Imaginative Overeating

We humans are imaginative creatures. On a moment’s notice, we can dig up convincing reasons to do just about anything. 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 fuel.

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 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 crispy slices with pepperoni that happily give their lives in favor of a carbohydrate-laden stroll down the boardwalk.

STOP! Don’t turn that page! This is NOT another rant about overeating and the media’s latest pity party — where I’m sure cake and ice cream were served — about how much we Americans eat. (Though I did have fun describing it.)

As a psychotherapist, I’ll ignore the obvious fact that we like to do things that feel (and 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 when we’re 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 chocolate 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 that clients keep a journal of what they’re feeling or thinking 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 enough to do this. One woman I knew years ago discovered that whenever she wanted to snack, she was thinking about her mother who was nasty to her throughout childhood. The mere recognition of this made her furious. ‘I don’t want my mother controlling my life any more!’ she declared. And, to my surprise, she lost 30 pounds, and kept it off.

There are two things that make the struggle with overeating particularly difficult. The first is that the decision to change has to be lifelong. This is why most diets fail. Even that word ‘diet’ implies a short-term effort. But, like marriage, it must be an ongoing commitment — but with no possibility of divorce. This is 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 delightful Food Network — in stereo AND high-definition.

The second major reason why weight control is such a struggle is that moderation, not ‘cold turkey’ (forgive the yummy metaphor), is the only option. The overeater doesn’t have the luxury of totally giving up food, like the alcoholic can swear off drinking, or the compulsive gambler can stay away from casinos. With eating, 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 may 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’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The best thing is to just 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 cries of the meatball hoagie and the jumbo tub o’caramel corn, take a moment to think about how you look and feel (that’s one reality you can’t rationalize away). If you’re OK with it, then dig in and enjoy. If not, and if you really want to look or feel better, then work to disconnect eating from your emotions and momentary frustrations. You’ll be one step closer to making peace with food once and for all.