You feel alone. In the chattering hubbub of the party, everyone else seems relaxed and at ease. You wish you could feel this way. All you can think about is the buffet laid out before you: the plates crammed with gooey profiteroles; pink laced cup cakes, tasty cheeses and soft pastries. Nothing else in this moment seems that important. You take your second plate and hastily fill it with food. It feels as though an uncontrollable beast has been unleashed inside you taking over all regular self-control and normal sanity. You find yourself eating anything and everything there, even foods you don’t normally like.
Quickly turning to shame and self-disgust
It is past midnight and you are home. Your stomach is full to bursting point. You are grumpy and irritable, chastising yourself inwardly for losing control yet again. Confusingly, you also are rummaging in the cupboards to eat more, and willing your partner off to bed. Why, you wonder? You feel ashamed and disgusted with yourself. You want to blot the memory of this evening from your mind and start fresh again tomorrow.
Stuck in a cycle
Tomorrow arrives. You are initially resolute in your determination to get back on track. The one consolation is that all traces of hunger have temporarily evaporated, as you are still feeling full. You scowl at your reflection in the mirror, feeling upset and disappointed. You don’t like your body and your weight confirms this. You feel helpless, stuck and overwhelmed with the task of trying to manage your weight combined with the misery of controlling food to do this. You pour yourself a bowl of cereal providing momentary solace.
The pressure to control weight and be healthy
Many people end up in this destructive cycle. It is not helped by the cultural pressure to look a certain way, whilst processed food is still cheap, widely available and easy to overeat on. It is effortless to gain weight, but then also to be quickly judged for it. The demands to be healthy and avoid obesity are also powerful and, you could argue, rightly so. However, the mass media onslaught describing the evils of sugar, hydrogenated fats and white carbohydrates are enough alone to induce a fearsome terror of food. It leads many people to try and control their weight by adopting a strict dietary regime (counting calories; banning food groups; only eating clean foods; substituting meals for shakes to name a few), though this is rarely the sustainable answer.
We know from research studies that the urge to devour quantities of food in an uncontrollable manner (binge eating) is normally a backlash against restrictive eating. Research shows that if dieters are presented with a buffet of food, they will eat significantly more than the non-dieters. The dieter feels deprived (not only physically but mentally too) and the plan is for the strict regime to begin again tomorrow. Therefore, the opportunity to eat food available now must be maximised. Whereas, non-dieters (not experiencing the feelings of deprivation) are free to pick and choose the foods they enjoy.
Crossing into the mindset of the dieting universe
Once you have dieted or restricted food in some way, then you have crossed into a parallel food universe that you would not have comprehended before. Before unwittingly crossing the river, you might have eaten when you were hungry; stopped when you were full and you were probably not preoccupied with food. Once on the other side, food becomes a calorie number; a judgment; a good food or a bad food. Even when you stop the dieting, your mindset will likely be changed. You can’t just eat a cake now and say ‘yummy’. Instead, your mind runs riot by evaluating the cake eating.
E.g: - ‘This is a bad food. I am a greedy person’.
Does this thinking help? You might think that by unleashing the inner critic, that the reins will be pulled tighter and you will revert to ‘the plan’. You may temporarily, but inevitably you will react against the deprivation and harsh words. You might even eat more in an attempt to feel better.
How to break the cycle
For most people, just dropping the rules and trying to listen to your body might be a near impossible task straight off. The rules will be imprinted in your psyche. However, feel hopeful as change is entirely possible.
You can help your eating by keeping a structure (not a rigid plan, more like a scaffolding of support): three meals and three snacks a day. Aim to balance blood sugar so you don’t get over-hungry (one of the biggest bingeing triggers). Include protein, good fats and slow release carbohydrates at your main meals. Eat as much real food as possible.
Permit forbidden foods
As part of this process, the vital task job here is to permit your forbidden foods (this is not eating at the cupboard door, in haste and secret).
To start with, even the thought of this will make you feel incredibly anxious. You will feel vulnerable to over-eating. You will worry about losing control.
The short-term struggle is worth it for the longer-term gains. Once food is permitted genuinely back in, in time it will absolutely lose its magical appeal.
1. Go for one forbidden food at a time. Going into Sainsbury’s and feeling you can eat anything, will be overwhelming.
2. Plan when you will eat your forbidden food. Then, permit it 100%.
3. Anticipate that you might be anxious and it won’t be easy. To help with this, plan a distraction activity for afterwards, whilst getting away from the kitchen or food sources.
4. Be kind in your thinking. If you think that eating one biscuit will result in you eating ten, it might well do so. Instead, begin to develop micro steps of confidence in your thinking. ‘I am learning to have a peaceful relationship with food’.
5. Practice self-care with a vengeance. You have probably relied heavily on food for bringing comfort and pleasure. Yes, food has this purpose but not as the sole turn-to.
This process sounds simple but it is not easy to begin with. It is worth the practice and perseverance though. Don’t be afraid to seek out some support through counselling if needed. Counselling can help you understand why you have a tricky relationship with food and also can help you in making valuable changes to achieve freedom with food.