Humans tend to have a complicated relationship with food and overeat as a way to deal with stress, boredom, feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, loneliness, and other challenging emotions. Overeating is an attempt to self-soothe or numb out in response to the perception of danger or pain.
On a primal level, binge eating is connected to your sense of safety and survival in the world.
For those who are genetically susceptible, binge eating is both the symptom and cause of food addiction. Food addicts experience uncontrollable cravings for high-fat junk food or foods high in sugar, even when they are full. These foods trigger the pleasure/reward center in the brain, which floods the brain with dopamine. This high level of dopamine causes you to develop tolerance, leading to powerful cravings for more junk food to achieve that same initial high.
The road to recovery for food addiction is not as black and white as it is with alcohol and drugs. For example, if you drink and you stop, you’re sober. We don’t need alcohol but we do need food. Since you can't cut food out of your life, it's important to instead explore how to heal your relationship with food.
Mindful eating can help you gain command over your food choices so you can feel empowered about what you choose to eat.
Mindful eating isn't necessarily about weight-loss, and it's definitely not meant to be an anti-fat, pro-skinny, or body shaming practice. Binge eating comes with detrimental consequences to our bodies and mental health, even though it might provide temporary relief in a difficult moment. Binge eating can lead to chronic illnesses, digestive issues, skin problems, inflammation, emotional volatility, cloudy thinking, and it can also reinforce the stress, emotional pain, and addiction pathways that are driving this pattern.
Cultivating awareness will enable you to notice when these impulses are bubbling up so you can counteract them before they overtake you.
Below, you’ll find a list of 8 of the most effective ways to create a mindful relationship with food, and strategies to counteract the impulse to binge or overeat. You can apply these practices to any unhelpful habit that you would like to shift.
8 Ways to Counteract The Impulse to Binge Eat
1. Delay the Impulse + Practice Harm Reduction. If you are too rigid about what you can or can’t eat, this can backfire and makes you more likely to rebel and overindulge. As an alternative to trying to force yourself to stop thinking about eating chocolate cake, experiment with delaying the impulse. Instead of indulging right away, do 3 things you’ve been procrastinating on. These can be small tasks around the house, or on your computer, such as responding to an email, doing the dishes, drinking a glass of water, paying a bill. After you complete these 3 tasks, if the craving is still there, you can choose to eat half the amount of what you had originally intended. Often, the craving will pass by the time you have completed the 3 tasks. Cravings can come on strong and you may feel an impulse to fulfill the craving, kind of like scratching an itch. However, if you give it space, it will move through you like a wave and eventually pass. This strategy will help you to ride out the wave and tolerate the intensity of the craving without letting it take over your entire decision-making process.
2. Positive Motivation. If you want to eat healthily and work out, do it out of self-love and not self-hatred. Sometimes people use self-beratement as a way to motivate themselves out of fear that self-love will make them lazy and complacent. They might end up losing weight because of this, but it’s a bitter, joyless path. Eventually, this negative view of yourself will end up sabotaging you and leading you back to your old habits and vices. If your motivation is coming from a place of self-hatred, you will be more likely to regain the weight you’ve lost. If you take a path of self-love, you can eat healthily and lose weight in a more sustainable way. The process will still be challenging but it won’t be demoralizing or depressing.
3. Mindful Awareness. People often feel guilty about binge eating, or judgmental about their food cravings. Next time you notice a craving, take a deep breath and measure your mental and emotional temperature. Notice what types of thoughts you are thinking and what kinds of feelings and emotions you’re experiencing. Notice if you are bored, or trying to numb out, run away from problems, distract yourself through food, or get high with food. Write down your findings if possible. If you stay curious, over time you will notice a pattern. This pattern will let you know what is at the root of your food-related impulses. It will reveal what emotional needs might require deeper attention, healing, or further exploration.
4. Diaphragmatic Breathing. Slow, deep breathing into the diaphragm will have a calming effect on your mind and body. It will soothe the emotional void in the belly area that triggers people to overeat. Breathing will regulate your nervous system and reminds your body that you are safe, and not in danger. This is especially useful if your food impulses are in response to unresolved trauma or pent up emotions.
5. Generate More Meaning and Fulfillment in Your Life. When people feel unfulfilled in their lives, this can create a bottomless emotional void or even a physical emptiness, often experienced in the chest or lower abdominal region of the body. This feeling of emptiness can trigger anxiety and stress, which can then activate an impulse to fill the void with food, substances, shopping, or other distractions. As you know, while this leads to a momentary sense of relief, you end up feeling even more depleted and craving the next binge. Click here to read about how you can find more meaning and fulfillment in your life.
6. Reduce Stress. When you're stressed out, you're more likely to make survival based choices with food. This is an evolutionary trait we inherited from our ancestors—finding food that help us to store fat so we can stay alive in the face of drought, famine, or war. If you notice that you tend to overeat in response to stress, it is important to address the root of the issue, your relationship with stress. In this case, you’ll need to eliminate unnecessary stressors in your life and gain support and tools to help you manage stress. This will help you to shift out of survival mode and into a more resourced state of being which in turn, will help you make more empowered choices about food.
7. Rehydrate. Often, people are dehydrated but they mistake thirst for hunger. Before you reach for a snack, drink a tall glass of water. Water will also boost your metabolism and help your body to eliminate waste.
8. Avoid surrendering to the “what the hell” effect. This describes a phenomenon of making an unhealthy choice, feeling bad about it, and then doubling down by indulging more. If you stray from your healthy eating plan, pause before you go down a guilt or shame spiral and focus on how to recover. Take a deep breath, accept what has happened, and send yourself compassion and forgiveness. Remember all of the progress and effort you have made so far. Focus on your successes and build on that, instead of abandoning the plan altogether. This will help you to regain your footing, and refresh your commitment to taking care of your body, and come back to a mindful eating plan.
Healthy eating is a lifelong journey, and it’s important to stay committed, even in the face of setbacks. Give yourself at least 90 days to form a new habit by engaging in these practices every day. Remember that self-hatred and judgment will work against you, and to keep yourself motivated through self-love and mindful curiosity.
If you would like to address trauma, anxiety, stress management, or other challenges related to food and eating patterns, feel free to send me a direct message or apply for a consultation for a private counseling session.
Disclaimer: Food addiction is a complex challenge to overcome, and tends to have multiple causes and contributing factors. This article is not a substitute for medical attention. If you're dealing with body, weight, or food related challenges, I highly recommend that you take a comprehensive blood test to check your blood sugar levels, hormones, thyroid, B vitamins, D vitamins, iron, and any other factors that your doctor recommends. You may also want to seek out assistance from a nutritionist, acupuncturist, or naturopath. Additionally, attending behavior modification programs such as Overeaters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, or Weight Watchers can be immensely helpful in providing you with a community of supportive people who share similar goals on the journey to health. There is a power in numbers, and an uplifting group mentality will help you to stay motivated, accountable to your goals, and will also lift the shame and secrecy of the situation you are in so you can feel less stuck and and move forward.