Want to curb your binge eating this winter? Try a different conversation with yourself!

Overeating this winter? Talk to yourself for a change!

Posted Feb 04, 2011

Another snowstorm. One client after another trudges into my office, leaving sodden boots on the mat by the front door, dragging off knit hats, unwinding scarves and pulling off layers of clothing. "I hate this weather," says Lisa. "It's depressing...and cold...and I can't stop eating.

In my psychotherapy office I have put out extra boxes of tissues, not for tears, but for noses dripping with the cold. But tears are not far away for many of my clients, especially those who suffer from eating disorders. "I spent the weekend in bed," Janice tells me. "It was too cold to get up." But being at home made her feel lonely, so she snuggled up in bed and watched movies and slept - and ate.

Beth has two young children and works part time. "I feel like I'm always pushing myself and them," she says. "I'm exhausted all the time. I wish it wasn't so dark and bleak outside."

"It's the binge season," says Henry, who has struggled with his weight since he was eight years old. "I can't get myself to the gym. And I can't stop eating. I'm putting on pounds every day. I tell myself I'll get rid of this weight in the spring, when I can go running outside again."


If you recognize yourself in any of these comments, you are certainly not alone. Here are some suggestions for talking to the parts of yourself that contribute to your binge eating.


• In order to change your eating patterns, you have to have a conversation with the part of yourself that is criticizing you for the way you eat. No one overeats because they are bad. In fact, the amount you struggle with your food is in all likelihood directly related to the level of your personal standards. You probably have set unrealistic expectations for yourself, which means that you feel inadequate or ashamed of whatever you have actually accomplished. You think you should have done better, so what you do, no matter how good it might be, is not good enough. Since those negative thoughts can turn into a binge, switch the conversation.

• For example, you've probably got many theories about why you eat more than you should. But here's one to remind yourself about at least once a day: We eat in winter because we're biologically programmed to add extra fat to our bodies to help us cope with the cold. Squirrels do it. So do bears, groundhogs, and other warm-blooded animals. Eating is not bad, it's just what your mammalian brain is telling you to do in order to manage the cold. From your body's perspective, it is totally adaptive! But since you're not planning to hibernate for the rest of the winter (which would allow your body to burn off all the fat it's trying to store up), you have to find a way to redirect this impulse.

• Part of what you need to do to counteract those directives from your ancestral brain is to engage it in conversation. Neuroscience has shown that putting things into words is one of the most powerful ways to change them. I often write about this idea in my articles for therapists (for example my article "Speaking of Feelings.")This is also one of the tools I think "mindfulness" gives us - making it possible for the different parts of our brains to speak to one another. In her book "Eating Mindfully," Susan Albers, who also has a wonderful blog on the PT website, writes, "When you crave a particular food, it is likely that your body is sending you an S.O.S." Many of my clients are surprised that a craving is a message from your body about something you actually need physically!

• But of course, the S.O.S. not necessarily for exactly what you are imagining. Your body may tell you that it wants a cup of hot chocolate, a large slice of cake with icing, and a serving of macaroni and cheese. But you may actually simply be cold and the message is really "WARM UP NOW!" A cup of tea and a hot shower could do the trick. Or your blood sugar might be low or you have been dieting too rigidly and your body needs some protein or even some fat. To respond to the S.O.S. does not mean going on a binge. But it could mean eating one piece of chocolate or even having one slice of pizza.

• Responding to these cravings with smaller doses of the desired food can help you keep binges at bay. And that way you will be able enjoy the warm weather when spring and summer finally do come. The point is to let your different thoughts, needs and wishes all have a voice. You want to eat, but you don't want to gain weight. Maybe for the moment you feel like you don't care if you get fat! But there is another voice there as well.

• Albers suggests that giving airtime to each of these contradictory thoughts (or conversations between different parts of your mind and body) can help you eat just a little of even the foods you generally consider "off-limits." But some of us have troubles eating just a little of something we love. One reason for this is that we tell ourselves "you can have this today; but don't expect it again anytime soon!" So try to change that conversation. Let yourself have a little bit today, and promise yourself that you can have some more tomorrow; and the day after; and the day after that. And keep your promise.

This last suggestion did the trick for Henry. "I never thought that I could have cheese and crackers every day," he said. "So when I gave into the craving, I would eat the whole wedge of cheese and an entire box of crackers in one sitting, because a voice in my head kept telling me I'd never get them again." Once he allowed himself to think that he would have more the next day, he was able to eat exactly five crackers with his favorite cheese on them every evening when he got home from work. Although he would have liked more, he was able to stop because he knew that he would be able to have more the next night.

The main thing is to remember, first of all, that you are not bad for wanting the food. Your craving is an old and extremely adaptive animal need. Once you open up the conversation, your body will gradually accept the information that you are not planning to hibernate for the winter and therefore do not need enough extra store of food to take you through till spring. And then you can look for other ways to soothe and comfort yourself during the cold months.

Especially if you remind yourself that, whatever the groundhog said, spring will be here before too much longer!