Get Off the Diet Merry-Go-Round and Stop Compulsive Eating

It may not be what you're eating, but "what's eating you" that piles on pounds.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

Being in the mindful eating field for years as a teacher, writer, and senior mental health therapist at an eating disorder clinic, I've come across many different diets and methods for weight control (some not very healthy). One of the most unusual diets I've come across was while I was running a mindful eating group for individuals with body-weight issues. One afternoon, Jean (not her real name) asked if she could share with others what was in her refrigerator. "Sure. What's in there?" I asked, curious to hear the answer.

"A big bowl of Milky Way candy bars," she responded.

"Hmmmn, interesting. So what else is in there?" I asked. Her response caught me and everyone by surprise. 

"Nothing else," she said, seeming to perk up. "I don't have to make any decisions. I like the taste, and they don't require any preparation or cooking. I just tear off the wrapper and I'm good to go!"

Free Digital Photos
Is your karma in your refrigerator?
Source: Free Digital Photos

Everyone was speechless, and it was in that moment that I realized that her karma was in her refrigerator. That's because she had predetermined her future fate through that past, limited dietary choice. The "Milky Way" diet wasn't really working for her, but she convinced herself it was. 

Trying to control food can give us a sense of control—especially when other things may be spinning out of control. Maybe that's part of the allure of dieting. Mindful eating takes a very different approach, where food is not the problem, but the solution. Mindful eating is about fundamentally changing your relationship with food, eating, and body.

Creating a healthy relationship with food is not the purpose of a diet. There's a lot of research that has examined various weight-loss programs, and most don't help people keep the pounds off in the long term. One well-known study examined subjects using four different diet programs—Atkins, the Zone, LEARN, and Ornish—over a 12-month period. The most effective program, Atkins, produced a weight loss of 10 pounds in a year. Subjects enrolled in the other programs lost on average about 5 pounds.

That's progress, but still, I cannot help but wonder—did those subjects stay on those diets or relapse back to old patterns after the study was over? The reason most people give up on diets is that they tend to be restrictive. Also, bear in mind that our styles of eating are very much ingrained and not easily changed. I know this as a member of "the clean plate club" in my own family! 

What I've seen from those I've worked with is that the feeling of failure at not being able to maintain weight loss and a diet regimen can be worse than the weight itself. 

Mindful Skillpower Is the Key

Fortunately, mindful eating endorses a no shame, no blame approach to eating and body image. And it starts with skillpower. Let me explain. 

Skillpower means being aware of your environment—such as where you eat, when you eat, your emotions as you eat, and your body's satiety and hunger signals, etc. Lacking in any of this awareness can derail your ability to choose the foods that will nourish you as well as choose the quantity of food to match your hunger. 

Let's talk about where you eat, the environmental part of eating. Some research shows, for example, that faster music causes us to eat faster. Food courts often play fast music because they want you to eat and move on! Of course, if you eat too quickly, you can easily overeat. That's because the signal of satiety, or fullness, takes about twenty minutes to register. So it's better to listen to slow music and slow down your eating pace. 

As for emotions, I like to have clients check in with how they are feeling before eating. One client I worked with had an uncomfortable feeling in her body that resulted in her going to a drive-through restaurant—where she would order copious amounts of food equaling up to 3,000 calories at a time. This made her bad feeling go away. So I gave her the following homework assignment: She could go to the fast-food drive-through, but only after she had named that uncomfortable feeling.

As she shared when I next saw her, she waiting, very courageously I might add, until she could give a name to that feeling. "It was loneliness," she told me. "After that, I didn't get any food because my feeling wasn't because of physical hunger. I realized I needed to deal with my loneliness." 

Make sure that you're eating to fulfill a physical need for food, which brings us to the last topic: noticing your hunger signals. Eating when hungry can be a problem because we're so schedule and time-oriented to eat at a certain time, rather than according to our hunger signals. 

Because stress drives a lot of unhealthy eating, it's worth starting to know your hunger on a 1 to 10 scale, with the lower range being little or no hunger. The 4-5-6 range is moderate hunger, while the 7-8-9-10 range is extreme hunger. If you wait until you're in that extreme range, you're more likely to eat more of whatever happens to be close at hand! So learning to eat in that moderate range is important. 

To wrap it up, here are my three top tips for mindful eating skillpower:

  1. Get to know your body's hunger signals. Then ask: How much food and what kind of food will satisfy this particular hunger? 
  2. Be aware of your emotions and surroundings. Take your time as you eat. Try not to get distracted, but eat just to eat, savoring each bite and morsel. 
  3. Be compassionate and kind toward yourself as you embark on the journey of conscious eating. You do not have to be perfect at this. And when you're done eating, take a short walk or nature break—something that lets you transition out of your meal and know that you can stop eating because this meal is finished.