Over Eating & Binge Eating Disorder
Updated: Jul 16
I've had a challenging relationship with food for much of my life and have tried all sorts of diets and non-diet approaches. Whether over eating in the form of comfort eating, stress eating, eating from boredom, eating my feelings, or simply as an eating habit, I have probably done it. I am still on a journey but am writing this food blog to help us explore how to stop thinking about food so much.
If you're not interested in my experiences with binge eating and addictive behaviours around diets, you might like to jump straight to the section about mindful eating. Alternatively read about the famous Raisin Meditation, which is a great introduction to mindful eating; or try a mindful eating exercise to practise eating with more awareness. All these can help with changing eating habits, learning how to stop eating junk food or self-help for an eating disorder.
My Background with Over Eating
As a child there were a few years when I stopped wanting to eat anything at primary school, which led to daily punishment - having to sit on my own in the school dining room while everyone else went out to play. I developed tricks to get out of eating and also the belief that I'd get praise if I ate. The rebel in me started to emerge. This completely switched a few years later when I felt pressure to lose weight and started to change what I ate. The rebel became stronger, and further conflicting beliefs about food and acceptance also grew. There followed a few decades of increasingly short attempts at various diets, intuitive eating, healthy eating, Overeaters Anonymous, therapy, self-help groups and reading countless self-help books. I was not really eating excessively, it's extraordinary to think how much of my life, and money, I've spent on these pursuits that never helped long-term.
My most therapeutic experience was when I wrote and produced a play about compulsive over eating, and the negative effects on our wellbeing, and the obsession that restrictive eating can lead to. The play was devised with actors. Before the audition I was inundated with letters (it was in the 80s!) from people pouring their hearts out to me about their problems with binge eating and weight. It was a real eye-opener. I was definitely not alone. And creating the play meant I stood back from my thoughts and feelings, and presented them through the play, which was then watched by others. While the play was being performed for a few months, I received yet more letters from people, mostly women, who were moved to see their own experience presented on stage. The idea of stepping back from our thoughts and feelings and observing them is at the heart of mindfulness, and what I was doing years ago even if I didn't call it mindfulness.
The periods in my life when I have been least obsessed by weight and food were when I completely let go of the desire to lose weight. One was a thrilling year when I travelled round the world, mostly in Asia, moving on every week - no opportunities to cook for myself, spending most of the time with people I'd only just met and was unlikely to see again, and extremely happy and engaged in my adventures. The other times were when I was pregnant or breast-feeding - again, no pressure to lose weight and just the genuine commitment to healthy eating for the impact it would have on my babies.
For the last ten years I have swung between the 'eat only when hungry' intuitive eating movements and anti-diet beliefs, and the equally vigorous messages about the harm to our bodies and minds from fast foods, junk foods, sugar and carbs. It was usually a fairly gentle wandering between the two approaches; I have always felt physically well and able to run marathons, regardless of what I ate, so had no great desire to lose weight or change eating habits!
My way of switching off from difficult thoughts was to immerse myself in the latest new approach to eating rather than actual binging; I am an obsessive planner! So my actual eating was just a quiet yet constant problem, which is why I not given any NHS therapy - after lengthy assessments I was told I wasn't eating enough to qualify. They didn't understand that a few biscuits for me was binge eating; on reflection, I consider I've struggled with a binge eating disorder (BED disorder) for much of my life. I often felt full but hungry, regularly frustrated, and was addicted to a constant search for the book or method that would change my life. The flood of new books continue to arrive, all promising to help with addictive eating and binge eating disorder.
And then I started practising mindfulness
I would love to be writing that my life changed overnight and I no longer worried about food. It is not that all day I dream of food, but 'How to stop eating when not hungry?' is a question I still often explore. Mindfulness practice and understanding is not always an instant fix, although often a mindful awareness does bring immediate and total relief and joy in the present moment. It takes time to change life-time eating habits, but when I started practising mindfulness I did find tools to help with my eating behaviour that I previously felt I unable to control. Even if I often do not eat as healthily as I would like, the level of frustration has greatly diminished.
Ever since I started trying to only eat when hungry and let myself have what I wanted, (thanks to Susie Orbach in the 1980s), I've known that eating mindfully and surfing urges brings me joy and leads me to eating 'better' - healthier food and less of it. I don't want to binge eat when I'm letting myself have what my body truly wants.
However I can easily get pulled astray from what I know works for me, by pressures to lose weight and by wanting to get back with my old 'friend' that diet-planning has become. Sometimes it is physiological - putting sugar in my body instantly switches off part of my brain (the pre-frontal cortex) and all impulse control vanishes until I have more. But it is mostly a psychological habit - I can create a state of euphoria by imagining I'll stick to an eating plan and lose weight. This rarely lasts very long and the rebel in me (a character I have named Little Minx, who's actually more powerful and sneaky than her name suggests), gets me charging, like an unstoppable missile, towards something to eat!
And a new pressure to eat healthily came with Covid. When the pandemic started last year, I was sustained by daily meditation sessions with my mindfulness teacher-training community and also Tara Brach's pandemic mindfulness resources, (she's my go-to mindfulness teacher for those 5am catastrophising moments!). For the first six weeks of the pandemic I did not want to eat at all, as I had as a child. Tantalisingly, I only have that feeling of being unable to eat in times of great anxiety - something I feel a lot less since practising mindfulness. So after two months, the dilemmas about whether to diet or focus on eating only when hungry reappeared.
It seemed that people who are overweight had a higher risk of dying from Covid. Apart from trying not to mingle with others, (difficult to do as a secondary school teacher), there's not much I can do to control about how I might survive Covid if/when I get it. Apart from lose weight. Although my fear of dying from Covid makes me feel I should eat differently, it's clearly not big enough to beat binge eating.
So this is where I am today - continuing to focus on using mindfulness meditation skills to not only change my eating habits, but also my attachment to a binge eating disorder. For me, compassion, curiosity, patience and letting go are at the heart of my recovery.
How Mindful Surrey can help
In our mindfulness based stress reduction courses, binge eating, over eating, comfort and stress eating, are amongst the most common issues we explore, particularly in the sessions when we focus on bringing a kindly awareness to our eating habits. People find mindfulness meditation very helpful for this challenging problem. Urge surfing is a great skill to develop for all sorts of behaviours, not just binge eating.
Please get in touch if you'd like to have a confidential phone chat about your situation and how mindfulness might help. Whether you are binge eating at night, struggling with large or small food binges, or perhaps struggling with not wanting to eat, I will be able to relate to what you say and sympathise. There is a power in sharing our stresses and our secrets, if you want to, and in discovering that others too feel that 'all day I dream about food'. Together we can change eating habits and beat binge eating. Change is possible, whatever we might believe! And it starts with self compassion.
What is mindful eating?
It is bringing a non-judgemental awareness to all aspects of our experience around food. Bringing acceptance to what is arising. Using the senses and attitudes of curiosity, as well as being aware of all the people and aspects of life that has made it possible for the food to be in front of you.
Tips for Mindful Eating
What works for me is to:
- Let go of diet mentality and strict rules.
- Increase my awareness how some 'foods', such as sugar, lead to certain responses in my body and mind - such as an increase in cravings, or feelings of shakiness, unhelpful thought patterns and over eating. With mindful awareness of the consequences of eating certain foods, I then have freedom to choose. This is very different from imposing strict rules on myself even if the outcome might be similar.
- Let go of wanting to lose weight and being obsessed with weight just to get approval from others.
- Recognise unhelpful thoughts/voices in my head (Little Minx), and see them just as thoughts that come and go; notice when I've got caught up in thoughts, let them be, let them go, without needing to follow or respond to them.
- If I want to eat, asking if my body is actually hungry or thirsty - using a scale 1-10 can be helpful, with 1 as 'starving', 4 as a little hungry and 10 as extremely full. If it is 5 or above, can I consider not eating? (Sometimes it's clearly sensible to eat even if not hungry, ie if you're not going to be able to eat for a long time, or other reasons.)
- Connect with my body and what it needs in terms of nourishment in the present moment
(ask myself what I'm actually hungry, or thirsty, for; and then if possible, letting myself have it.)
- Eat at least a few bites of each meal mindfully as a mindful eating exercise:
- slowly, without distractions, sitting down, with a plate even for a tiny snack
- savouring the taste, smell and texture
- putting my fork down and focus on what I'm eating as I'm eating it
- consider my body might have had enough before I have cleared my plate
- If I'm not hungry but want to eat, and am doing so to make myself feel something different (happier, less stressed, more energy, comforted etc), it's helpful to consider where in my body I'm feeling anything connected to my emotions; maybe place my hand there, letting myself feel what is there, breathing into it with kindness. This is an opportunity to practise urge surfing, by using breathing, letting myself feel my feelings or other meditation techniques. I find it very helpful to know that I can give into to the urge if I want to, and to eat as mindfully as I can, ideally sitting down and with a plate!
- Practise a self love meditation, in particular one where I am sending good wishes and care to specific parts of the body, and also expressing gratitude to these parts. I am less likely to eat badly if I've spent fifteen minutes wishing my heart and other organs well and thanking them for all they do. My current favourite phrases to meditate with include:
- May my body (heart, liver, legs etc) be safe and free from harm
- May my body be happy and healthy
- May I care for my body joyfully
Or even addressing them directly, so to my heart, may you be happy and healthy.
- And most important of all, bring compassion and kindness to my experience, and forgive myself when I forget any or all of the above!
Mindful Eating Basics
When I initially considered what mindful eating is, it seemed to be just about focusing on how our bodies felt, the sensory experiences of the food in the present moment, and appreciation for how the food had got to me. To do this as a mindful eating meditation might be great for someone without really deep habits, but it doesn't seem to be enough for those of us who turn to food when we're stressed, anxious, frightened, angry, bored, tired, celebrating, offered something, or just when we see a biscuit or our child's leftovers.
Last autumn I discovered the difference between what is known as warm and cool mindfulness, and that warm mindfulness can be more effective with addictions. With warm mindfulness we bring compassion to our experience. Even as I write that word my shoulders lower and I breathe deeper.
By bringing compassion to my experience, to my thoughts, feelings and actions, I give myself room to breathe. There is space for me to allow myself to be. To choose. To make food choices that are more in tune with my wider values and aims - that of living long and well to support my family and the wider world.
With compassion I have forgiveness for what I've done to my body over the years, for all the time I've spent searching for answers, for the actions I did in the past that were not going to help me lose weight.
The best approach to take with eating is one that works for you. I have a far simpler relationship with alcohol, than I do with food, I can choose not to have it for a few months, to let my body have a rest, to arrest any slightly addictive habits forming. I do need to lightly use mindfulness techniques to get into this - to let myself feel what I might be feeling, breathing into where I feel it in the body, rather than have a drink - but can do this with ease and simplicity. (I was quite proud of myself last night not having a drink after four hours teaching online lessons to 60 teenagers, followed by three hours talking to 60 parents at an online school parents' meeting!).
With alcohol, I can plan months of abstinence with confidence. I'm saying this as many people have a similar easy relationship with food that I do with alcohol. If you can simply decide not to eat sugar or carbs, or however you want to eat, and can do so with ease, that's great. I'm sharing my ideas here for those of us who have a more complicated relationship with our eating. And for me, to make any lasting changes, I need to remember compassion.
When I bring kindness to my experience, I'm more likely to let myself be with discomfort rather than turn to food. Although I give myself permission to eat anything, mindful eating is also eating food that is nourishing, for both my body and mind. By letting myself eat anything, I actually didn't want any of my husband's homemade Christmas cake for weeks, until the other day when I suddenly fancied and very much enjoyed a small slice. By noticing the food as I am eating it, I can also be satisfied with a lot less and not fall into excessive eating. I no longer feel full but hungry,
Useful attitudes to bring to mindful eating
Eating mindfully, with compassion, brings me joy and lightness of being. Mindful eating only when hungry requires a certain focus but it also lets me feel a wonderful sense of freedom. It simply feels good to know I'm treating my body and mind with care, curiosity and respect.
Besides compassion, there are other attitudes that are helpful with binge eating and how to stop eating when not hungry.
Patience that by sticking with eating mindfully, it can become a habit in itself, and we can recover from unhealthy eating habits.
Trust - that my body knows well what it needs and how much, and that when I listen with curiosity, it will tell me. When I feel hungry after eating, I can trust myself to honour what my body and mind really need.
Curiosity - about what is driving me to eat. Asking questions like, 'Am I hungry or bored?' If it seems that you are always hungry, what does your body need?
And then when actually eating, exploring what this food really tastes like. Bringing a beginner's mind and eating something as if you've never had it before. What might seem like an everyday food can be transformed into a gourmet delight!
Non judging is also important - the surest way to open the door to the rebel in my mind, with her unhelpful thrusting of food towards me, is to consider that I'm not allowed to eat something. Simply noticing all the judging thoughts that arise, labelling them as 'Judging', and letting them come and go, means I don't need to take them seriously and have more freedom to choose what my body and I truly want.
Acceptance - of what we've done in the past, of the habits we've developed, and of whatever is happening that might be leading us to eat.
And finally letting go and letting be. Can I let this whole issue go? Can I let regrets go?
Can I let my history and habits with food simply sit on the side, next to Little Minx rebel?
Perhaps 2021 is the year to befriend Little Minx and learn to welcome her to the party!
If you'd like to know more about how mindful awareness can help with a difficult relationship with food and eating, whether it is a binge eating or a binge eating disorder, night eating syndrome or comfort or stress eating, depression and over eating, please get in touch. Maybe you just want to learn hot to not feel hungry or how to stop thinking about food!
We'll no doubt be focusing on lots of these issues in the next 8-week MBSR course. Do join us if you'd like to explore how to manage binge eating, and develop freedom, ease and joy in your relationship with food.