Eating Disorders

How to Deal with Food Cravings and Unhealthy Binges

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Recently, a reader posted this question: "Why is there such a lack of ownership when it comes to food?"

This reader noted that people express such unhappiness with their bodies, yet don't necessarily do much to "learn about food". The outpouring of weight loss books and shows might suggest otherwise. And yet....we know that many face medical crises, live with poor self-esteem and worse, while remaining loyal to "I want what I want."

To some extent, this is the air we breathe. We go to the market, we buy what's there. What's there often contributes to weight gain. We then go on diets with no real shifts in how we live our lives and think about food. Almost always, diets don't work for long. Understandably, many people stop trying, even if they gear up for another diet on occasion. Thinking about "diet", too, in the sense of something to be endured for a time, leads to feelings of deprivation that no one likes to live with.

Much of my writing has focused on how to eat more sanely in a "food crazy" world-which includes this no-win diet cycle. Recently I posted a 3-part blog on the subject (http://www.eatsanely.com/blog). But what does this shift from food craziness to sane eating look like in real life? I can tell when someone's reached that better place when: They report choosing healthier foods more often and more consistently. They notice they've bypassed something once irresistible, and not only because they're "dieting". They feel more capable of using conscious coping strategies to stay on track when stressed. They deal with anger or sadness or fear without food. Also, they realize "I want what I want" doesn't necessarily make sense anymore.

I see people arrive at saner eating from a variety of paths-different methods and means seem to appeal to, and to work, better for some than others. Because that "I want what I want" is so common, I'll profile here a few who've struggled intensely with that particular lament.

First, Maya. Maya grew up poor and discriminated against. Now a college professor with a solid marriage and many friends, her main source of suffering has been her overeating. Weight Watchers, South Beach, all-organic, vegan: she'd tried many ways of eating better and losing weight. While what she'd learned helped, nothing helped enough-she'd find herself grazing on junk when stressed, and gaining. She knew that feelings from childhood contributed to these tendencies. She'd made strides, but what finally helped her turn a corner was a women's spirituality workshop she attended. She found herself able to finally stop the self-flagellating, self-defeating "Why aren't I over this yet?". At the same time, she was able to tolerate the sadness caused by thinking "I can't eat what I want". She was then better able to exercise her adult capacity to make more sensible choices.

Next, Rob. An entrepreneur in the health food area, Rob ironically could not stop his intermittent binges. He, too, had tried a variety of sound methods to stop. In his case, nothing helped even a little bit, though his everyday, non-binge, diet was healthy. His binges consisted of "foods I just want"-donuts, usually, and other things not on the health food list. Engaging in mindful eating practices made the crucial difference for him. Once he was able to slow down and observe exactly what was going on, within himself, on the way to a binge, he discovered waves of anxiety. As the child of an alcoholic, abusive parent, his binges actually served to keep PTSD symptoms at bay. Dealing with these symptoms in a more direct manner in therapy allowed the overeating to subside.

Other cases may seem less dramatic. Lee, for example, realized that part of her problem was her lack of organization. Once she put some systems in place to have healthy food on hand during busy times, things improved. And Marian was able to incorporate Weight Watchers thinking into her life, and stick with it, once she accepted the idea that it would have to be forever, not just until she lost the weight.

Certain myths help maintain the "lack of ownership" my reader pointed to. That we can or should have exactly what we crave is one of these. That's simply not practical in the world we live in. The myths gain strength from factors beyond our immediate control-the food industry, to name one. But when we take responsibility for how they affect our own lives, change can begin.