Compulsive and emotional eating
Updated: Mar 26
I've wrestled with my eating for much of my life. I had time as a child when I never wanted to eat when I was anxious, and dreadful primary school pressures to eat established the belief that I'd get praise to eat. This completely switched a few years later when I felt pressure to lose weight and started to change what I ate. And the fierce rebel in my mind, whom I later named Little Minx, was born. 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. It's extraordinary to think how much of my life, and money, I've spent on these pursuits that rarely helped long-term.
(If you want to simply read about my experiences with mindful eating, do jump on to the second half of this post!)
My most therapeutic experience was when I wrote and produced a play about compulsive eating, and the negative effects on our wellbeing and obsession that restrictive eating can lead to. The play was devised with actors and 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 food 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 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 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 eat and drink well for the impact it would have on my babies.
For the last ten years I have swung between the intuitive eating movements / anti-diet beliefs, and the equally vigorous messages about the harm to our bodies and minds from 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!
My way of switching off from difficult thoughts was to immerse myself in the latest new approach to eating rather than actual binging, obsessive planning. So my actual eating was just a quiet yet constant problem, which is why I not given any NHS therapy, as even after lengthy assessments I was told I wasn't eating enough to qualify. They didn't understand that a few biscuits could be a binge, with all the guilt and frustration, and lead to yet more searching for the book and method that would change my life. This flood of new books continue to arrive, all promising to help with addictive eating.
And then I started practising mindfulness
I would love to be writing that my life changed overnight and I no longer worried about food. But mindfulness practice and understanding doesn't work like that. Often a mindful awareness can bring instant relief and joy in the present moment. But for me, like many people, it takes time to change habits of a life-time. I did however quickly discover tools to help with this strange behaviour that I felt I hadn't been able to control. And to some degree the level of frustration did instantly diminish.
Ever since I started trying to just eat when I was hungry and let myself have what I wanted, (thanks to Susie Orbach in the 1980s), I've known that eating mindfully brings me joy and leads me to eating 'better' - healthier food and less of it. But I can so 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. 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 Little Minx rebel, who's actually more powerful and sneaky than her name suggests, gets me charging, like an unstoppable missile, towards something to eat!
And this new pressure to control my eating has come for me with Covid. When the pandemic started last year, I felt sustained by daily meditation sessions with my teacher-training community from Spain and also Tara Brach's pandemic meditation package, (she's my go-to mindfulness teacher for those 5am catastrophising moments!).
It seems that people who are overweight have a higher risk of dying from Covid. Apart from trying not to mingle with others, (difficult to do as a secondary school teacher, teaching unmasked in a secondary school last term), 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 combat my entrenched habits. After decades of exploring this issue, I know that for me, with the package of habits and experiences in my mind, to get my body as healthy as possible, a strict regime on its own is not enough.
My top tips for mindful eating
What works for me is to:
- Let go of diet mentality and strict rules
- Increase my awareness how certain 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. With mindful awareness of consequences of 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 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:
- 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
- Practise kindness meditations, in particular ones 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
- And most important of all, bring compassion and kindness to my experience, and forgive myself when I forget any or all of the above!
From my early studies and experience with mindful eating, I thought it was mostly about focusing on how our bodies felt and the tastes of the food in the present moment. This 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. Thanks enormously to Ed Halliwell for his life-changing tweet about this. With warm mindfulness we bring compassion to our experience. Even as I write that word my shoulders lower and I breathe deeper.
Compassion and self-kindness
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 might have done yesterday that were not going to help me lose weight.
As much as I'd like to be sticking to a firm low-carb or no sugar plan right now, I just know that if I had attempted this, I'd probably have eaten far more today. I'd have eaten breakfast quickly, doing something else at the time, not enjoying or appreciating what I was eating, and certainly not noticing when my body might have had enough.
The best approach to take with eating is one that works for you. With alcohol, with which I have an infinitely simpler relationship 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. Having not drunk wine for most of 2020, I did go back to it for Christmas! So planned to have a few months off in 2021. 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 I can do this with ease. (I was quite proud of myself last night not having a drink after four hours teaching online lessons online to 60 teenagers, followed by two and a half hours talking to 60 parents at an online school parents' meeting!).
With alcohol, I can plan four months of abstinence with confidence. I'm saying all 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 be able 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.
Useful attitudes to bring to mindful eating
Eating mindfully, with compassion, brings me joy and lightness of being. Eating mindfully when I'm 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, other attitudes that are helpful with these habits of emotional eating are patience and trust.
Patience that by sticking with eating mindfully, it can become a habit in itself, that we can recover from unhealthy and unhelpful 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.
Curiosity - about what my body is actually feeling, what this food really tastes like. Bringing a beginner's mind and eating something as if we'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 Little Minx 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.
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?
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, please get in touch. As January is a time when many people are thinking about ways to live healthier, or have perhaps given up on any new year resolutions, we'll no doubt be focusing on lots of these issues in the next 8-week course.
Best wishes to you for a happy and healthy 2021.