Have you ever wondered why some people can keep many of their favorite comfort foods in the house, eat a small portion at a time, and save the rest for later? Perhaps they even forget that they bought those special imported cookies or chocolates and, God forbid, they go stale. Those same folks can go to a buffet or social gathering with an abundance of delectable foods and fill up one level plate, go back for a small amount of dessert and that’s it. They’re done. They don’t go back for seconds and thirds. And they don’t keep thinking about food.
Perhaps you prefer to keep your cupboards and refrigerator bare because having too many favorite “trigger” foods around overwhelms you and leads to mindless or excessive snacking, overeating or bingeing. If these foods are in the house for the kids, your spouse or company, you’re keenly aware of them, right?
Most likely, you have to prepare yourself when dining in restaurants or attending social gatherings or holiday meals where there will be many of your favorite foods. Lack of planning on your part can lead to feeling food focused, overeating, and the accompanying remorse, guilt and shame. And let’s be honest—sometimes you come home after overindulging at social events and eat more!
Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that your excesses aren’t really all that bad. You love good food—perhaps you even label yourself a “foodie.” Is that such a crime? Everyone you know eats and drinks to excess at times, so what’s the big deal? It could be worse—you’re not shooting heroin or gambling yourself into bankruptcy.
Truth be told, somewhere in the recesses of your mind you know that your life feels out of balance and that your excesses have something to do with it. You’re tired of feeling out of control with food and of the control it seems to have over you. You’ve had enough food hangovers for one lifetime. You suspect or you know that your health is not optimal. You may not be satisfied with your weight. Perhaps you feel guilty about and ashamed of your eating behavior–at times you hate yourself for it–and you’re tired of having a poor body image.
You’ve tried to improve your relationship with food many times. You’ve been on every diet and eating plan known to mankind. But you’ve found it difficult to stick with restrictive eating plans. Even though you initially lose some weight and feel a renewed sense of control, hope and motivation, at some point, a craving or a discomfort stirs and this sends you right back to that tried-and-true form of comfort, soothing, pleasure, relief, excitement, and distraction—food.
You know others who have conquered these demons, but for whatever reason, you haven’t yet been successful. Perhaps you’ve concluded that these folks have more willpower or are more disciplined than you. Or that they have less stress-filled lives. Or that they have a nurturing partner, close friends and a loving family and you don’t. Or that they have more balanced brain chemistry or better genetics. Or that you have an “addictive personality.”
And while these factors may well represent pieces of the overeating puzzle, there is a more important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. The seeming control others exhibit around favorite comfort foods may actually be the result of the quality of the caregiving they received as infants and small children, how their brain circuitry, brain chemistry and stress-response mechanisms developed in a nurturing environment, and the self-care skills they acquired early in life.
Mastering the skill of self-regulation depends to a large extent on experiencing consistently kind, supportive and nurturing early interactions with our caregivers.
All overeating behaviors (excessive snacking, mindless snacking, overeating at meals and compulsive binge eating) are the result of complex interactions between emotional, cognitive, biological, neurological, social and spiritual factors. Temperament and constitution, genetically inherited brain and body imbalances, insufficient or traumatic early childhood experiences, chronic stress, chronic dieting and the easy availability of food all play a role. Overeating may seem like a simple act, but it’s actually a complex behavior. Its resolution requires a comprehensive, multidimensional approach.
When we regularly eat in the absence of physical hunger cues, routinely choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat when we are already full, something is out of balance somewhere.
These tendencies suggest that we are missing important self-care skills generally learned in childhood. We may be lacking the ability to connect to and be mindful of our internal world—to consistently regulate uncomfortable emotional and bodily states, calm and soothe ourselves and address our unmet needs. We may find it difficult to reframe self-defeating thoughts and self-belief distortions and practice self-acceptance and self-love. Perhaps we never learned how to effectively grieve losses and disappointments, remind ourselves of our strengths and resources and hold hope for the future. And without these skills, regulating our behaviors and setting effective limits with ourselves and others can feel like a daunting task.
Self-regulation, or the ability to manage our emotions, moods, thoughts, impulses and behaviors, is a developmental achievement. Conditions need to be right for our brains to develop and connect the proper circuitry for us to be capable of self-regulation.
Given that our early childhood environment has a powerful impact on brain development, and that you can’t go back in time for a “redo”, it would be easy to feel hopeless about your chances of altering your brain’s functioning, improving your self-care and your response to stressors, and resolving eating challenges. But it turns out that there is good reason to hold hope.
Neuroplasticity is a term used to refer to the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself– to establish and to dissolve connections between its different parts, in response to experience. Research suggests that even into old age, our experiences can actually change the physical structure of the brain. In other words, it’s never too late to grow neural fibers and improve self-regulation.
The good news is that you can learn to meet your needs and mindfully nurture yourself with the lovingkindness and self-compassion that you deserve, rewire your brain for optimal long-term emotional health, handle stressors with more ease and, at the same time, give your wayward eating the boot. It’s all about building and strengthening your self-care skills. We work on these skills, and many more, in the 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program. Please check the Events page for upcoming dates.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food Is Comfort. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to https://overeatingrecovery.com.
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