“I shouldn’t have eaten that extra piece of cake but it tasted soooo good.”
“I feel stuffed…AGAIN!”
“Why do I keep overeating when ALL I want to do is lose weight?”
Overeating, like any behaviour we struggle with as humans, is always determined by multiple factors – including our personal histories, medical conditions, present environment, and psychological dynamics.
And as is generally the case, we are not automatically aware of all these habit-maintaining factors.
In this blog post, I will be writing about one of the psychological maintaining factors that may be sustaining your overeating.
Increased weight due to overeating
Overeating most often comes to our attention when we either notice our weight gain or are unhappy with our weight. In other words, the consequences of our overeating become visible.
Most personal trainers and dieticians argue that the largest part of weight management lies in controlling what we put in our mouths.
So if diets are short-term solutions that are hard to maintain, you might be asking yourself, “Why is it so hard to control what we put in our mouths longer-term?”
The non-nutritional use of food
Eating to fuel our bodies in a healthy and balanced way is a basic requirement for our survival.
However, when we consume more food than is necessary, the (over)eating behaviour begins to serve another purpose.
In overeating or other problematic eating behaviours, psychologists want to understand their clients’ psychological uses of food.
This may be about coping with thoughts and feelings of emptiness, sadness, anxiety, and variations on these themes.
We are all familiar with the examples of “comfort eating” after a break-up or bad day at the office, increased snacking in preparation for a school exam or public speaking, and eating more than is physically necessary when feeling lonely on a Saturday night spent home alone.
In all these examples, overeating may be an attempt to short-circuit our minds and hearts from experiencing painful emotions, or an attempt to numb the pain or discomfort bubbling up into our awareness.
Keeping a lid on an active volcano
As Jung famously cautioned, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
And when we overeat for emotional reasons, we are placing plasters over our wounds and not dealing with the underlying pain.
In addition, we run the risk of increasing our risk of developing medical conditions related to poor nutrition and carrying excess body weight.
Ideally, if we can isolate, better understand and manage the underlying concerns driving our overeating, we may no longer feel as drawn to food as a way of coping emotionally.
Begin to open up the mental space to consider what emotional purpose overeating might be fulfilling in your life.
The next time you feel the desire to overeat or crave a certain food (in a manner that you realise is not about meeting basic nutritional needs) allow yourself time to become aware of your thoughts and feelings.
You might even want to capture some of these thoughts and observations in a journal and reflect on your entries over time.
Before we end, a word of caution. Cultivating an awareness of the underlying concern will not take the concern away. It might even make you feel worse initially.
After all, your mind and heart have resorted to overeating in an attempt to cope with what they previously felt were unbearable thoughts and feelings.
A problem shared is a problem halved
Discovering and exploring difficult thoughts and feelings can be scary and lonely.
You might want to reach out to trustworthy friends and family.
Considering sharing what you are experiencing and discovering about your difficult relationship with food.
You might even want to seek out a therapist or counselor in your area, or consider accessing group support by attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings in your area.
It takes courage to face what hurts.
Wishing you well in all your endeavours. – F.W.