Finding a Cure for Overeating
I recently read a five-page article in a popular magazine that quoted a committee of experts on nutrition, behavior medicine, cooking, and health that suggests that we, as Americans, should throw out everything we know about meal planning, calorie counting and deprivation because there is a simple way to eat smart. The staggering statistic that two- thirds of the United States population is overweight is the backdrop of this plan, because, according to this research, all of our problems with eating are not just our fault, but in part, the food’s fault. Everything from food additives to food textures (crunchy and creamy) lead our brains to faulty wiring that makes us buy potato chips at the check out line and eat something that we know is bad for us. Wow.
As a certified eating disorder specialist and psychotherapist, I believe this is a prescription for an eating disorder. How many times have you been told that something is bad for you and immediately, if not sooner, stopped doing it? How many people do you know who smoke who don’t know that it is harmful to the body to smoke? How many people who suffer from bulimia know that binging and purging is extremely dangerous to their bodies? How many overweight binge eaters do you know who think being heavy is difficult on their cardiovascular system? Knowing what is right and wrong, good and bad, hurtful and helpful, does not necessarily lead someone to change a behavior in the world that is the basis of their his or her emotional regulatory system. I tell my clients that eating disorder behavior has little, if anything at all, to do with intelligence. In fact, some of the smartest people I know are are the people who come to my office for therapy for eating disorders.
The article suggests that if people grocery shop from the outside of the market to the inside of market, trick their children into eating vegetables, since the kids don’t like them, and resist stopping at fast food restaurants, then they will be smart eaters. Quick, easy, overnight American results for what I believe are long- term, difficult and complex parts of a person’s sense of self. As if in the middle of a binge, a person who has been wired to overeat since early childhood could suddenly think and visualize the imaginary success they will have if they pass up the Cinnabon at the airport. Wrong. The truest most common response is, “I might as well. I have already gone over my calories in the first place.”
When a person uses food as a means to emotionally regulate, which I believe is the core of a hunger disease, the part of the brain that “knows” is left behind in the dust somewhere between the moment of waking each morning and recanting,, “Today I will be good,” and entering Starbucks and buying a latte and butter croissant. Emotions rule the hunger behind an eating disorder, not intelligence.
So, this is why overcoming being overweight, which is considered a binge eating disorder that is soon to be included in the diagnostic statistical manual’s (DSM) revision, cannot be done with dieting or following an exercise program alone. People with eating disorders have more success in becoming the person they imagine becoming by engaging in a psychotherapeutic process. This is because it involves putting words to inner experience rather than actions that use the body for a curative effect. For instance, a patient I have been working with for two and half years came to therapy hoping to lose weight prior to a big event in her life. It was not easy for her to accept my idea that a diet and a food plan would do her in. It did not come easy for her to attend weekly sessions and talk about herself for the first time in her life, to express her feelings with adjectives instead of cookies. Peeling back her layers, shedding her skin, week in and week out, she often talked about her childhood, her marriage, her job, her friends, her relationships, her ideas, her interests, and how she likes cookies and ice cream. She lost more than 40 pounds. She states clearly that she did this without a diet, without a gimmick, she did it “on her own” by finding her way, her plan and her words.
I wish I read something in this expert article that addressed the emotional and psychological aspects of being overweight. It is such a huge part of this epidemic, and it goes almost completely unrecognized and unacknowledged. Mainly, I think, because addressing the deeper, more compelling and complicated emotional details of eating does not come easy.