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

(This is the second post in my blog series on overeating. You can find Part I here. )

To recover from binge eating, you are not aiming for heroic control of everything you put in your mouth; and this is very important when it comes to discussing overeating. Ending binge eating is not about ending all overeating, but many binge eaters want to address their overeating behaviors as well. In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide and in my course, I suggest that people who believe they overeat should first consider how they define overeating, because it’s possible they are not overeating at all.  To better explain this, here is a paragraph from the “Overeating” Chapter of the Recovery Guide:

“Many people think that they are eating too much when they are in fact eating normally – just not dieting anymore. Individuals who have a history of starving themselves might view what are actually normal portions as excessive; and since people with eating disorders can be perfectionists, there may be an element of “being too hard on yourself” involved in what you perceive to be overeating.  For example, if a dieter is trying to restrict calories to 1,500 per day and “overeats” one day to reach 2,200 calories, they haven’t truly overeaten at all, just eaten more in line with their calorie needs.”

In other words, make sure you aren’t holding an unrealistic standard for yourself.  Breaking resolutions to stick to overly restrictive eating plans is not overeating.

Let’s say you are someone trying to maintain a too-low calorie intake; for example, 1,300 calories per day. If you go over your “allowed” amount of calories and think you overate, you may hear faulty thoughts telling you that you “have no self-control and you might as well binge and then start over tomorrow.” Remember that voice making excuses for binge eating is from the lower brain; those thoughts are not logical or rational and don’t need to be given any value or attention.

Of course it makes no sense to binge because you have eaten more than your restrictive diet allowed. But, if you continue down the path of not giving your body enough food, the binge urges will persist and giving into them will be inevitable. The best course of action is to abandon the restrictive diet, not abandon your resolve to stay binge-free. 

You may be thinking that your overeating is more than just breaking a strict diet. If you determine that you are truly overeating (and not simply being too hard on yourself), here are some thoughts for you:

If you are someone who is still binge eating and trying to end that habit, my advice is to acknowledge any overeating you engage in, but don’t focus too much attention on correcting the overeating right now. I think that tackling too much at once may actually prevent you from overcoming your main problem of binge eating, and here’s one explanation of why, which also explains why trying to strictly control everything you put in your mouth is not helpful:

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 primarily for binge eating and not worry much about overeating or any other eating imperfections. If you start trying to dismiss every non-hungry craving, or try to detach from every thought encouraging you to eat a few more bites, you will wear yourself down. This doesn’t give you a pass to overeat all of the time; it only means to avoid putting so much pressure on yourself to get your eating exactly right. If you find yourself having a few more bites (or another serving) when you are already comfortably satisfied, it’s okay. Just move on, and put your focus on dismissing the binge urges.

To help you put aside your overeating concerns for now, it may help you to write those behaviors down. That way, you know aren’t ignoring any eating behaviors that you feel are problematic.  You are fully acknowledging them, but you are 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 overeating habits go away on their own with the cessation of binge eating, 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 issues do indeed interfere with your life after binge eating stops and you need to work on them. Welcome to the world of normal eating!

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

So, instead of getting upset at yourself for overeating, and instead of binge eating in response to overeating, try this:
If you find that you’ve eaten in a way that isn’t ideal (but is not a binge), then just add it to your list, and acknowledge that it’s something you may need to address at some point in the future when you are binge-free. 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 are destined to binge binge because of it.

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