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Eating Disorders

The Truth About Overeating

Can't stick to your diet resolution? This may be why.

In our current culture, we attach much humiliation to overeating and body image. This makes the inability to change eating habits seem like a shameful thing—a defect of discipline. When people try to change their eating patterns—as many do at the new year—results are expected to happen relatively fast and without slip-ups. If this does not happen, we conclude that the person is out of control.

This, in turn, makes it especially difficult for those with compulsive and binge-eating disorders or any kind of emotional disordered eating to talk openly about their struggles and seek help. The truth is that for those with disordered eating, treatment is complex and multi-layered and can take some time to produce results. When results start to happen, they emerge slowly, slowly over time.

If sticking to your healthy eating plan feels nearly impossible, it may be that the issue is a bit more complex. Also remember, that many people do not fit neatly into the categories of full-blown eating disorders. Even when there are shadows of disordered emotional eating at play, the struggle is still deeper than what meets the eye. If it becomes apparent that you or someone in your life is struggling with any kind of disordered eating or full-blown compulsive overeating (COD) or binge-eating disorder. (BED), here are some things to keep in mind about the complexity of changing and healing.

Binge- and compulsive-eating disorders are, indeed, eating disorders. BED has been added to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), which means medical and psychological communities now officially recognize it as a very real eating disorder. Treatment of most DSM-V disorders is not about simple self-control and discipline.

Eating is not the problem. With any eating disorder, eating and food is not the problem; it is the solution. As with alcohol or drugs, eating can be a temporary, but very powerful way to stave off unwanted and unmanageable feelings and internal experiences. In order to deal with the symptom of overeating, we have to learn to manage difficult and intense feelings.

Changing the brain. When someone with BED or COD engages in their eating disorder, they experience a rush of some of the “feel good” chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain, similar to those seen in the use of certain narcotics. This creates what is often termed a “psychological addiction,” which is different from a physical addiction seen in many drug users and alcoholics. Though the affected parts of the body and brain can be different, like treating a drug addiction, treating BED and COD can be equally as difficult and time-consuming to overcome, as treatment involves creating and strengthening new neural pathways.

Identifying feelings. For many people, difficult feelings and the reactive eating in response to these feelings happen unconsciously. In treatment, it can often take a while to identify underlying feelings and triggers that lead to eating disorder behaviors. Also know that identification (or consciousness) of feelings and behaviors is only the first step.

Tolerating feelings. Successful treatment also involves the practice of how to process and tolerate difficult feelings instead of managing difficult feelings by engaging in disordered behaviors. While this may sound simple, it is very difficult. I often compare it to trying to tolerate being on fire. A few examples of these feelings are anger, depression, rejection, anxiety, boredom, stress, fatigue, deprivation, exhaustion, and over-working. And much like alcohol or drug use, it can even be hard not to engage in an eating disorder during happiness, excitement, and celebration. All these feelings, good and bad, can be triggers for eating disordered behavior.

Shame and humiliation. One of the most complex parts of treating any BED and COD is the profound shame, embarrassment, or humiliation people feel about their eating patterns and body image. This experienced shame contributes to beliefs about negative self-worth, complicating treatment with painful ideas about what they are “supposed” to be and look in order to earn acceptance and love. Many people feel disgusting because they have this disorder (as opposed to other disorders) and believe that during the process of treatment, there is no room for mistakes or slip-ups without extreme self-deprecation. This complicates the progression of treatment and only serves to leave them stuck in the same cycle. The truth: no one, including yourself, can shame you into changing your eating behavior. If this approach worked, it would have worked already.

Abundant opportunities. Food choices are everywhere. In our current world, avoiding the sight and smell of food is fairly impossible. These sights and smells have been found to trigger parts of our brain to crave the food or just feel hungry, in general. (This is why restaurants love to bring out the dessert tray and why TV ads for food go to great lengths to show off their products.) This complicates matters for a person with BED or COE because it involves sorting all of this out in the face of their own difficulty in identifying the body’s natural hunger-full cycle.

Treating any eating disorder takes patience and time and is not just a matter of finding the discipline to put down the fork. If you or a loved one is struggling with any kind of disordered eating, it is important to keep the aforementioned in mind as you undertake the process of healing.