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Overindulging in food

Indulging in Food, Part 3: Getting over Overindulging

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.

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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

indulging in food binge eating recovery

Indulging in Food, Part 2: It’s Okay, You are Okay

This is the second part of a 3-part series on “indulging” in food. In my part 1, I talked about the fact that there is no consensus on what it means to indulge. I gave you two tips for how to think about indulging: First, remember that indulging is not the same as binge eating, and second, avoid overly restrictive definitions of indulging (because a lot of perfectionism and guilt can arise when you define indulging too narrowly).

In this post, I’m going talk about what indulging may mean to you personally; and more importantly, I’m going to try to help you see that it is okay to indulge and it does not mean something is wrong with you.

I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with an exact definition of what indulging means to you. Eating behaviors can’t always be neatly categorized. Eating is a balance; it can change from day to day, and certainly from person to person; and you get to make it work for you. You may already have your own thoughts about what indulging looks like in your life. Maybe you think about a holiday dinner, or having a meal at your favorite restaurant, or being on vacation and eating a variety of delicious foods you don’t normally eat, or maybe you think of having an extra serving of a food you love when you are already rather full. You may automatically think of eating sugary foods, like having a doughnut or two at the office, or a larger than usual piece of cake at a birthday party. It’s possible you think of healthy foods as well, like eating a big serving of your favorite organic vegetables, or a large, juicy grass-fed steak cooked just the way you like it, or succulent seasonal fruits that you love.

As long as you know indulging is not the same as a binge, and is not defined as “any time you eat imperfectly,” that gives you a wide range from which you can view indulgent eating. If you were to check the dictionary, the definitions of “indulge” are varied. Here are just a few: to allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of….to yield to an inclination or desireto satisfy or gratify. Using only the textbook definitions, you could theoretically indulge in any eating opportunity, because you could think of it being more about the experience of pleasure and satisfaction than the amount or type of food. During any normal meal or even a small snack, you can certainly allow yourself to take pleasure in it, and you can feel satisfied and gratified. Eating is pleasurable and food should be enjoyed.

However, when leaders in the field of eating disorders say, “it’s okay to indulge sometimes,” they typically mean it’s okay to get more-than-normal satisfaction and gratification from eating. So, in the context of promoting recovery from binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, and EDNOS, indulgence usually refers to eating experiences that are at least a little outside of what you’d consider normal food pleasure. And, that’s the general standard I’m using when talking about “indulging” in this blog series.

Using that perspective, if we were to come up with a broad, overarching view of indulgent eating, it would be something like this: Taking more pleasure in food than you normally do, or more pleasure than you’d consider normal (and this description is given with the assumption that it’s okay to take pleasure in your food whenever and whatever you eat.)

If you want to explore what indulging means to you personally, take a look at what you believe normal eating is for you (and if you aren’t eating normally yet, look for examples in other people who you consider to be normal eaters); and then, if you decide to take more pleasure in food than that baseline of “normal,” that’s what you can see as indulging. If “normal” is enjoying most meals and snacks, experiencing pleasure in eating reasonable amounts (of both healthy foods and some unhealthy foods as well); then indulging could be thought of as enjoying too much of  certain foods that are either healthy or unhealthy…but you’ll probably be more likely to think it’s indulgence when the foods are unhealthy.

For example, you might eat one average-sized scoop of ice cream for dessert sometimes and you consider that normal eating pleasure, so indulging might be having a two-scoop serving with toppings, which leaves you a little too full. Normal food pleasure might be going to a restaurant and enjoying every bite of your favorite meal, and indulging might be having an appetizer and wine before the meal, still enjoying your meal, and possibly even having dessert afterward.

I realize words like “too much” or “normal,” and even “healthy” and “unhealthy” are open to interpretation, but that’s okay, because how we eat and how we indulge in food is highly individual, and having the freedom to decide what it means to you is empowering.

But, why does any of this matter to binge eating recovery?

Because I want you to take the advice that “it’s okay to indulge” to heart. I want you to believe it, and to believe it requires understanding it. I want you to know that quitting the binge eating habit never means quitting the pleasure of eating, and it also doesn’t mean giving up indulging in food. If you think it does, it makes recovery seem much more difficult, because it requires you to live up to unrealistic standards and it fosters a rigid mindset around food.

From a purely nutritional perspective, is indulging an ideal form of eating? Probably not. Is indulging optimally healthy when we look at it only from a physiological standpoint?  Again, probably not, because even if you are indulging in healthy foods, too much of anything usually isn’t nutritionally ideal. But might indulging sometimes be good for your mental health and stress level, and benefit you more overall than always having tight control over your portions and the types of foods you allow yourself? Absolutely, especially if you are learning to overcome a “dieting” mindset.

Not only is it okay to indulge, YOU are okay if you indulge. Indulging in food is not a sign that you are off-track in recovery from binge eating. 

Because binge eating activates a more-than-normal pleasure process in your primitive brain, and gives you a temporary reward, in some ways it may seem similar to indulging. So when you are trying to quit binge eating and you find yourself indulging, your inclination may be to think that you are not okay, and that indulging is just another sign that something is wrong with you, and you will never be normal around food. That is not the case.

When you indulge, simply recognize it, be aware of it, label it as “indulging” if that helps you, and then just continue your recovery – always keeping your intention and commitment not to binge. You can even get excited when you avoid following an indulgence with a binge. Turn your mindset from “I didn’t eat perfectly, I indulged…something is wrong with me” to a more empowering thought like, “Yes, I may have indulged…but I’m breaking the connection between normal indulgence and binge eating.”

Another benefit of believing it’s okay to indulge and you are okay when you indulge is that it helps cement the fact that you are not restrictively dieting. It helps your body realize you are going to feed it and food pleasure is allowed. This can reduce the binge urges that are rooted in the survival drives, which are activated by deprivation.

Like I mentioned at the end of the last post, I’m not saying indulging too much is a good thing; I’m not saying you should never try to curb indulgence if it’s causing a problem for you (which I’ll talk about in the next post).  But, I am saying that when you do indulge, it’s very helpful to avoid self-criticism and avoid thinking you are flawed and broken, and instead remember that it’s okay and you are okay.

Go to Indulging in Food, Part III

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If you want to end the binge eating habit, you download my 30-page free eBook, which will teach you all of the basics of the Brain over Binge approach.

My experience of overeating (binge eating recovery)

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!