The psychology of overeating

Changing a deeply ingrained emotional response is both long and difficult. Real change happens in small steps. It’s a long term project. Allow yourself to change naturally, a step at a time. This way there is less risk of crashing back to old habits. The key to successful change is practice. In time, healthy eating becomes a habit. Most of us have spent a lifetime building up bad habits. We can’t expect to eradicate all of these overnight. A gradual shift to healthy eating is more realistic.

To begin the transition to a healthier lifestyle, let’s begin with awareness. The first step in any change process is assessing current behavior. This is especially important with overeating behavior. Since most of us eat so frequently, the whole sequence of selecting, eating, and stopping is often very automatic. Also, to fully understand eating behavior, one must look beyond the food itself to the psychology of overeating. Food is more than just nourishment. Using food as a pacifier is one of the main causes of overeating. It can symbolize love, safety, sociability, or just serve as a distraction. Food can be a hobby and entertainment.

Overeating is a symptom, not the cause! Just like an alcoholic may drink to drown his sorrows, people tend to overeat for some reasons. It can be the subconscious mind’s way of dealing with bottled-up emotions which have not been dealt with properly, or it could be a way of dealing with stress, boredom or some discomfort in life. I have found that people overeat for a multitude of reasons.

Getting to the cause and resolving it makes having normal, healthy eating habits in the long-term without feeling a sense of deprivation possible. It makes it possible to break the cycle of dieting that only treated the symptom and not the cause.

Overeating often has little to do with real hunger. Stress, boredom, and anger or the mere presence of an appealing food trigger an automatic reach response. We can be eating before our awareness of eating begins. One way of increasing awareness is a food diary. Record keeping can be a real eye opener. Most people find that they eat more than they thought and that they often eat for reasons other than hunger.

Learning to distinguish between true hunger and psychological hunger is a start in understanding emotional eating. Stomach hunger is true physical hunger. Mouth hunger is the urge to eat to satisfy some other need. Explore your feelings. Learn about what you use food for. Compulsive eaters automatically reach for food when they are uncomfortable. Examine whether you are reaching for food out of mouth hunger or stomach hunger. As long as you learn the difference, you can begin to explore your problems directly, without using food as a smokescreen for your real problems.

One way to do this is by using the W.A.I.T. method. Ask yourself some W questions: What am I thinking, what do I want? A stands for angry or anxious; try to determine if you feel either way. Do the same for the letter I, which represents irritation or need for intimacy. T often means you are just tired or thirsty. This makes you eat when you shouldn’t try relaxing or having a glass of water instead.

Knowing how to deal with stress is just as important. Once you learn the coping mechanisms, you’ll no longer feel the need to turn to food.

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