“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.   

Comments are closed.