We humans are imaginative creatures. On a moment’s notice, we can dig up convincing reasons to do just about anything—good, bad or indifferent. Take overeating, for example. We have perfected a long list of motives for eating to excess—over and above the boring ones, like hunger, or providing our bodies with the fuel they need to run.
Apparently, we need extra protein, vitamins and minerals to cope with the trauma of birthdays. And anniversaries. And funerals, graduations, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, and the like. And during (and after) the strenuous act of watching a movie. Not to mention vacations! Think about the innocent corn dogs, funnel cakes, fries, frozen custard cones, burgers, cheese steaks, and slices with pepperoni and extra sausage that have happily given their lives in favor of a blissful, carbohydrate-laden stroll down the boardwalk.
STOP! I know you’re getting ready to turn the page, thinking that this is just another rant about overeating and the media’s latest pity party (I’m sure cake and ice cream were served) about how much we Americans eat. Well, it’s not. (Though, I admit I did have a good time describing it.)
As a psychotherapist (who feels strongly that pizza should be classified as a dessert item), I’ll ignore the obvious fact that we like to do things that feel (taste) good. We’re wired that way. Pleasure and happiness should always be the default, and there’s nothing like an Italian sub with extra pickles to help with that default thing. But over the years I have tried to examine not just what we eat, but our emotional state WHEN we eat.
‘I eat when I’m depressed.’ ‘I eat when I’m happy.’ What triggers us to reward ourselves (again—good, bad or indifferent) when we are feeling strong emotions? Occasionally, I’ll find myself asking a client: ‘What were you feeling when you were standing over the sink, in the dark, with that half-eaten lair? Anger? Frustration? Joy? Sadness? Did the emotion make you want to eat, or did the eating bring on the emotion?’
To answer that question, I sometimes suggest to clients that they keep a journal of what they’re feeling or thinking, right at the moment they want to eat (outside of normal meal times). ‘This isn’t a diet,’ I make clear. ‘It’s simply a way to understand what’s going on in your mind when you want to compulsively snack. Then, after writing down your feelings and thoughts, go ahead and eat.’ It’s amazing what people discover if they can discipline themselves to do this. One woman I knew years ago realized that whenever she wanted to eat, she was thinking about her mother, who was nasty to her throughout childhood. The mere recognition of this fact made her furious. ‘I don’t want my mother controlling my life any more!’ she declared. I didn’t blame her a bit. And, to my surprise, she lost 30 pounds—and kept it off.
There are two things that make the struggle with overeating particularly difficult. One is that the decision to change has to be ongoing and lifelong. This is why most diets fail. Even that word, ‘diet,’ implies a short-term effort. But, like marriage, it must be a lifelong commitment—only with no possibility of divorce. It’s no different than an alcoholic swearing off alcohol forever: There’s no middle ground of ‘moderate drinking.’ This is really, really difficult, especially with all the goodies out there (see my carefully researched list in paragraph #2). Not to mention the bombardment from advertisements and, of course, the supreme enticement, the Food Network—in stereo AND living color!
The second major reason that weight control is such a struggle is that moderation—not ‘cold turkey’ (forgive the tasty metaphor)—is the only option. The overeater doesn’t have the ‘luxury’ of giving up food totally, like the alcoholic can swear off drinking for good, or the compulsive gambler has the option to stay away from casinos forever. With overeating, as with no other compulsive behavior, abstinence is not an option. This is hard! Overeaters, which many of us are to one degree or another, must come to terms with food in some kind of reasonable way. People who design or adopt diets have their hearts (and their wallets) in the right place, but diets almost never work because most people don’t approach them with a commitment to permanence.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The best thing I can suggest is to simply face reality. You don’t cross a busy highway without looking. You don’t do business with a known criminal. You face reality in these situations, and it works. It keeps you healthy and safe. The same applies to food; only it’s harder because the dangers (unlike the pleasures) are not as obvious or immediate.
So, the next time you hear the plaintive cry of the meatball hoagie or the jumbo tub o’caramel corn, take a moment to think about how you look or feel (that’s one reality you can’t rationalize away). If you’re OK with it, then dig in. If not, and if you really want to look or feel better, then work to disconnect eating from your emotions or momentary frustrations. Succeed, and you’ll be one step closer to making peace with food, once and for all.