Overeating, Part III: Practice Thankfulness

When I was planning out this blog series on overeating, I envisioned this third and final post to be a little different (see Part I and Part II). I thought I would share some practical tips for conquering any problematic overeating you may have after binge eating stops, but this week I was inspired to take this post in a new direction.


Inspired
feels like the wrong word to use here. I was heartbroken seeing the events unfolding in the Philippines during the past week (*this post was written following the devastating typhoon in 2013). I just couldn’t bring myself to write tips for conquering overeating, while so many victims of the typhoon were starving as they waited for aid. Those of you who read Brain over Binge know that my family was impacted by hurricane Katrina in 2005, and since then, seeing the suffering caused from natural disasters seems to affect me even more deeply.

 

Before I go any further, I want to stop and say that I’m not trying to minimize the problem of overeating at all, or say that you shouldn’t worry about it because there are people who don’t even have food to eat (and certainly not enough to overeat).  But, what I hope to point you toward in this post is a different perspective that will serve to help you in your effort to end problematic overeating.

 

What I want to suggest to you is to cultivate gratitude for the food you have, which in turn, can naturally lessen your desire to overeat. Gratitude can bring you peace in so many aspects of your life and your relationships, including your relationship with food; but if you are like most people with eating disorders, you probably have an antagonistic relationship with food. You may be fearing it, trying to eat less of it to lose weight, trying to “burn it off” when you feel like you don’t eat perfectly; and at times, you are also putting too much of it into your body, which is harming you both physically and emotionally. All of this means that you may not experience a deep sense of gratitude for food.

 

If you can learn to develop that sense of gratitude, it can be a powerful deterrent to any of your harmful food and weight thoughts and behaviors, including overeating.

 

To explain this, I want to share a personal story about the effect that thankfulness had on my thoughts about food today. I had been watching the news coverage of the typhoon prior to taking a trip to the grocery with my 4 kids. The background to this story is that over the past several months, I had slipped into a negative mindset in regard to feeding my kids. I had been worrying so much about potentially harmful ingredients that’s in some of the food I buy. There is, of course, a great deal of concerning information out there about food, and although I try to feed my kids relatively well most of the time, I rarely buy organic because it’s just not financially feasible for our family of 6 right now. I also feel overwhelmed much of the time caring for my little ones, and I don’t always succeed in cooking at home and avoiding processed foods and fast foods.

 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to nourish yourself or your family with high quality food, but my lack of success in doing that was causing me a lot of unnecessary stress. I was approaching a lot of meals with self-criticism and a sense of fear about the potential effects of certain ingredients; and because of this, I was not truly appreciating the food we were eating. But, during today’s trip to the grocery store, I filled up my cart without any of those worrisome thoughts. It was as if the news coverage of the typhoon woke me up, and made me truly appreciate what I have. As I took each item off of the shelf, I felt a renewed sense of thankfulness for having food and being able to feed my kids meal after meal and day after day, even if it isn’t perfect.

 

I believe gratitude can have a similar effect on the desire to overeat. If you find yourself worrying that you’ll overeat at a meal or snack, try to shift your focus to being thankful for the food that you have. Try to grow your appreciation for the fact that you can nourish your body, feel satisfied; and then have more food available the next time you are hungry. A mindset of being thankful for food in the present, while also being thankful for future food, can help curb the desire to eat too much right now.  If you allow yourself to feel deeply grateful that food will be there for you at your next meal or snack, you will be more likely to stop eating when you are comfortably full.

 

Trying to be more thankful doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about having plentiful food when others have little. I am simply recommending that, when you begin to worry about eating too much of this or that, or when you feel too full after a meal, you try gently reminding yourself that you are fortunate to be able to eat, even if you don’t always do it perfectly. And be thankful that you’ll have tomorrow to try again.

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If you are still struggling with binge eating, it’s best to overcome that first before working on any overeating issues. To help you end binge eating, I’ve created a free eBook called “The Brain over Binge Basics” which you can receive by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.  Click HERE or on the image below to get the eBook.

Overeating, Part I: My Experience

I want to spend three blog posts talking about overeating – why do we do it? is it normal? how much is okay? how is it connected to binge eating?

In this post, I’m going to briefly describe my experience with overeating, if I should even call it that. I consider all of my eating to be normal, even if I sometimes eat past a perfect ideal of satiety. I think the term overeating can have a negative quality, and may possibly be connected in your mind to eating disorders and compulsive actions. I call it overeating for lack of a better word, but maybe there should be a better word, because I’ve found that explaining to people that some overeating is normal can leave them them feeling a little uneasy.  If this is the case for you, I hope this blog series will help ease your mind. 

The overeating I’m speaking of  in my experience is fully chosen, in balance, and infrequent. It is not something I feel compulsively driven to do, or feel guilty about doing. I haven’t been extremely full since I stopped binge eating in 2005, nor would I have any desire to be. But, I have been a little uncomfortable after big holiday dinners; I’ve felt my stomach stretched more than might be ideal after eating my favorite meals at restaurants; I’ve eaten desserts even after being fully satisfied from meals; I have chosen to have a few more bites of delicious foods even after my physical needs were met; I’ve eaten snacks or treats without any hunger at all, just to be social or just because the foods looked too good to pass up. 

Overeating is subjective because there is no perfect blueprint on what amount is exactly right for anyone. We all have to make educated guesses for ourselves based on our body’s signals and what we know to be reasonable portions. In the situations I described above, it’s possible that my body actually did need the energy from the foods that I perceived to be more than I needed. Being a little too full or eating when not hungry is not necessary overeating. Sometimes it’s just what we need for a variety of reasons. Getting overly analytical and vigilant about the exact amount you should eat, and being overly critical of yourself if you eat beyond a perfect satisfaction level is not helpful. It can lead to some unhealthy obsessions and can drain your valuable energy. 

When I eat in the ways that I described above, I don’t label it overeating in the moment. I just feel the sensation of being a little too full or eating when not physically hungry, and move on with my life. Then, my body gets hungry again, and I eat again. Judging every eating decision you make, including when you choose to overeat (or eat more than you may physically need, or eat past the point of ideal fullness, or whatever you’d like to call that type of eating) will only make eating much more difficult. Throughout this blog series, I’ll continue to call this type of eating overeating for simplicity, but know that there is no one exact definition, and know that some overeating is certainly normal.  If you are a recovering binge eater, the most important thing you need to know about overeating is that it doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you’ve “blown it,” and it certainly doesn’t mean you are destined to follow it with a binge.

I look forward to continuing to talk about this topic in the next two blog posts!  (go to Part II and Part III)

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*This blog series is about overeating, but if you are still struggling with binge eating, you can get my free eBook, The Brain over Binge Basics by signing up for my newsletter. It will help you understand why you binge and what you can do to take control back!

 

Listen to Your Body?

   When my son Max (who is now 4) was about 2 years old, he began asking me during mealtime:”can I be done?” At first, I’d just asked him if he’d had enough, and if he said “yes,” I’d let him leave the table. However, he soon began asking “can I be done?” after the first or second bite; and he would get annoyed if I asked him to eat a little more. He later began asking, “how many bites do I have to take before I can be done?” Mealtimes quickly stopped being enjoyable because he only seemed to want to get back to playing instead of taking the time to eat and enjoy his food; and I didn’t feel comfortable insisting that he eat a certain number of bites or offering him more tasty (and usually more unhealthy) food choices as substitutes for what I’d prepared. It didn’t feel natural to me, and went against the philosophy I believed in before he was old enough to eat.


   Before I began feeding him solids, I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted him to eat. I wanted him to be able to follow his own hunger and fullness signals, and I wanted to have a relaxed attitude around food – not forcing him to eat things he didn’t like, and also not putting any “unhealthy” foods off limits; but I also wanted to offer him healthy choices for the most part and have structure around his meal and snack times.  I quickly learned that teaching a child to rely on his own hunger and fullness signals is more complex than I thought it would be.  


    When mealtimes became a struggle, I decided to start talking to Max about how to “listen to his body” (my husband jokingly made fun of me for using this phrase, but I thought the phrase brought the concept down to a child’s level).  “What is your body telling you, Max?” I would ask when he would ask me how many more bites he had to take. “Does your stomach feel empty, like it has a little food in it, or like it is tight and full?”  I tried to teach him to notice sensations that would signal that he still needed to eat more or that he’d had enough, in hopes that he could make a wise choice about how many more bites to take. Quite frankly, this didn’t work, and it became rather comical. Max would say he was full when the foods offered were not his favorites, and he would say he was still hungry even after eating plenty of his favorite foods.  A conversation could have gone something like this:


(Max eating soup and crackers)
Max: “How many bites do I have to take before I can be done?”
Me: “Well, Max, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says I’m done.”
Me:  “But you’ve only eaten two bites. I think you need to eat some more so that you won’t be hungry at nap time and you will have energy for the rest of the day.”
Max:  “My body says ‘stop eating soup! stop eating soup!'”


(Max eating chocolate cake)
Max:  “Can I have some more cake?”

Me: “Max, you’ve already had a big piece, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.” 
Max: “My body says ‘more cake, more cake!'” 

     As funny as these statements are coming from a 2-year-old, it actually provides an unfiltered look at our brain’s primitive pleasure center and how it influences food intake. 

     Palatability usually overrides satiety, so that even if we are physically full, we still want to continue eating a highly pleasurable food (hence, “my body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”). And unless we are famished, lack of palatabilty can override hunger (hence, “my body says ‘stop eating soup!'”)  A 2-year-old doesn’t have enough higher brain power to always override these primitive, pleasure-seeking brain signals. Neither does a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, and even adults with fully developed higher brain centers have trouble resisting tempting food (in the most extreme cases, this takes the form of binge eating).  

     I think it is highly unfair to kids when their parents keep the house stocked with extremely pleasurable/sugar-laden foods, and let them have free reign of it. They aren’t always going to make a choice to stop when their brains’ say “more sweets, more sweets.”  My experience with Max led me to believe that childhood obesity is partially due to parents letting their kids “listen to their bodies” too much in an environment filled with sugary foods.  Their bodies are very survival and pleasure oriented, and although they may not binge, they will often reach for the sweets over the healthy choices.           

    I still want Max to learn to listen to his body, but I also want him to know that he must think too. Now that he is a bit older, I have explained to him that when we eat desert and sugary foods, sometimes our bodies don’t tell us to stop even when we are full (and it’s possible that Max has genes like me that make him susceptible *not destined!* to overeat pleasurable foods). I sometimes set limits on how much desert he can have, and even if he says “my body says more,” I have to tell him no. I try to get him involved in something else so he stops focusing on his desire for more; and sure enough, within a couple minutes he always forgets about the food.  I want to teach him that we can’t have everything we desire, and sometimes doing the right thing means temporarily feeling deprived of pleasure (we can’t mistake pleasure for happiness).        


    One day, when his higher brain centers are developed, I hope this lesson will stick: You don’t always have to listen to your body and brain when you know (with your higher brain centers) that what it’s telling you to do is not right or good for you. This lesson doesn’t only apply to eating pleasurable foods, but to anything that involves a healthy dose of self-control.         


   On the flip side, I’m also trying to teach him that just because some foods don’t taste great (like vegetables, in his opinion), he still needs to make a good effort to try them. Also, if he is not hungry at a meal, I certainly don’t force him to eat; but I do make sure he eats something to give him energy to last him until the next meal. Food is fuel and even when the appetite is low for one reason or another, that doesn’t mean we can’t put food in our mouths (except, of course, in cases of illness when eating normally would not be advised). I know I tend to lose my appetite in times of stress, but I still eat normally, even though it may not be as enjoyable to do so.  Following the appetite is important, but we need to use our higher brains too when making food choices because sometimes the appetite isn’t completely reliable – especially when bombarded with sugary, highly processed, “addicting” foods.  


    I’m certainly not saying I’m doing everything right in fostering good eating habits in my children, but I do find it interesting how the brain of a child gives us a glimpse into the adult “animal” brain, which I believe plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of binge eating.