This is the third and final post in my blog series on indulging in food. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend you do that before continuing with this post, which aims to help you stop overindulging in food. In those previous two posts, I talked about what indulging may mean to you, how you can think about indulging, and I reminded you that’s it’s normal and okay to indulge in food.
Is Your Indulging a Problem?
Do you think your particular form of indulging is harmful? Do you feel like your indulging is more frequent than it should be? Do you worry that you’re eating too much when you indulge? Do you think it’s possible that you are overindulging in food?
If you are certain that you’re not defining indulging with a restrictive mindset (see Indulging in Food, Part 1: Reality Check), then this may be something to look at and address. I’m going to break down how and why indulging in food could become problematic, and I’ll give you some guidance to help you overcome overindulging. First, I’ll take you through a series of questions that will help you determine if this is an issue for you, and then I’ll explain how you can start gaining control.
Have you very recently stopped binge eating (or are you still binge eating)?
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I described a process that you may go through as you transition from binge eating to eating in a normal way—I called it a bridge to normal eating. I explained that you probably won’t go from binge eating to completely normal eating habits overnight, and that it can take time for you to feel like you are on steady ground with food. When you are a binge eater, you become accustomed to eating large amounts of food; and even when you stop the harmful binge eating behavior, you may find yourself overeating a little more than you’d like, and that includes over-indulging in pleasurable food more than you think you should. (For more on this, you can listen to Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?)
I don’t think you should waste energy worrying about this, and instead you should stay focused on becoming confidently binge-free. Your physiology will gradually stabilize and the size of your stomach can return to normal—so that normal amounts of food and normal-sized indulgences will feel more satisfying. (Please seek any needed medical and nutritional help to support you as your body and appetite regulates).
The main message here is that—if you are only recently removed from binge eating—and you think you may be overindulging in food, try to give it some time and allow yourself to heal. If the issue does not resolve over time, then you can begin to address it. The same advice applies if you are still binge eating—try not to worry about any overindulging right now and focus instead on ending the binge eating habit and allowing your body to regulate. Then, you’ll be in a better place to work on any problematic eating issues that remain.
Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?
There’s a difference between deciding to go out and indulge in some ice cream with your family, and impulsively driving to the nearest fast food restaurant for a milkshake in response to strong sugar cravings. Neither situation is a binge, but if you feel like you are being overrun by your cravings, then it’s going to feel more problematic than if your decision to indulge feels rather calm and relaxed. Even if the desserts in both scenarios contain a similar amount of sugar and calories, you’ll feel more conscious and in control in the first example of getting ice cream than in the second example—when you feel more like you are being controlled by your desires.
Even though there is certainly food pleasure in both situations, they feel very different. If strong and uncomfortable cravings are the driving force behind most of your indulgent eating, then I believe this is something to work on, and you can start by using the suggestions I’ll give at the end of this post.
Are you obsessing over your indulgences?
If thinking about your food indulgences and looking forward to them takes up too much mental space, that’s another reason indulging could feel like a problem to you. Normal indulgence isn’t something that consumes your thoughts in a bothersome way. It’s something you choose to do, either in the moment or by planning it beforehand; but it doesn’t feel like an absolute priority in your life. If getting your treats feels so important that you can’t focus on anything else, and it causes you to lose sight of what is truly important to you, then you’ll definitely want to bring food indulgence back into it’s proper place in your life.
[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a regular basis—not just related to overindulgence—you can listen to this free Q&A audio from the Brain over Binge course: “Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating.”]
Are the consequences of indulging too great?
Even if you don’t feel driven by strong cravings, and even if you aren’t obsessing about indulgences beforehand, you may be experiencing problems after indulging. You may be someone whose decision to have ice cream in the first example leads to uncomfortable digestive issues or an exacerbation of certain inflammatory symptoms. You may have a health condition that makes the indulgences you are choosing too physically damaging for you personally.
You can start to find replacements that are equally or nearly as enjoyable, or you may need to let certain indulgences go in the name of better health. (For help with this, you can read my post: Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part III). Do not take this too far by completely banning anything that is not healthy, but if you have specific symptoms and issues with certain pleasurable foods, then you should take that into account as you approach indulging in food.
Do you find yourself saying “it’s okay to indulge” too much?
Yes, it’s true that indulging in food is okay, but if you hear this thought over and over in your head and it justifies overeating every day, or even at every meal, then it’s going to feel problematic. It’s definitely a good thing to remind yourself that indulging in food is not “bad,” and that you don’t need to be restrictive; but know that you don’t have to eat anything and everything that comes into your mind. Take an honest look at your behavior, and know that you get to decide when it is okay to indulge, and when it may not be the best idea. You get to strike a balance that works for you.
How to Get Over Overindulging in Food:
The simple advice I’m going to give you about dealing with overindulging can be organized into five D’s:
Define (what indulgences are okay to you): Take some time to think about what indulging means to you and how you want it in your life (see Part 1 and Part 2 for help with this). Your definition of normal indulging will provide guidance when you have opportunities and/or desires for certain foods, and you hear that voice in your head saying “it’s okay to indulge.” If you’ve already determined what’s okay and not okay for your personally, then it becomes clear whether or not you will follow that voice. You do not need to set exact, strict rules, and in fact, I would not recommend that at all (listen to Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?). It’s best just to have a general idea of what food indulgences you want in your life, and follow that in a flexible way.
Desire (accept food cravings and possibly address some of them): Desire may or may not be present prior to indulging. If it is, it’s not a problem—desire for pleasurable food is a normal part of life. Desires are part of the human experience. I realize that here I could probably insert an entire book about the effects that modern foods and our modern lifestyle have on cravings, and I understand that many theories abound; however, I believe it’s best to keep it simple and realize that desire has always been a part of the human condition. Even if certain modern foods are more “addicting,” we still have a choice about how much to indulge in these foods. If you want to dive deeper into this, you can listen to Episode 52 on food addiction.
It’s important to accept that desire for food is okay, but also to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to have what you are craving (and if you do decide to have what you are craving, you are never destined to overindulge or binge.)
When you have desires, try to pause and determine the course of action you want to take. That may be to have the indulgence you are craving (and not binge afterward); that may be to have a healthier food option; that may be to do another activity. You may also want to develop an overall strategy for addressing the cravings you feel are out of the range of normal. Cravings can be dismissed like binge urges, but additionally, you may want to get nutritional or medical support with any physiological issue you feel is contributing to problematic cravings, like blood sugar and/or hormone imbalances. You can also look into improving sleep, reducing stress, and improving hydration, which can all help reduce some cravings.
Decide: This is where your power of choice comes in. It’s important to realize that you are the one deciding to eat the food, or indulge in the food, or overindulge in the food. Your cravings and desires do not control your voluntary muscle movements, even if you have some physiological imbalances that are contributing to those cravings. You can start to experience your own power to determine what you indulge in and how much you indulge.
I believe that bringing the power of choice into your eating decisions is how indulging stays in the proper place in your life. When you know you have a choice—even if strong cravings are present, and even if you do decide to have the indulgence you are craving—you can still feel conscious and in control. You have the freedom to decide to indulge anytime, and you also have the freedom to decide against it when it doesn’t feel like the right decision for you.
Deliberately enjoy the indulgence: You don’t have to eat super-slowly, or chew a certain number of times, or be completely mindful, or avoid doing anything else while you are eating; but try to slow down enough to enjoy what you are indulging in. If you are eating rapidly, or eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the car, it will feel more impulsive and is more likely to lead to overindulging. Eating a little more deliberately goes hand in hand with deciding to indulge—it’s another way of keeping your higher brain engaged, realizing what you are doing, and proving to yourself that you are in control.
Delicious: This is a bonus “D” to remind you that you can and should enjoy eating and indulging in food. When you indulge, it’s perfectly okay to soak in the pleasure (without the guilt!). Then, when you are done, put the food aside and move on with you life.
I hope this series on indulging has been helpful to you. I hope you are able to determine the proper place in your life for indulging in food and put aside any overindulging that feels harmful to you.
If you are still binge eating, you’ll want to stay focused on ending that harmful habit before working on other problematic eating habits like overindulging in food. For help stopping the binges, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.
I received a good question today from someone struggling with binge eating regarding which part of the brain—the higher brain (rational) or the lower brain (primal, habitual, and instinctual) is involved in normal eating. This is topic I address thoroughly in my new book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, but I want to answer it briefly here—and direct you to a few other posts and podcasts episodes where you can learn more—because this issue can be confusing for some people.
The more animalistic and primal part of the brain (that I call the lower brain) has a fundamental role in eating, and when it’s functioning properly, we should be able to trust it to regulate our appetite and steer us toward good food choices—based on our taste preferences and physiological needs. However, when restrictive dieting and binge eating become involved, the primal brain becomes dysfunctional—driving the person toward massive amounts of food, as if that’s imperative for survival. To overcome this, it’s necessary to use the rational higher brain to override the primal brain’s (temporarily) faulty programming.
When you recover and end the binge eating habit, you are not banishing the primal brain. You are instead returning it to its normal role in regulating hunger and fullness and the desire for pleasurable food. Where my opinion differs from a purely intuitive eating approach is that I don’t think we can rely completely on the the primal lower brain to guide our eating in today’s modern food environment. There are so many unnatural and over-stimulating foods that our appetite regulation system and our brain’s reward system (located in the lower brain) weren’t meant to deal with. We need our higher brain power to override any abnormal or problematic cravings.
Eating is never a purely rational experience, nor should it be. But in today’s world, I don’t think eating can necessarily be a purely primal-brain-driven experience either.
To explore more about this topic, you can check out the following resources:
If you are ready to end your struggle with binge eating, you can download the Brain over Binge Basics to get started: