There’s no getting around it – food is an essential and often extremely pleasurable part of life. (That is, unless you’re a breatharian, a concept I personally cannot understand.)
Not only is food necessary for our physical sustenance, but it also figures prominently in many social and religious events. Thanksgiving and turkey (or tofurky). The Super Bowl, chips, and dip. Easter, chocolate eggs, and Peeps. Passover, matzoh, and gefilte fish.
Enjoying a leisurely meal with friends or family can also help us bond with others while nourishing our bodies.
However, in too many cases food and eating can morph into a source of discomfort and potentially threaten one’s physical health and well-being.
Downing a one-pound bag of M & M’s can become the response to be jilted romantically or losing one’s job.
Grazing on bags of potato chips throughout the day can become a way to procrastinate about schoolwork.
Ordering an extra-large pizza and eating it alone at home with the blinds closed, and then falling into a food-fueled comatose state, can be a way to block out feelings of low self-worth.
This is serious business. What to do? How to regain a healthy relationship with food again? Or develop such a relationship for the first time?
Various types of compulsive overeating exist.
Binge eating is defined as the consumption of large amounts of food over a short period of time (from a few minutes to several hours) and the unsettling sense that one has lost control over one’s eating. Sometimes people can eat thousands, or even tens of thousands of calories, in the course of a binge.
Emotional eating involves eating in response to uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, grief, or anger. Many people attempt to “stuff down their feelings” with excess food. Sometimes positive feelings like joy or excitement can cause people to eat emotionally, especially if the person has a difficult time feeling deserving of good things. Binge eating is usually a form of emotional eating, although emotional eating does not always include binge eating. For instance, emotional eating can be in the form of “grazing” throughout the day, rather than during a concentrated period of time.
External eating refers to eating as a result of seeing, smelling, or tasting a bit of food. The slogan “bet you can’t eat just one” applies here. Sometimes a photo of food or the mere mention of food, can precipitate external eating.
In all these cases, food consumption, which initially seems to be the best answer to an disquieting feeling or impulse, becomes the problem.
Fortunately, according to researchers at the University of Southern California, mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) can be effective for obesity-related eating behaviors, including binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. The study team conducted a search of clinical research studies that employed MBIs, such as:
- mindfulness meditation
- mindful eating
- mindful body scan
- acceptance-based practices
All but one of the 12 studies aimed at reducing binge eating decreased the frequency and/or severity of the behavior, with most of the studies reporting a major effect. Five out of the eight studies that focused on emotional eating proved to be effective. For external eating, four out of six studies decreased the behavior.
Overall, the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy appeared to be the most effective approach to reducing compulsive overeating. In addition, most of the studies showed improvement in mindfulness and beneficial outcomes in body weight (either weight loss or weight stabilization).
The therapeutic interventions deemed to be most effective required several sessions over a few weeks (which is not long at all, in the scheme of things).
A multitude of mindfulness techniques exist. Here’s one simple example:
- Notice a place in your body where you feel your breath. This could be in your chest, in the back of your throat, or your abdomen.
- Bring your attention to that spot.
- Observe how breathing feels, focusing on the sensation rather than on your thoughts.
- Breathe naturally. No need to force a particular type of breathing.
- Try this exercise for five minutes, working your way up to 20 minutes a day, if possible.
Mindfulness works in controlling compulsive behaviors in several ways.
First of all, the more awareness you bring to each moment, the more choice you have as to how you respond. You are less likely to be a victim to automatic thoughts and behaviors. You are less likely to “find” yourself looking at the bottom of an empty cookie jar, wondering how that happened.
Since it’s difficult to have more than one thought at a time, the more you develop your ability to focus on your breath, the less you will get stuck in worrying about the past, the future, or a disturbing situation, all of which might cause you anxiety and the wish to escape through compulsive eating.
With practice, you’ll be able to transfer your mindfulness skills to your activities and thoughts throughout the day. If you notice a self-critical thought about your weight or an impulse to overeat, you’ll be more able to see the belief or the compulsion for what it is, rather than mindlessly accepting the thought as truth or judging the impulse as the right thing to do.
When you choose to adopt healthier routines, such as following a balanced and moderate food plan, and refraining from compulsive overeating between planned meals or snacks, you’re bound to come up against discomfort. Change can be scary, even if the change is beneficial.
Mindfulness techniques can help you to weather the discomfort without adding self-imposed misery (through negative thoughts, obsessing about food or weight, or falling back into dysfunctional eating behaviors). In time, your new, healthier eating patterns can become the norm, and food can assume its proper place in your life.
Reilly, G.A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D., & Black, D.S. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15(6): 453-461.