Do you have struggles around eating? If you do, you’re not alone. In the United States, millions of people will fit the diagnosis for binge eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Many more have less severe eating issues—such as obsessing over calorie counting or feeling shame when they eat “bad” foods—that wreak havoc on their health and happiness.
Often, people with problematic eating patterns are worried about their weight and attempt to lose weight by cycling through dieting regimens, which often backfire. Even if a diet does result in weight loss, it can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and eating.
According to Howard Farkas, a psychologist specializing in emotional eating and the author of a new book, 8 Keys to End Emotional Eating, part of the problem lies in how our minds work against the goal of weight loss.
Our minds respond negatively to deprivation, says Farkas, and the self-denial that diets usually require is a recipe for failure. Restrictive eating, he says, pits “willpower” against our basic psychological need for personal autonomy—meaning the desire to make our own choices regardless of outside pressures. When willpower fades, as it’s bound to do, the desire for autonomy tends to win out, causing people to turn to eating as a way of reasserting their personal control over their lives.
To overcome this pattern, says Farkas, requires something different than dieting: an end to emotional eating. After years of working with people who have disordered eating, he believes that understanding how our brains and bodies work, and honoring our desire for autonomy around eating, are the keys to developing healthier eating habits. Here are a few of his recommendations to improve your relationship with eating and food.
Understand how emotions affect eating
People sometimes eat to relieve emotional discomfort in their lives, says Farkas, and these people tend to have certain things in common. Through his work as a therapist, he’s learned to identify four common patterns of emotional overeaters:
- Pushing your own needs aside to appease others, and feeling resentment.
- Believing your successes in life are undeserved and feeling afraid of being shamed.
- Being perfectionistic around your own behavior and anxious about making mistakes.
- Suppressing all negative emotions for fear of losing control of them.
Each emotional pattern requires suppression in order to keep social relationships and opportunities safe. But suppression requires personal control, and the tension eventually becomes too much. As a result, many binge eaters find that giving up control around eating lets off steam and reasserts their sense of autonomy—at least in the moment, even if that relief is followed by guilt or a sense of failure.
Overeaters also tend to have all-or-none thinking—meaning they judge things in their lives as either “all good” or “all bad.” This kind of thinking can affect their eating habits, too. Often, they restrict their eating only to “good” food and eschew their own desires, not trusting their body’s cues about what they want to eat.
“They think about food as either good or bad—not based on how it tastes, but in categorical terms that refer to how likely it is to cause weight gain, how unhealthy it is, and even as a moral judgment that reflects on themselves if they eat it,” writes Farkas. The problem with this way of thinking is that it ignores the underlying emotional tensions, which he believes will continue to plague us until we deal with them.
Be more strategic about control
Many of us equate control with restraint. But, says Farkas, it’s better to aim for a different type of control—autonomy. “To be autonomous means having the capacity and freedom for self-governance, and it’s the opposite of feeling externally controlled.”
How can you increase your autonomy around eating? By allowing all foods back into your life—eliminating their cachet as “the forbidden fruit”—while learning to choose what you want, when you want it, rather than fighting your body’s cues. To make this easier, he suggests things like staying ahead of your hunger by adding small snacks between meals, taking smaller portions of food initially with the understanding that you can give yourself more later if you need it, and eating more consciously, allowing yourself to fully savor your food while paying attention to when eating more doesn’t bring more pleasure.
“If you’re mindful of how much it would take to satisfy your hunger or desire for whatever you’re eating, you can maximize your pleasure while keeping the amount you eat to a minimum,” he writes.
While it may seem contradictory to the goal of changing your behavior, practicing acceptance is an important part of making any healthy habit stick. That doesn’t mean resigning yourself to never feeling in charge of your eating; but it does mean accepting yourself, as you are, so that you can be a good coach to yourself as you tackle new behaviors.
Changing habits can be difficult—two steps forward, one step back. Understanding that can help you to stay on track with your goals and prevent backsliding into a “what the hell, I may as well give up” attitude at the first slipup. Interestingly, when we accept our feelings and urges, they have less power over us, Farkas writes. So, learning to be patient with the process and acknowledge urges we have to overeat or binge is an important part of becoming more autonomous.
Break the diet mentality
While weight loss may be the goal of many people on a diet, Farkas says that this is the wrong focus, especially when measuring progress. Too many factors affect whether or not we lose weight, and diets often don’t work in the long term.
Instead, he suggests, it’s best to give up on monitoring your weight religiously and focus instead on behavioral changes that are more likely to be sustainable. For example, you can start experimenting with smaller portions of food and paying attention to your feelings of satiety, or going out to lunch at work less often, or walking or biking to work rather than driving. Aiming for behavioral changes that can be measured—instead of numbers on a scale—helps to keep the focus on building a healthy lifestyle, which (perhaps counterintuitively) will likely result in weight loss eventually.
These are just some of Farkas’s wise insights. His book contains many more keys to understanding and helping with emotional eating—including how to boost your coping skills around stress, how to use reasoning when you feel overwhelmed with emotion, and more. Filled with useful tips and compassionate expertise, this book could help anyone to become more conscious around their eating, whether you’re experiencing issues or not. For those who suffer most, it could mean the end of emotional eating and painful dieting, and hope for a better relationship to food and life.
Originally published in Greater Good Magazine.
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