It started when I was 25 years old, living in Japan alone; my small tatami matted apartment located directly over a bakery and a vending machine that sold beer. I was a world away from home, heartbroken, depressed and engaging in a destructive cycle of binge/purge. Each night the kitchen table hosted a party for my inner demons in the form of a tasty buffet of apricot bread, various chips and crunchy snacks and bags of assorted Japanese sweets and candies. And of course, beer.
I would eat. I would eat and eat and eat. I would eat until the point my stomach had swollen so much I looked as though I was six months pregnant. I would eat until I physically ached and had to lay down.
When I was done I would take a bunch of laxatives, cry myself to sleep and wake up the next day to start the whole cycle again.
I did this for years.
We all comfort ourselves with food from time to time. In fact, we have what we specifically call “comfort foods”: Macaroni & Cheese, Ice Cream, Pizza, Pasta, Burgers, French Fries, Grilled Cheese, Cereal, Chips, Cupcakes….it’s a never ending list and we all have our additions. Sometimes we binge on “healthy” foods too.
It can happen to anyone, anytime. You’re on the couch watching a movie and the desire to get something (be it crunchy, salty, sweat) nags at you until you get up and wander the kitchen. The act of consumption is often totally mindless. Overeating doesn’t always entail a lonesome smorgasbord like I used to partake in. In fact, many people eat beyond a comfortable point of fullness at almost every meal. Portion sizes are ridiculously huge and our own sense of what is an adequate serving has warped in conjunction. Who last ate a serving of chicken no larger than their palm? A fist sized bowl of rice?
As a Nutritionist and Colon Therapist I see some form of overeating and often an eating disorder pretty much every single day. The torment that many of my clients go through both physically and psychologically in their quest to bring balance to their eating habits is heartbreaking. Why so many of us are facing this issue I don’t know exactly. We can look to and/or fault a historical reverence for perfection in physical appearance or the modern day approach to these ideas of the ideal constantly fed to us through media. Perhaps that’s what spurs for some a plummet into self-destruction as we act out our perceived failure to be “perfect”. Certainly these external factors exert their influence, but at the end of the day what I learnt through my own struggles, and those of the people I work with, is that 99% of this is an internally created war zone. Dig a little and you will always find issues of low self-esteem (self-loathing in fact), insecurity, depression, fear and warped body image. For others it may not be so intense a driving emotion, but a general blasé, down mood or a situational reaction. I guarantee boredom (or a break-up) will be the instigator behind more than one bag of Lay’s being ripped open somewhere in the world during the time it takes you to read this post.
In “The Taming of the Chew” by Denise Lamothe (a highly recommended read), she takes a fascinating look at what she calls “the chew”: that part of each of us that is driven to eat compulsively, mindlessly, sometimes even harmfully. Understanding compulsions, reading our behaviors and gaining an awareness over what can be a very unconsciously driven habit is the beginning of battling the binge. J. Krishnamurti says “To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom.” My freedom from years of destructive behavior didn’t begin until I put the food down long enough to really take an honest look at myself and understand why I was eating my way into oblivion. I had to, and still have to, coach myself through the emotions that triggered my behavior. Even now. Binging is an easy habit to fall back on and food is one constant that in our world of abundance we can pretty much always trust to have there to turn to. What you have to do is find balance.
How? Here’s a few ideas.
1. Eat regular, balanced meals.
If I get a small amount of protein with each meal and don’t wait until I’m starving to eat I find that I make much better choices and more effectively steer myself away from overeating. Really poor decision-making and stuffing our faces come when we’re hungry and driven more by raw appetite than clear thinking. Take the time to plan your day a bit and prepare your meals ahead of time if you know you’ll be rushed and busy – you’ll be grateful for it later.
I also suggest keeping a small bag of raw almonds handy. 5-7 almonds eaten every two hours can help keep your blood sugar balanced and your cravings a bit more at bay.
2. Focus on your meal.
Sit down when you eat. Chew your food. Don’t eat driving, standing, talking on the phone or in the middle of work. You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk about it, but do try and be present when you eat. It takes 20 minutes from the signal to go from stomach to brain indicating that you’re full. Trust me, you can put down a lot of food in 20 minutes. Eat mindfully. Chew. Chew. Chew. Food is a blessing – enjoy it.
3. Don’t try to change things too fast.
Rapid, impulsive changes usually don’t last. Don’t gut the house overnight of all the foods you feel guilty about eating and replace them with carrot sticks. Go slow and cut one thing at a time. I advise people to start with a percentage based formula for change: start at 70/30. 70% of the time eat with control and make wise choices. 30% of the time give yourself a little leeway. With time, move that ratio to 80/20 and eventually 90/10.
4. Don’t allow yourself to get into a deprivation mentality.
It’s seems to be a trick of human nature that we want what we can’t have. The percentage based thinking comes in handy here as well. Know that for whatever amount of time you have chosen you’ll stick with smaller portions and optimal choices, but you can still allow yourself some of those things you crave/want to. One friend of mine sticks to a great eating plan all day – but lets herself have a small glass of red wine and a bite of chocolate after dinner. This saves her from slipping into a mind frame where she feels she’s missing out. And then we know what happens…..suddenly somehow you’ve consumed a whole bottle of wine and that entire bar of chocolate……
5. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
Would you tie your friend to a kitchen chair and stuff their face with food until they felt sick? My guess would be not. If you did, they probably wouldn’t swing by for dinner again anytime soon. So why do that to yourself? Untie your hands. Be kind to yourself.
6. Keep a food journal.
Keep record of what you eat and when. Pretty soon you’ll start to notice patterns. For some of us it’s shockingly clear like the client I had who suddenly realized/acknowledged that she hit fast food almost every night on the way home from work because she was too tired to cook (though beneath that lay a lot of dissatisfaction with her job). With time you’ll be able to track not only what you do, but maybe uncover some of the reasons why.
7. Consider getting support.
If your eating habits are spinning you into a very bad place you may consider seeking outside support. Support groups are one option some of my clients have found success with, individual counseling has been a savior for others. As with everything in this world you have to find what works for you – whatever form that takes.