Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
International Eating Disorder Referral Organization
An Eating Disorder Nonetheless--Compulsive Overeating
There is an eating disorder that exists that will not meet the clinical criteria for the better known Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and the like—however, it’s real and it very much exists for the individual struggling with the behavior. This “disordered eating,” otherwise known as Compulsive Overeating is oftentimes employed as a means of coping and can be equally disruptive to the person contending with the disorder.
As I prepared to give a talk on “Emotional Eating,” to a group of otherwise high functioning women (men are not immune to this by the way—just more prevalent in females), I began to scan in my mind’s eye the countless individuals that have crossed my office threshold who have displayed this syndrome and yet will go virtually unnoticed given the current attitudes concerning this issue unless awareness is heightened and treatment is provided to alleviate this ever growing problem. Much of the reason it stays undercover is the shame, perfectionism, and the idea that this is controllable and therefore, one shouldn’t need help. Not so.
So what am I talking about? I am describing a very high functioning person who seemingly has everything under control (a theoretical concept at best) and yet, obsesses about her weight, food choices, and feels unyielding pressure to be thinner than she currently is (or perhaps has ever been). She can be a full time stay at home mom or that plus a worker outside the home. She can be single or married. This woman may also have aging parents or in-laws who rely on her for help to doctor’s appointments, etc. She rarely has a moment to herself and feels lucky to get in one or two step aerobic classes a week. In between a business meeting and picking up her son’s new soccer uniform, she grabs a salad from a fast food restaurant with a diet coke and feels virtuous for adhering to her “diet” even though her head is pounding from the caffeine withdrawal she’s experiencing from this morning’s coffee and the sugar let down from the pastry she grabbed during her first meeting of the morning. By the time she gets home there’s little energy left and yet she perseveres and throws a load of laundry into the washing machine, helps the kids with their homework, gives her husband a back massage, and prepares for a presentation she will need to facilitate back in the office tomorrow morning at 8:00am after returning 20 email messages—all of this before her own bedtime at 11:50pm. But, before she crawls into bed—when the house is quiet and she finally has some time to herself without interruption or one more demand to fulfill from another; she slips into the kitchen for a snack. At this critical moment, she is sleep deprived, hormonal, anxious about her meeting in the morning, stressed about the cross words she exchanged with her husband about being too tired to make love (again), and she just wants to disengage for a few moments in the recesses of her own mind where no one else can find her. A bubble bath is certainly an option as would be relaxing music and deep diaphragmatic breathing. Maybe her husband could rub her feet and listen to what is on her mind without feeling compelled to fix a thing? Just listen to her so she feels heard and understand. But, those alternatives are not an option because she knows of only one way to take care of herself (without troubling anyone else) and that is through food. It starts innocently enough with an apple smeared with peanut butter. Healthy and fibrous are words she uses to describe her choice as she begins her ritualistic self-critique. However, that isn’t going to satisfy the deepest hunger within her—and so in now what might best be described as a dissociative state—she begins to nibble on the chocolate cake she bought for the kids earlier in the week that up until now she had averted—one piece turns into two and before you know it she’s melting cheese on some sourdough bread that was in the breadbox. She washes it all down with some diet root beer and with her stomach distended and quite uncomfortable—she stops in disgust and admonishes herself for doing it again. “Why do I do this to myself?” she asks—when I know that I’ll only make myself sick. She doesn’t make herself throw up—she hasn’t consumed enough to qualify as a purge in the classical sense—but, this is in no way a healthy pattern and is creating a sense of despair within that cannot be quelled by food. The next morning she awakens to an alarm clock—swears to herself that last night was the last time she will do that—and today she is going to get a 20 minute walk in somewhere in order to help burn off some of those excess calories she consumed the night before. If she doesn’t, how will she ever fit into that dress she bought for her husband’s company dinner in two months?
Do you get the picture? In a very real way this woman is caught in a Catch-22.
What to do?
The First Step In Healing Is Identifying The Problem:
Are you striving for a physical ideal that is not realistic?
Are you preoccupied with weight, food, diets, and calories?
Are you a secret eater?
Are you in a perpetual battle with your mind, body, and the food you eat?
Are you a perfectionist?
Do you use food as a means to relax, cope with stress, sadness, happiness, low mood?
Are you extremely concerned about your appearance, which is the defining feature of your self esteem?
Do you compare yourself physically to others and consistently feel inferior?
Do you alternate between severely restricting your eating and eating large quantities of food?
These are some questions to ask yourself if you think you might have an unhealthy relationship with food and consequently, your body. If you answered “yes” to one or more of these sample questions, it’s important to address the underlying thoughts, feelings, and triggers that perpetuate this cycle for you.
Give Yourself Permission To Be Human:
When beginning to address this issue it’s important to step away from the judgments that keep you imprisoned. It’s okay. Most people develop this pattern as a means of coping. Said another way; it’s an attempt to take care of oneself. The problem with this method, however, is that it’s not really helpful in the long term and keeps oneself down versus truly being able to enjoy the body you have to its fullest while living your life free of obsessional thinking about food, diets, and weight.
Identifying the Cycle:
Start by identifying the situational triggers (e.g., boredom, loneliness, taking care of everyone else at the expense of your own needs, etc.) that promotes the cycle for you which often leads to...
Destructive thinking which increases stress levels.
Anxiety and stress can put into play the sequence (i.e., wanting relief from these negative emotions).
Unhealthy and disordered eating often leads to additional negative emotions (e.g., guilt, self-hatred, fear, low self-esteem, anxiety, feeling out-of-control).
Steps To End The Cycle:
* Eat on a regular schedule while learning to eat in accordance with physiological cues as opposed to emotional ones that formerly dictated what, when, and how much you previously consumed.
* Become familiar with your unique triggers.
* Change your thinking.
* Stabilize your moods.
* Learn alternative coping strategies to address anxiety and depression.
* Step away from the myth of perfectionism and acknowledge it as such.
* Manage peri/menopausal symptoms.
* Accept yourself today right where you are and free yourself from the tyranny of endless diets, impossible to obtain weight goals, and an unhealthy relationship with food.
On A Final Note:
Food is not love. Food is not a warm blanket. Food is not a hug. Food is not an empathic ear. Food is nourishment and one of the joys of life. Put food in its proper place while also recognizing its limitations.
There is much more that could be said on this subject. My hope is to shed some light on a topic that is oftentimes seems too embarrassing or shameful to admit. With empathy and compassion this is simply just another symptom to be understood within the context of the whole person—and that is all it is, for the entirety of any individual is not determined by the symptoms he or she exhibits. Each one of us is so much more. If you need professional help; seek it out. There is no reason to feel as though you should go it alone. Sometimes the route to healing begins (particularly with this cluster of behaviors) with a willingness to let others come up along side of you in your time of need and help you through to the other side.
Gina M. Taffi, Ph.D. is a
Licensed Clinical Psychologist In private practice; Solana Beach, California
858 404-0234 email@example.com
* This article cannot be reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.
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