Compulsive Eating and How I Treat It

A Bit about Me and Why I Do This Work

Compulsive eating is an incredibly frustrating factor in the lives of many, and probably your life if you’re reading this, so I’m guessing you’re curious about what makes me think I have something useful to offer.  The official business part is that I’ve been a psychotherapist since 1989, have the Masters degree from Pitt, etc.  I have direct experience in the field of addictions, in addition to the more general work of life-management, relational issues and problem-solving which make up the bulk of therapy I have done throughout my career.  
The part that you may find more interesting, however, is that from age six to age 43, eating absolutely dominated my life.  There was, at one time, 50 pounds more of me than there is today.  I am well-acquainted with organizing my energy around food, since I did it for 37 years.  That’s plenty of time to get really good at it, by the way.  I know all about the starvation dieting, the brute-force methods of attempted self-control, the desperation of feeling deprived, and the desperation of feeling like a peaceful coexistence with food is impossible.  I often said that I wished it was possible to live in a world where there was nothing but tasteless, prepackaged astronaut food, so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to incessantly stuff my face with food that tasted good.  I know what it’s like to go to a holiday celebration or a restaurant buffet with a mix of anticipation and fear – “The food’s going to be great, the eating’s going to be so much fun, and I’m going to hate myself when it’s over.”  I have spent many occasions stuffing myself with vegetables and water before going to an eating event, in a desperate attempt to be too full to overeat once I got there; it should have worked, but it didn’t.  I have eaten to the point of physical agony hundreds of times in my life.  I know what it’s like to be unable to stop eating even though you’re no longer hungry, it doesn’t even taste good any more, and you know you’ll hate yourself for it soon (if you don’t already).   
In short, I’ve been there, done that.   A LOT.  My actual weight has looked normal for a long time now, but it was maintained only through brute-force effort until 2001, when I finally (and rather accidentally) found the way out of that painful, frustrating, demoralizing, day-to-day existence.  Since I got fat young, I believed I was a fat person by nature.  When I dieted most of the weight off in early adulthood, I then lived for years in fear that the fat person I truly was would escape again and ruin the life I was trying to build.  My whole adult life was about the love/hate/fear thing with food, and the certainty that if I stopped thinking about calories, fat grams and the like, the real me (the fat one) would re-emerge, maybe worse than before.
This leads to why I am here in the professional capacity that I am today, writing articles like this one and focusing as I do on the treatment of compulsive eating in my practice.  I found an escape from compulsive eating, long after I was sure there was none.  I not only found a way out for me, but it soon became obvious that it could work for anybody.  That’s when all the years I spent fighting with food and my body started to seem like they might have a positive result after all.  See, I was fat before it was “fashionable,” and now that eating problems seem to be overtaking the world, I’ve got the inside knowledge of the problem, plus the benefit of now being on the other side, with something really useful to offer.  More than anything, I want you to know THERE IS HOPE.  That’s why I’m here.
Current Options for Dealing with Compulsive Eating 
Compulsive eating is not the only cause of the obesity epidemic which has been spreading like wildfire through the U.S. in the past 30-40 years, but it clearly plays a large role.  Left unchecked, this escalating healthcare crisis will not only shorten or destroy many individual lives, but will ultimately result in demands on the healthcare system that will threaten our national economy. 
Despite all of this, it is hard to find mental health professionals who will even attempt to treat compulsive eating, because few understand the power of food addiction, and fewer still have any idea how to effectively help with it.  This will surely change over time, but right now, the resources are minimal. 
We can put you in an inpatient program if you chronically starve yourself, or do surgery on you if you’re morbidly obese, but if you’re somewhere in the middle, we don’t have much to offer.  We especially don’t have much for you if you are at a normal or mildly elevated weight, but feel enslaved by your constant desire for food – if that describes you, mostly all we have for you are self-help books and groups, and the occasional admonishment that you should know better.
Fortunately, there is a lot of wisdom to be found in some of those books and groups.  The difficulty is that the wisdom has generally been found scattered here and there amongst them, rather than any one resource having the definitive answer.  Many of the various diets urge you to ban a particular food group from your menu – most recently, it’s been carbohydrates.  In the past, it’s been fat, and some have even advocated the near-elimination of protein.  Each diet presents a compelling rationale for the food choices it recommends.  The rationales usually sound pretty convincing, and yet they are contradictory.  If you put them all together, there is nothing we can safely eat, and that obviously can’t be right either.
Another problem with the available resources is that mostly, they encourage you to substitute your current unbalanced, unhealthy relationship with food for the unbalanced, unhealthy relationship they recommend.  But they promise you weight loss, so that’s supposed to make it okay.  They encourage you to structure your life and eating in very unnatural ways that may ultimately result in weight loss, at least for a time, but which keep you disconnected from your physical self.  You are encouraged to focus on calories, points, exchanges, or pounds, rather than tuning in to what your body needs.  But they promise you weight loss, so that’s supposed to make it okay. 
It’s NOT okay. 
If you’re reading this, you probably either have an unhealthy relationship with food, or you know someone who does.  You know that the norm in weight control is to try one plan or diet after another, in search of weight loss that seldom remains as a long-term change.  You know the frustration, the guilt, the self-criticism, the social judgment, and mostly, the slavery of a life organized around eating.  You know the feeling of living in near-constant failure, of vowing to do better next time, only to repeat the cycle then,  too.  You know the helplessness of desperately wanting change, but being unable to resist that deep-seated urge to eat.
One of the reasons compulsive eating does not receive serious attention in this society is that it may be minimized as a mere extension of normal eating behavior.  The logic may be that, “Hey, you choose to eat a lot, so choose to eat less instead.”  As much as it seems like it should be that simple, you already know it isn’t. 
Emotional Addiction to Food
While compulsive eating is occasionally driven by medical causes, it appears, the vast majority of the time, to be emotional in origin.  We are usually conditioned into emotional addiction to food first by our environment, and then by our own choices. 
It starts in infancy, when we are pre-verbal, at the hands of our well-intentioned parents who have a child with needs – a child with no effective way to clearly express those needs.  How often have you seen a parent quickly offer a child some edible treat in order to deal with distress, boredom, distracting behavior, etc?  Think of the message that each child is taught here: “No matter how you feel or what the problem is, try food – it might help!”
This is a lesson that many of us take into the core of our being, as it is learned at such a critical time in our development.  So we may start practicing it ourselves as we get old enough to start making our own food choices, and sure enough, it does help, or at least it seems to.  If you’re bored, it’s something to do.  If you’re procrastinating, it’s a way to delay.  If you’re depressed, it’s a way to produce enjoyment.  If you’re lonely, food will always be there for you.  If you’re happy, it’s a way to celebrate.  If you’re with people you love, it’s a way to join with them.  If you’re watching TV, snacking makes the experience even more satisfying.  The emotional uses of food are nearly endless.  It’s not even that food fills these needs well – it just seems to in the moment, and that’s enough for many of us.
Food can seem to become your best friend, your worst enemy, your only consistent reason for living, your best strategy for avoiding the issues of your life, anything at all. 
Aggravating this misuse of food is the current trend in our society to value palatability and convenience over nutrition, and a more-is-better approach to portion sizes.  So now, we not only use food for emotional self-management, but it is food that is extremely high-calorie/low-nutrition, and in enormous portions. 
Does anyone remember that the purpose of food is physical sustenance?  That’s what food is for, period.  It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy it, but remember that the purpose of food is physical sustenance, not emotional sustenance.  If you’re using food for emotional sustenance, you’re using the wrong tool for the job, and it’s degrading both your physical and emotional health in the process.  If you’re eating junk food or fast food, remember three things:  It’s big on calories and flavor, low on nutrients, and purposely designed to trigger you into repeat eating ("Nobody can eat just one...").  It’s not even food in the truest sense of the word; it is merely “edible product” with no value to your body at all, and in most cases, is directly harmful to you.
The Core Problems of Compulsive Eating
The problem for compulsive eaters is two-fold: first, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and second, a dysfunctional relationship with the physical self.  We’ve looked at the dysfunctional relationship with food in terms of emotional addiction.  The dysfunctional relationship with physical self means that you have disconnected from your body and are unable to receive the messages it is sending you.  Within your body is a mechanism (barring rare medical disorders) that, if you use it, will guide you to eat exactly the right things, at the right times, in the right amounts, so that you effectively nourish your physical self and enjoy the nourishment free of guilt.  Compulsive eaters are so busy battling their bodies and engaging in a love/hate relationship with food that they can’t notice the normal physical cues for healthy eating.  It is perhaps like being unable to hear someone whispering next to you when you are immersed in the din of a rock concert – there’s just too much external distraction to focus on the subtle message.  But you can hear that person next to you when they start screaming in your ear, just like you finally get your body’s message when you have eaten to the point of physical pain.  Your body has always been trying to work with you – you just haven’t known how to pay attention.  Believe it or not, your body – that same body you’ve perhaps accused of betrayal, subversion, and sabotage; the body you may even have claimed to hate – that same body is your single best ally in your quest to develop a healthy relationship with food.
Here’s where it becomes more obvious why the standard diets and programs seldom have lasting effects.  The core problems – dysfunctional relationships with food and physical self – are internal in nature.  Internal means they have to do with how you feel, what you believe, how you think, and how self-aware you are.
The proposed solutions, by contrast, tend to be external.  They have you scrutinizing calories, grams, pounds, and inches.  Some of them have you judging whole food groups as worthy or unworthy, to be either concentrated on as THE SOLUTION, or avoided at all costs as if they were poison.  For the most part, concentration on calories, grams, pounds, and inches will have no lasting effect on how you feel or how you think, and only a minor effect on what you believe and your level of self-awareness.
Most diets and programs emphasize artificially imposed patterns of eating behavior.  These patterns may indeed help you, by brute force, to learn some healthier external patterns, as they show a different way to manage your food.  The structure of such programs may be a welcome relief to someone who is accustomed to totally out-of-control eating.  Almost any dietary structure is potentially better for your body than chronic, mindless eating of low-quality food.  The structure imposed by the diet program may even be one that is very good and healthy for you.  You will benefit from it in the long-term only if you come to internalize its value and want it for yourself, from the inside.  As long as it remains something that is imposed primarily externally (you make yourself go through the prescribed motions), you’ll feel frustrated and deprived, and will be a food-relapse waiting to happen.  The problem is that your emphasis remains on externals – calories, grams, pounds, inches – to the exclusion of tuning in to what your body wants and needs.
So, we’ve seen that the phenomenon of compulsive eating has internal origins, and that most diet programs don’t work long-term, in part because they focus on external solutions.  External solutions seldom solve internal problems, though they may reduce the overt symptoms for a while.  For the compulsive eater, any respite may be welcome, but the heartbreak of the eventual relapse can leave you emotionally further behind – and heavier – than before the diet.  It becomes very hard to maintain hope in the face of repeated disappointment and failure.
External strategies do have their place on the road to a healthy relationship with food and self, but they need to be used as part of an overall plan with the primary goal of addressing the internal problems, rather than being the end goal themselves.  External strategies are useful only to the extent that they support lasting internal change.
This is how you get out of the cycle of compulsive eating.  You get out by fixing it from the inside out.  If you don’t fix it from the inside out, you are likely to merely substitute one form of dysfunctional relationship with food for another.  The substitute may actually be better for you, but unless it becomes part of you, it won’t help for long.
The good and surprising news is, fixing compulsive eating from the inside out – getting a healthy relationship with food and your body – is a LOT nearer by than you’ve ever imagined.  The truth is that most of what you need to pull it off is already within you.  It always has been, and it’s waiting there like a goldmine.  In fact, the less control you’ve had with food, the more information you will be able to generate in terms of how to relate to food in a much more positive way.  There is a wealth of positive information hidden in almost every negative food pattern you’ve ever followed.
When you start working with your body rather than treating it as an adversary, you will begin to be free. 
Some Solutions
I have identified two core problems in compulsive eating – dysfunctional relationships with food and self.  There may be many ways to address these problems -- the way I address them involves two points of focus. 
One is to learn more about food, especially the manufactured stuff most of us now live on, and what makes a given food either healthy or detrimental for you.  Food is a tool for living, and too many of us are now using the tool without a clue as to what we are doing or why.  The most user-friendly way to get good food information is to get educated about it directly from someone who knows more about it than you do.  A teaching-oriented relationship with a good dietician or other nutrition specialist can be invaluable in this respect.  It won’t have to be a long-term relationship; you’ll learn what you need and then move on, just like you have with anything else you’ve ever learned to do well in life.  The only downside to this is some cost, since work with a dietician is not generally covered by insurance.  Compared to having a joyful, healthy, guilt-free relationship with food for the rest of your life though, it’s a minor investment.
If cost, scheduling, or other difficulties prevent you from getting personal education about food, the next best bet is getting some quality reading material.  Happily, many good books have been written on this subject.  Never fear, you don't have to read them all -- one or two good ones will suffice.  If you have no idea what to try, feel free to contact me for suggestions.  The goal is to get information that empowers you to make higher-quality food choices which are in alignment with how your body is designed to work.  However you choose to get your education about food, just remember that it won’t take very long, and it is knowledge that will help you for the rest of your life.  You can do the rest of this process without that extra knowledge if you insist, but your results will be much better, more comfortable, and more internalized, if you get and use food information as well.  And always remember, whatever you know about food (or don’t know), you are teaching your children.  You are your kids' primary influence in what they know about food, how they use it, and whether or not they value treating their bodies with care and respect.
In the meantime, remember that you can’t really go wrong (unless you have some very specific medical issues which mean you should be consulting with your doctor) if you focus on plant-based foods in general, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins (mostly seafood and poultry, some pork, occasional red meat), and plant-based fats (like olive oil and nuts).  Why are these safe choices?  Because these are the food sources that were available in the natural environment for us before we started altering our own food supply, which implies that they would naturally fit with our nutritional needs.  Also, people who begin organizing their food intake around these food types invariably start feeling stronger, more energetic, more enthusiastic, more focused, etc. – in short, people who eat this way feel better and enjoy their lives much more.  If you were to do nothing different with your eating patterns than switch to these foods, you would notice that your ability to control your intake would increase considerably; these foods are enjoyable while tending not to trigger repeat eating.  A switch to these foods also generally brings automatic weight loss, as these foods are nutrient-dense and low-calorie – just the opposite of so much of our processed food.
So, if learning about food is one solution, the other involves learning more about yourself.  As with food, it takes knowledge and understanding to develop a positive relationship with self, including the physical self.  This is where I can help. 
How I Treat Compulsive Eating
I can guide you through a therapeutic exercise in which you clarify how your particular compulsion for food works.  You can clarify where it came from, as well as how, when, where and why it is activated.  You’ll learn how you support it, how you undermine positive change, and exactly what you do and think to keep yourself stuck.  You will see and understand as never before, exactly how this behavior is impacting your life; this is important, because until you see that your eating has hurt you far more than you realized, you won’t be able to find the desire to change it.  It is common for compulsive eaters to believe that weight problems are the worst consequence of their eating, but think about this:  If concern for weight was sufficient motivation, wouldn’t we all automatically self-correct whenever our weight started to rise, and wouldn’t the first diet be the end of it? 
The great thing about increasing your understanding of your food compulsion is that it positions you to finally take and keep comfortable control of yourself with food, once and for all, for life.  As you learn about the way you have related to and used food, you will become more conscious of factors which have previously controlled you without your awareness.  Becoming conscious of these factors gives you the ability to take back control, and to start creating the kind of eating patterns you truly want for yourself.  The therapeutic exercise that I use will help you create your own customized instruction manual for conquering your slavery to food, and to begin living with greater integrity and joy.  It will be uniquely fitted to your individual needs and preferences, and can grow and adapt with you as you move through the future phases and challenges of your life.  You will develop very specific strategies for dealing with food that will allow you to enjoy it and use it properly – goodbye to yo-yo dieting; goodbye to guilt, shame, and self-recrimination; goodbye to physically hurting yourself with food; goodbye to fighting with yourself every day.
The process I use will require you to work.  It involves a good bit of writing and introspection, and I frequently hear from clients that as much as they have ruminated over their food problems for years, they have never thought about it with this kind of depth.  This puts some people off because they would prefer an easier fix.  Well of course, an easier fix would be nice, and as soon as I find one, I’ll write about it right here.  Until then, it is necessary to be realistic about the fact that you are dealing with an entrenched, addictive pattern that will require energy on your part to change.  The good news is that this is energy you already have available – it’s just that you’ve been wasting it, spinning your wheels on futile weight-control gambits instead of channeling it toward getting right with food once and for all.
Once you've done the work of therapy, the challenge is keeping your focus on the new things you've learned.  Without a daily commitment to recovery and quality, decades-old habits can easily fall back into place, so it requires some amount of daily attention to maintain the healthy change.  Recovery is like driving a really great car with a chronic, minor alignment problem:  It's a wonderful ride, but it does take a small, consistent effort to keep it on course.  As soon as you stop making the effort, you start veering off to where you don't want to be, and where you'll certainly get hurt.     
You may be unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to pursue therapy for your compulsive eating.  If that is the case, I will happily share with you the source of the therapeutic exercise I use.  I would do so with the caution that you are quite likely to get stuck in any number of places on the exercise if you are working on your own.  This is because compulsive eating tends to create many psychological blind spots, and you can’t identify what you can’t see.  If you try it on your own and it doesn’t work out, it’s important to know that this isn’t just one more thing that doesn’t work.  If you get poor results, it means you need the assistance of someone who can see where you can’t.  I can help you do a much more thorough analysis and construct a much more detailed plan for healthy and satisfying living than you can produce on your own.  At least, this is what people keep telling me. 
Life After Therapy – Is Food Any Fun Any More?
Based on what I have experienced myself and what I regularly observe in my clients, here is what you can expect if you dig deep and give therapy your best effort, including that bit of daily maintenance after the therapy itself is finished:
You will find that you get much more enjoyment out of food, and will be genuinely satisfied with smaller quantities of it.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It's remarkable how much the experience of eating is improved when you remove the self-abuse from it.   
You’ll never diet again, which is a very good thing since diets rarely work, and the dieting mindset creates far more problems than it could ever hope to solve.
*  You’ll find that all foods are “allowed,” though you may choose on your own to eliminate some that you find too triggering to be worth the struggle.  Most clients manage to enjoy their favorite treat foods on a regular basis without loss of control.
You’ll come to naturally dislike overeating of any kind, and mindless eating in particular.  This doesn’t mean that the old urges will disappear completely, because they won’t (though they are likely to weaken considerably).  It does mean you will approach them with much more strength, focus and clearer priorities than you ever could in the past.
You will become very sensitive to how badly poor-quality food affects your body.  As a result, low-quality food will lose much of its appeal.
*  You’ll begin to naturally prefer higher quality foods, and realize the value of physical activity in your life.  You will begin demanding these things for yourself as valued rights, rather than feeling forced into them as unwanted obligations. 
*  You will feel much better, both physically and emotionally. 
*  You will start handling your emotional triggers with non-food strategies that actually help, rather than simply masking the feelings as food would.  This means you will start dealing with the challenges of your life much more effectively, and will therefore create a much healthier, more satisfying life experience.  As a result, you will feel calmer and more at peace than ever before.
The “beast” of compulsive eating can be contained and managed.  When you learn how to do it, you can enjoy every benefit listed above and more, and you can do it for life.  Please consider that there could be something here for you that is different from everything else you have ever tried.  It’s lasting, it makes sense, and it can help you move forward finally, for real.  Don’t give up hope.
Copyright © 2005, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.

Some other articles you might find useful:

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Basic Strategies for Managing the Urge to Eat

Compulsive Eating: Serious Health Issues
Emotional Eating: The Battle Within   
Essential Truths about Your Body
Fat: Important New Findings
Loving Each Other to Death with Food

Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food 

Why You Love Exercise, but Don't Know It 

Your Weight May Not be the Problem

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety
When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy? 

Depression Series, Part One: Depression -- Myths and Facts


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