5 Enemies of the Overeater: The most important things to avoid when trying to change your eating
Adapted from: Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD
The road to change is a difficult one. In a culture where food has come to mean so much
more than nutrition, change requires a multi-layered effort. As you navigate this complex process of making permanent change and begin to identify what works and doesn’t work for you, here are some nasty enemies to watch for and avoid while trying to navigate this difficult road.
1. Fatigue and Stress
When we are more tired and stressed out, we tend to eat more. Our brains make sure of
it by the chemicals that are released during both of these states. Food becomes an
effective way to reward and relax ourselves under stress. Food also provides stimulation
when tired. And so instead of getting the rest you need to decrease stress and feel
energized, many people tend to mask the underlying issues with food. If you can’t
change your sleep or stress, please know that shifting your eating is going to be all the
When we deprive ourselves of foods that we love, we are more susceptible to bingeing
and overeating. If you want to make long-term shifts in your patterns of eating, I strongly
recommend you decrease portion sizes and eat all foods in moderation. Do NOT deprive
yourself of foods you enjoy. Believe it or not, eating all foods in moderation is way more
difficult to carry out than any other type of eating plan. And keep in mind that, research
shows that deprivation of food leads to eventual bounce back binging and weight gain.
There is NO WAY to hate your body into the body you love. If this approach worked
even a little bit, no one would need weight loss help—we would already be self-hating
our way to thinness. Berating yourself for indulging in certain foods leaves you in a
twisted bind. If you don’t have the food, you feel deprived and resentful (see above) and
if you do have (or binge on) the food, you hate yourself. Finding a happy medium in all of
this is of utmost importance. Balance does NOT include body hate or self-flagellation
when you make mistakes.
We’ve become a society with great disdain for slow change over time and long-term
payoffs (just look at those pop-up ads!). And when it comes to food and our bodies, we
want change and we want it NOW. Unless we can rework this approach and attitude,
lasting change in our eating patterns is not likely. Remember it took you a long time to
develop these patterns, so it will take some time to undo them. No shortcuts! If we want
the changes to last, the shifts in our eating have to happen gradually. Changing takes
practice and time.
This enemy is best friends with Impatience and Self-Criticism. Many people have in their
minds that in order to change eating patterns, they must maintain a strict meal plan.
Usually this is unrealistic. Those who adopt black and white attitudes of success and
failure are often the same people who think losing 1-2 lbs. per week is not enough.
Friends, I know you are overachievers and like to work hard and get quick, excellent
results. But when it comes to your relationship with food and your body, you have to let
these attitudes go. This process is not elegant and it’s not perfect. It takes tons of grit
and messing up and compassion. The sooner you can integrate an appreciation for an
imperfect process into your eating patterns, the sooner you can make some progress.
“Big Food” Rehab: Sugar, Fat, and Salt
Adapated from “The End of Overeating” by Dr. David Kessler, MD, FDA
We have known for a long time that certain stimuli, such as alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling, and food, can exert powerful effects on our actions. Much more recently we have begun to learn that these stimuli have a common, underlying mechanism, and the same general effect: They command our attention, occupy working memory, change how we feel, and become the focus of our single-minded thoughts. Whether we are pulled towards a reward or pushed away to avoid a negative emotion, we often react without awareness to a force we do not recognize. It is possible to learn to eat the food you want in a planned and controlled way. As individuals, we can practice this, and we can get better at it.
Hyperpalatable food (loaded with Sugar, Fat or Salt) has been around for a long time, but was rare in nature. As food technologies increased, so did our constructing of food – to become addictive in nature. We have to take the power away from food by changing how we view the stimulus – using an addiction model. Essential principles of food rehab include: a) conditioned hypereating is a biological challenge, not a character flaw; b) hypereating needs to be managed and is not completely cured; c) effective treatment breaks the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle; d) new learning will stick when it generates a feeling of satisfaction; e) restoring control is comprehensive – behavioral, cognitive and emotional; f) lapses happen, but eventually we can begin to think of food differently. Perhaps someday you will walk down the supermarket aisle and view a large portion of the “Big Food” items as being similar to the cartons of cigarettes behind the counter (as
an addiction trigger just waiting to happen).
1) Is this real food, or is it processed from its original format a.k.a. “Big Food,” layered or loaded with Sugar, Fat or Salt?
2) Remember that foods that are generally intact (e.g. apples vs. apple sauce) take longer to empty from your stomach and keep you feeling full longer. Non-processed food is food that is in its original natural form.
3) Establish a “just-right” portion and then commit to believing that it will fill you up. Pre-load your plate cafeteria style with a certain quantity of food and then place the remaining food back in storage. After eating that portion agree that you will only return for a second helping after waiting for 15 minutes (giving your brain and stomach time to communicate).
4) Deprivation only increases the reward urge; hence decide what rewards you want and then have a plan that helps control your behavior. Find food that provides emotional reward without driving overeating. Savor the food you enjoy. Alternatives, such as exercise, can soothe certain desires, because it generates the same kinds of chemical rewards in the brain that food does.
5) Break the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle:
a. When under stress try labeling your feelings instead of reaching for food
b. Recognize distorted thinking by asking, “Will eating this help me truly deal with this feeling?”
c. Mindfully focus on other distractions such as good friends, loud music, bustling crowds, entertainment
6) When exposed to the cue, the more you manage not to seek the reward the more the cue loses its association:
a. Make a list of the foods and situations you cannot control
b. Be strict in refusing everything you cannot control: avoid restaurants or friends that tempt the problem, and when
“Big Food” is placed in front of you (loaded in sugar, fat, and salt) learn how to be firm in your response
c. Have an alternate plan to avoid or distract yourself when in high-trigger situations and limit your exposure while in the highly stimulating environment. If-then rules: “If I encounter this cue, then I will respond this way…”
d. Direct your attention elsewhere and keep your working memory engaged in other thoughts
e. Learn active resistance when people put you at risk: You have a right to resist and reframe it as hostile.
7) If activated by a cue, deal with the urges immediately by:
a. Thought stopping – make this decision quickly, do not allow yourself to debate, but recognize the stimulus as a “proven negative” that needs to be dealt with quickly by changing the channel
b. Condition cues with negative associations (counter conditioning): Do this immediately and without ambivalence “(your food item) is hundreds of calories that I don’t want and that will stay with me,” or “don’t be tricked by the illusion that this will make me feel better when I know that shortly after I will feel bad about myself”
c. Talk down the reward: “It will satisfy me only temporarily” or “Eating it now will trap me again next time,” or “This will make me feel bad If I don’t protect myself.” Try a mantra such as: “I am in control,” or “I can still be a black –sheep and be a healthy person that makes healthy choices.”
Like any skill, these skills take practice and need to become a counter-conditioned habitual response to cues and urges… Practice often and measure yourself over the long run, so that if you have a short-term relapse you will recognize the value of continuing to practice this skill again.