Sian on binge eating, comfort eating and over-eating
Two reasons that set me off thinking about bad eating habits – lockdown and Christmas. Knowledge is power…
By Sian Barnard
The majority of people will admit to eating sometimes when they are not hungry, out of boredom or stress, just to feel better. What happens when you are unable to tell if it is hunger or a craving? What happens if it’s bordering on the addictive?
When I’m working on my laptop, I can only do about 20 minutes before I need a breather. If what I am doing is challenging, full of obstacles or I don’t know where to start, I get distracted more easily. I will then decide on a cup of coffee or to check my phone (that’s a whole other story!). When I go for a coffee or a drink, I have been known to stand with the fridge door open and stare expectantly into its innards, scanning for something tasty. This is conditioned behaviour that began (and is maintained) because when I feel discomfort, my brain will subconsciously remember that the last time I had something nice to eat, I felt good. My brain also has been programmed that if I feel uncomfortable and I eat, it can temporarily take that bad feeling away. When we eat something nice, we are rewarded by a flood of dopamine in our brains – our pleasure chemical. The brain is programmed to light up like a Christmas tree when it detects sugar in the bloodstream and floods the brain with dopamine. This is why sweet things, and carbohydrates that eventually turn into sugar, are a strong favourite to the comfort eater.
Binge eating can have similar behavioural conditioning as comfort eating, but will be more complex and, therefore, classed as a psychiatric disorder. Binge eating followed by purging (forced vomiting) is anorexia bulimia. People who just binge or who just have bulimia are people who are actually trying to lose weight. They may skip breakfast and lunch, thinking that they are saving calories, only to be driven by low sugar and electrolyte levels to buy excess food from the shop, smuggle it all up to a bedroom, hide it and, when alone, eat the lot. The person can even go into a light trance as they enjoy the sensations of consumption. There is a need to keep eating until they can’t go anymore, way after feeling extreme nausea, usually to the point of stomach pain. Then they are left with the guilt and shame to drive future binges. If you are in this category, I would suggest a chat with a professional.
Over-eating is generally having large portions, snacking between meals and having the regular binge. The peculiar thing is most over-eaters would desperately love to lose weight, but can’t get into the zone. Over-eaters will also eat for comfort. It’s a series of programmed behaviours we call habits. Good news though – they can be undone, if you aware of them.
What links all three?
The thing that they all have in common is the link with our emotions. We homo-sapiens (or I am more of a homo-nibblens?) are part of the animal kingdom. However, we differ from other animals because we have the ability to think about the past and the future, which we can deem negative, and these thoughts manifest in our physical sensations as we experience emotions. We don’t like negative emotions like anxiety, shame, anger, depression, guilt, hurt or jealousy, so we develop many strategies – including eating – to stop feeling bad. We even become upset about feeling bad.
When people come to me and want to lose weight, I will ask a number of questions, including:
- Is this a long-term battle they have been fighting?
- Have you lost in the past and regained more weight afterwards?
- Do you comfort eat?
- Do you eat when bored?
- Do you stress eat, and are you prone to worry or are a perfectionist?
- How would you rate your confidence or self-esteem?
I will explain that unless we also look at the reasons why they find it difficult to lose weight, or stay at a target weight, they will be on the same merry-go-round for the rest of their lives – as their weight is most likely an indication of their coping mechanisms.
Take the example of Melanie (changed name); a gorgeous lady, about 4 stone overweight, with a good job, a loving husband, young children and a good group of childhood friends. She had lost weight in the past and put it back on. She tended not to be organised when it came to meals times and takeaways were always an option: snacks, biscuits and chocolate were there to fill the gaps between meals or make her feel better with a cuppa during a stressful day. There were big elements of ‘what-ifery’. That is a term I use for worry, as it always begins with the phrase ‘what if’, and looks a bit like: ‘what if this happens’, ‘what if this person thinks I was being rude on that text’; ‘what if this person doesn’t think my work is good enough?’. Melanie also had to make everything she did at work or for her kids perfect or people might judge her. Yet for years, she had never celebrated the beautiful, amazing, human being she was. Neither did she engage in any self-care; not even to buy something lovely for herself.
There was a lot to tackle, but we began by looking at what bad foods she could cut out or reduce. We opted for takeaways and week-day chocolate. Then looked towards what were her main stressors. Each week we tidied up her bad eating habits with new psychological tools to support that, as well as tackling the things that she could get emotional about. This lead to a woman who could control her diet because she could control her emotional states in a non-overwhelming way.
One of Melanie’s biggest issues was thinking she was Mary Poppins and Wonder Woman combined. A deep need not to let anyone down or upset them created anxiety that drove her ‘people-pleasing’ behaviours and her constant strive for perfection. This was demonstrated in a not-so-perfect sponge cake that got chucked in the bin. We looked at how self-worth was linked to how well she thought she was being a mother, wife, friend, house-keeper, manager and woman. She had become a human doing, not a human being. When Melanie began to see that her value as a human being – that is, her self-esteem – was not linked to how she performed, we began to see that sticking to healthy eating and being organised became more natural. New behaviours and habits became hardwired as we began to literally change her mind.
Beware the boredom
Boredom is a diet killer. I’ve just used the word ‘diet’ and I don’t really like it, as it suggests a short-term weight loss plan. This is a sticky plaster. I encourage people to find a lifestyle eating plan that will initially help them lose weight but is a lifetime commitment. For me, it’s low-carb, ketogenic eating if I want to lose weight. Some people prefer the ‘five and two’ diet. As long as it’s nutritionally balanced, I will support what works for my clients. Now, back to boredom – what is it? It’s a discomfort, a discombobulation where you are restless as to whether you have a task to do or not. It is a lack of focus or disinterest. However, you want to describe your boredom: it is uncomfortable and we can teach our brains that eating gives us a) an activity to occupy us; and b) enjoyment. Thus, it becomes a neural pathway because it solves our discomfort in the short term, we repeat it and, over time, it becomes a habit.
You can learn to recognise that discomfort and see it for what it is, which is a feeling or state of mind. It’s not something that needs to be obliterated. Instead, just tolerated until you can ride it out. Same goes with most uncomfortable feelings. Rather than fighting, suppressing them, distracting yourself or eating on them, you can observe them and wait. You can, over time, learn to manage them.
10 things to help you manage overeating:
- Identify if you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion
- Sit with that emotion. Notice it as if it were a gurgling tummy or a stitch in your side. It will wax and wane, it will pass.
- If you have planned to eat healthily, be organised; don’t leave cupboards and fridges bare.
- Set yourself up to succeed, not fail. Don’t buy in tonnes of sweets and carbohydrates
- Rename treats ‘sabotages’, as that is what they are
- Don’t have ‘all or nothing’ thinking. If you slip up and have a binge or over-eat, draw a line under it. You are human. Don’t say: ‘I’ve ruined it now’. Start again at your next meal.
- Make sure your portion sizes are within a normal range. Buy some scales. You can re-train yourself to eat smaller portions without being hungry
- Tiredness, loneliness and thirst can be mistaken for true hunger. Notice the difference between hunger and a craving
- Have a smart goal on how much you want to lose and how you will be continuing a maintenance programme
- Remember: not many people can eat what they want when they want. You are not being deprived.
If binges amount to excess food – along the lines of multiple packets of biscuits, cakes, crisps, family-sized chocolate bars and large pizzas all in one sitting – then this probably needs professional help, especially if there is forced vomiting. This needs to be addressed with the help of a professional.
Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).