Eating is not only about nutrition and sustenance.  If it was, then all of us would eat only those things that are most nutritious and only as much as we need to function.  However, that is clearly not the case.  People eat, and especially overeat, for many different reasons. Part of developing effective strategies for combating overeating is identifying what “kind of eater” you are.  Here are some common ways that people use food:

  • Avoiding difficult feelings: People often say to themselves that if they experience a negative feeling, such as sadness or loneliness, they will not be able to tolerate it, so they eat to avoid experiencing the feeling. They believe that the discomfort that overeating creates is less than the discomfort they would feel if they had to experience the avoided emotion.  Unfortunately, like cold medicine does not cure a cold, eating does not fix the negative feelings, it only delays your experience of them.
    • Strategies:
      1. Practice acceptance: There is no such thing as good feelings and bad feelings, all feelings are necessary and serve a purpose. It is okay for you to experience negative feelings; they make you aware that something is not right.
      2. Challenge the idea that this feeling is “intolerable”: Remind yourself that you have tolerated plenty of negative things in your life, so you will likely be able to tolerate this. Ask yourself, “What evidence do I have that I will not be able to tolerate this feeling?”
      3. Address the reason for the negative feeling. For example, if the feeling is loneliness is the result of a recent breakup, then spend time mourning the loss of the relationship and developing a plan for going forward.
      4. Practice relaxation exercises, especially if your negative feelings relate to anxiety. It is difficult to be anxious and relaxing at the same time.   Some exercises include: progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery.
  • Boredom: Some people eat when they get bored. This is especially common if people believe that they should never be bored and, similarly to the above, that boredom is uncomfortable and intolerable.
    • Strategies:
      1. Plan for boredom: Instead of waiting to feel bored and then resorting to food to fill the time, plan activities that can occupy your downtime. You can plan to go for a walk, watch a favorite show or engage in a hobby, just make sure that these are things that you actually enjoy.  In this case, if boredom sets in, you have a plan for what you can do.
      2. Try to conceptualize boredom as relaxation. Instead of trying to avoid feeling bored, embrace it and look at it as time to yourself to rest and recharge.  You are less likely to eat to avoid resting.
  • Eating as a Reward: Food has been likely used as a reward our whole lives. Very often parents say to a child, “You did so well in school, let’s go out for ice cream.”  This teaches people that if they did something good, they deserve to eat whatever they want.
    • Strategies:
      1. You deserve rewards, so do not stop rewarding yourself for your accomplishments. Instead, develop a list of rewards that do not involve food. For example, your list can include: buying yourself something that you had been wanting, doing something that you enjoy but rarely have the time for or setting aside time for your hobby.  Make sure to actually reward yourself with one of these things when you feel you are “deserving.”
      2. Remind yourself that if you reward yourself with food, you may end up feeling bad about it later, and that is not what you want after receiving a reward.
  • Distracted Eating: People often eat without even realizing that they are eating. They may be sitting at the kitchen counter reading something on their phone and end up eating a whole sleeve of crackers before they even recognize what they were doing. Research with people who were given bowls that automatically refilled themselves without the participant’s knowledge, demonstrated that the people who ate while watching television ate substantially more than those who paid attention to what they were eating.
    • Strategies:
      1. Try not to eat while doing something else. Try to avoid eating while reading, watching television or engaging in conversations that are not related to the eating experience.
      2. Notice as much as you can about your food. How does it look? How does it smell? How does it taste? Eat slowly to allow your body time to process the food and send signals to your brain that you are no longer hungry. This takes about 20 minutes.
  • Clinical depression and/or anxiety: Overeating is a symptom of depression and is also commonly found in people with anxiety. If your overeating is related to a clinical diagnosis, then you need treatment for this conditions in order to substantially improve your eating habits.

When looking at yourself to determine what kind of eater you are, be kind to yourself and do not interpret your past actions as failures.  Instead approach this as you would an experiment.  Let’s try a strategy and see how it works, and if it does not work, then next time try a different strategy.

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