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.
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.
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 by Kelly McGonigal:
“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.