Compulsive overeating can be a real addiction, and for some, it can feel impossible to overcome. Ruth Schimel with YourTango shares her own personal story with food addiction and helpful steps for moving beyond it.
Here's how to take that first small step.
Food addiction is real. And if you're struggling with food addiction, know that you're not alone — I've been there, too. In fact, the younger you are, the more likely it's your struggle.
From my past experience as a compulsive overeater, I suspect that many food addictions act as pacifiers for pain, fears, and anxieties, and even as ways to celebrate emotional spikes that are positive. Food seems to act as a life enhancer, while offering the illusion of short-term emotional balance.
As a food addict, you've established neural pathways and automatic responses for coping with life's situations. Think of these food-related responses as deep, behavioral ruts that have become roads to regrets.
Since there is no one best way to deal with long-standing, destructive habits, each individual must find their own natural rhythm and variety of viable action.
Psychologists and neuroscientists can find many valid reasons in an individual's past and physiognomy for addictions and other issues involving food, such as binge eating, anorexia and bulimia.
Though valuable for understanding and making long-term progress, I've found that focusing on your own awareness, sensitivity, and behavioral choices can lead to more immediate, accessible actions.
Although I've been overweight or obese at various times of my life, my self-confidence seems to have minimal connection to how much I actually weighed. Perhaps that was an example of denial, a typical response in addiction.
For example, when I look at early photos of myself, I see I was probably no more than 20 pounds overweight. This may seem like a lot to you, but it's minor in comparison to my eventual weight gain, when I peaked at 205 pounds with a 5'4" frame.
At one time, I felt like I tried everything to break my food addiction. I tried psychoanalysis, Overeaters Anonymous, various diets, calorie counting, food logs, portion awareness, and weekly weight check ins.
I eventually came to realize that it was not the number of pounds, but rather the see-sawing focus on being fat and the sensual, very short-term pleasure of food that were my distractions from healthy choices and actions.
This showed in combined habits of thinking, feeling, and eating that contributed to staying fat . . . and becoming fatter. Ingrained habits affected my aesthetic and social choices, from choosing clothes to the types of relationships I chose.
Over a long time, I've created a better, healthier life for myself — and I've reached a more manageable and healthy weight. Now, looking back to learn, I am in a unique position to recognize why there was no direct relationship between how much I weighed and my level of confidence in the past.
While, sure, I felt and looked better at lower weights, I eventually realized that my acceptance and level of comfort with myself was more consistently tied to a variety of other factors — none of them weight-related.
These other factors that affected my sense of self-worth included:
- Accomplishing personal and professional goals for myself and contributing to others' progress
- Improving relationships, including being with people who are stimulating and good-hearted
- Being creative, adventurous, and curious
- Enjoying daily life, including putting myself together well
- Making authentic choices in behavior, work, and other activities
So, with time, I escaped the "When I'm thin, then . . . " thinking and made some progress with other important aspects of living a satisfying life.
While not an overnight shift in thinking, it was actually a health trigger that finally motivated me to let go of using food as an escape: my cholesterol was increasing and I was beginning to be at risk of diabetes. A variety of medicines did not work, and I wanted to avoid their lifelong use as much as possible.
Then, in what seemed like a flash (but was really fear of increasing ill health), I decided to go vegan about four years ago.
As I started working with the vegan approach, I immediately saw two results: tempting food was no longer available, and I had to become more conscious of food and purchasing choices.
Within about a month of making this change, my eating compulsion weakened.
As my palate changed, sweets became too cloying. My stomach shrunk to a size that could take in only normal amounts of food comfortably.
A few years ago, I decided I needed more protein and added fish, becoming a pescatarian. Slowly, and after consulting with my internist and nutritionist about my dietary choices, I continued to lose weight. My body proportions improved even more.
This movement forward does not mean that I never over-indulge; I just do it infrequently, move on quickly, and avoid berating myself when it happens.
Now, with about 15 more pounds to lose eventually, my cholesterol and blood sugar numbers are out of the danger zone, and I enjoy wearing smaller sizes that have been waiting in the closet.
Based on my experience, observation, and study, I've become convinced that patience and persistence, as well as good, conscious choices, are key to moving beyond food addiction.
Since they are both within yourself, you have the power to improve your situation, but only over time. Though not a quick fix, hope lies in the choices you can — and will — make. The challenge is how to become ready to take the first small steps.
To make progress toward overcoming your food addiction, start where you know you have the most influence in your life — with yourself:
1. Be honest with yourself about what's holding you back from progress.
- How do you see your body, and to what or to whom do you compare yourself? (By the way, the average U.S. women's size is 14.)
- What thoughts and emotions do you associate with food and eating?
- What gets in the way of improving your eating and exercise habits?
- What emotions are catalysts in unhealthy eating and drinking at the time you indulge, and what can you do to minimize their influence or work through them?
2. Identify social or environmental pressures that lead to over-eating.
- What are the social pressures that influence your eating habits? This may include get-togethers and meetings involving food, where there is little choice about what to eat and drink.
- What can you do to minimize the negative effects of these social pressures and norms? Consider eating something healthy beforehand, letting people know you want to eat in healthy ways and asking them to help you, or suggesting alternative activities, such as taking a walk, seeing an exhibit, or sitting and talking in a park.
- What environments stimulate unhealthy eating and exercise tendencies? Examples include passive or sedentary situations, reading magazines that tout perfect bodies, food ads, and overly rigorous exercise models.
3. Make a plan for action.
- Now that you've done some internal investigation, what's one manageable goal for improvement will you set for yourself? For example, walking briskly for 30 minutes a day twice a week, keeping a food diary, adding two helpings each of vegetables and fruits to daily meals, consulting with a nutritionist, or joining a support group.
- Write down one action step that you will do within the next 24 hours. It doesn't have to be a big or powerful change — any small step is a step in the right direction.
- Next, write down one action step and schedule what you will do within the next week, and schedule time for it on your calendar.
- Keep this pattern of daily and weekly actions going, adjusting it to your needs, preferences, and experiences. If you wish, review all of your responses to the above questions regularly to help you stay motivated and to identify what to continue and what to modify.
- On your own, or with a partner or expert, develop a more long-term, practical plan with incentives and rewards that work well for you. Just make sure there's enough wiggle room to allow for daily realities! A plan, no matter how well thought out, is only valuable, if it's attainable, productive, and suited to your nature.
4. Keep your expectations realistic.
- Be kind to yourself during this challenging process, and avoid focusing on slips and self-criticism. Instead, pick yourself up and start again by setting modest, manageable goals.
- Be alert to unhelpful patterns and people, and try to stop their influence in a timely way.
- Acknowledge any progress you make with incentives and rewards you enjoy. Perhaps you'll treat yourself to a massage or other sensual pleasure after a week of regular exercise, or take a weekend road trip with good company after a month of healthier eating.
- Don't be afraid to rely on others — be it friends, family or professionals — for help. Making changes is hard, and it's not always attainable without support and cheerleading.
- Lastly, relish the present, and expand other aspects of your life that have meaning. Remember, you're so much more than your food addiction.
Ruth Schimel PhD. is a career and life management consultant and author of the six-book Choose Courage series on Amazon. She contributes to clients' personal and professional success in practical, inspiring ways, as she consults in person with individual and organizational clients in the Washington DC area. Connect and also work with her by phone and email throughout the US and abroad at www.ruthschimel.com.
More from our friends at YourTango:
- 10 Signs That Your "Food Issues" Are WAY Out of Control
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