges.

      Did you see my “Weight after Recovery” post? (http://brainoverbinge.blogspot.com/2012/05/weight-after-recovery.html) It may help give you some ideas about the weight issue, and how to approach weight loss in a more healthy way. Just because your binges are smaller doesn’t mean you won’t lose weight after you stop binge eating. You likely will have to be patient, but knowing that the more you restrict, the more weight you are setting yourself up to gain may help you avoid putting yourself on a restrictive diet for a “quick fix.” There are no quick fixes for lasting weight loss. If you are focused on health, and nourishing your body, your body will gravitate toward what’s normal for you.

      I mentioned this in another post, but I highly recommend “Ditching Diets” by Gillian Riley to address weight concerns/diet obsessions/healthy weight loss.

    2. I’m not sure where there is so much space between the words in the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph…I can’t figure out how to fix it. It wasn’t intentional:-)

    3. It’s just because the text is justified – ie, spaced out so that it’s evenly spread across the page – and the following ‘word’ is a long URL with no spaces that the website wants to put on a single line. The only way to fix it would be to re-phrase the start of that sentence to have more words in it, and that would be silly, so don’t worry about it. πŸ˜‰

Comments are closed.