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What Replaces Compulsive Overeating? Observations After Weight Loss

I’m about to get real. I have a long history of compulsive overeating. I wasn’t just overweight, and then obese from a young age, I established an eating pattern to cope with emotions that hurt. I felt anger, fear and shame, and to cope with those feelings, I ate, overate and binged. It was a coping strategy that I developed as a child in response to painful substance abuse issues in my family. My life from birth to age 12 was often sad, scary and dark;  luckily, my family’s situation improved during my teens. But by then, I had an established set of maladaptive coping mechanisms that involved food. My coping strategies were ingrained by then, or so I thought. The impulse to eat for comfort has decreased considerably, prompting me to ask: What replaces compulsive overeating after weight loss?

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The Dark Years: Using Food to Cope with Pain

During most of my childhood, when I had a feeling that I couldn’t face, I’d turn to eating to make it bearable. The crying stopped, the feelings of shame and anger stopped, the pit in my stomach went away. I didn’t have to think about what was missing from my life, how lonely I was or how afraid I was about my future. I felt nothing—I focused 100% of my attention on consuming large quantities of food. I inhaled fattening food and breathed out nothingness.

In those moments, I was comforted by the nothingness, numbness and stupor induced by food because I wasn’t in the throes of my feelings. So, I used food (a relatively acceptable type of abuse) for my whole childhood and up into my 50s. Only in the last three years have I stopped most of my compulsive eating. With the loss and isolation of COVID, I’ve seen my compulsion to eat rise up slightly again. I fight against the urges with new self-care routines—workouts, healthy, whole-foods meals and therapy—that have become second nature to me. Still, compulsive eating rears its ugly head from time to time.

Compulsive Overeating Scales Down

I doubt my life will ever be completely binge-free, but my binge eating has changed in frequency and quality. If I binge these days, they are smaller in scale in terms of their duration, the types of food I eat and the amount. After losing more than 60 pounds, new healthy replacement behaviors and more effective coping mechanisms have shaped my eating in profound ways. Sitting with a half-eaten bag of popcorn instead of plates and plates of food is progress. “Progress, not perfection,” I hear in my head as I toss the empty bag of popcorn in the garbage.

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What Replaces Compulsive Overeating After Weight Loss?

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve replaced those binges with. How have I managed to eat without compulsion for the last three years? What new coping strategies have I developed? I share them here with you in the hopes that someone struggling with compulsive overeating will see a glimmer of hope in these strategies, healthy habits and shifts in mindset and perception and use them to build their path toward a healthier lifestyle. (Note: I would never suggest a cure-all for compulsive overeating, and I firmly believe that 12-step recovery programs and therapeutic intervention can be effective modalities for treating this very serious problem. These ideas are my observations; they are not prescriptions. As is often heard in recovery meetings, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”)

Exercise (Say It With Me Slowly E-X-E-R-C-I-S-E)

If you get nothing else from this article, please hear the importance of exercise. Exercise is always at the top of my list because I have relied on indoor rowing, strength-training workouts, spin classes and long walks to help regulate my moods. What does that mean? I find that exercise helps me the most when it comes to working through feelings.

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I can work through feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, shame, fatigue and poor self-esteem during a workout. For example, lifting weights is especially beneficial for releasing anger. That release has reduced my need to turn to food for comfort. Also, my thinking about food’s role in my life has changed because of my fitness gains. I view food as fuel more after a workout because of the strong connection between mind and body. After a good sweat session, I think about feeding my muscles, replenishing my energy levels and taking good care of myself. Those thoughts are incompatible with my past state of mind that would have signaled to abuse food.

I’ve noticed that the days I don’t want to exercise are precisely the days I need it the most. I care less about tracking calories burned, miles covered, or heart rate zones and more about focusing on a consistent practice of mental and physical toughness. Exercise helps me maintain a steady emotional temperature through the challenges and hardships of life. I can feel the fear, the anxiety and anger during a workout and leave those feelings “all on the floor.” I leave them there at the gym, move past them and come out on the other side with a greater sense of self-empowerment. For me, exercise is the ultimate act of self-love.

Volume Eating Whole-foods

Eating as much as I want (and think I need) of whole, nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean protein, nuts/seeds) means that I can still feel satisfied with my meals without taking in too many calories. I also connect my eating to the concepts of nature’s bounty, wholeness and wellness by eating foods that aren’t processed.

When I eat a satisfying bowl of rice, beans and avocado slices, I see my eating as an act of self-care. I’m not trying to stuff down feelings, restrict calories, or shame myself into a particular way of eating. I’m nourishing my body with the foods that nature intended and reaping the rewards of energy, natural weight regulation and wellness.

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Eating Well (and with Self-Respect)

Related to eating whole foods is the idea of treating your body with self-respect and loving-kindness by eating healthy, high-quality foods. I often like to ask myself, “If I were inviting a family over for dinner who I knew was struggling to put food on their table, would I serve them this meal?” If I answer “no,” it’s usually because the food is poor quality junk that doesn’t feel like good self-care. I wouldn’t serve it to a hungry family, so why should I serve it to myself? I’m worth more than that. While this type of thinking hasn’t always stopped the compulsive overeating triggers, I’m sometimes able to reach for something more healthy (and in a healthier quantity) because I have taken a moment to think about the quality of the food going into my body. If I’m going to eat highly processed food, I’m going to make damn sure it’s the best I can find. My body is not a trash bin anymore.

Meal Planning (and Hyperawareness)

Weekly meal planning is another excellent replacement tool that sprung up on its own as I worked my way toward losing more than 60 pounds. I needed to have high-quality, whole-foods on hand (on a budget), so planning meals ahead of time was critical to making sure I had the right ingredients to make those meals. Buying in-season produce, shopping weekly at discount grocers like Trader Joe’s and planning to use leftovers helped me save time and money. It also made me hyperaware of the foods I would be eating during the week and the food combinations I planned in meals. I packed my lunches for work using leftovers from the previous nights’ dinner, saving money.

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Meal planning prevented me from having the option of telling myself that I should grab whatever at the moment. For me, “in the moment” decisions are usually poor ones based on my compulsive overeating triggers and not rational, planned healthy routines.

Practice Sitting with Feelings

Sitting with sadness was, and continues to be, a difficult process for me. As I get older, I’ve realized that feelings don’t have as much power over me as I once thought and that thoughts change, go away and subside over time. I’m better at telling myself that the pain will go away and believing in that certainty. I remind myself that in 72 hours (or even less with my menopausal forgetfulness 😁). I won’t “feel” the intensity of this pain, and shortly after, I may forget it altogether.

Knowing its transient nature, and believing in that temporary status, has helped me reduce compulsive overeating. I ask myself, “Do you want to hurt yourself more by binge eating that food? I know my feelings will hurt, but adding more hurt on top of it has never worked. After five decades of experience, I know the answer isn’t in the food, so I’m better able to pull myself out of thinking patterns and emotional responses that lead to compulsive eating.

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Finally Settling Into Therapy

I’d been in therapy off and on over the years, but it never stuck until I realized how my thinking impacted my family life. Through family therapy, I recognized the subtle shifts in thinking that helped me cope with stress. I began to see that individual therapy could help me with my emotional regulation across the board. Now that I’ve lost weight, taken up healthy eating and regular exercise, I feel more empowered to deal with some of the demons in my past. I also want to preserve my incredible feeling of wellness and self-esteem. In my mind, I’ve elevated my lifestyle, and I don’t want to lose that status and new way of seeing myself.

Reducing Sugar and Processed Foods

Reducing most added sugar and processed foods from my diet sounds like an extreme approach, but for me, it has helped reduce cravings that were often hard to control. Taking sugar and high-fat, processed foods out of the equation led to more energy. Losing the sugar also got rid of my afternoon slump and processed-food snacking habit.

Instead of eating a sugary afternoon snack to try to reboot my energy level, I replaced that with healthy eating at regular intervals; I eat quality meals/snacks frequently throughout the day to reduce feelings of hunger (or, in my case, hanger). The result was that I felt more energetic; I felt satisfied, and my cravings reduced significantly. Exercise regulated strong emotions (like anger), and my regular, whole-food meals/snacks regulated my hunger. Doing these two things in combination created less possibility for a storm of emotion to overwhelm me and lead to binge eating.

Aging: Older and Wiser

I’ve hinted at this throughout, but getting older has made me wiser, gaining more insight into my habits, mindset and limiting beliefs. I’ve seen patterns (good and bad) play out so many times in the past that I’m finally learning from them! I could complain and say it took too long, but the real point is that I did it. I moved past the compulsion, past the pain, to a place where systems of exercise and healthy eating are enriching my life and protecting my health.

A sense of mortality has started to creep into my thinking, and the effects of compulsive overeating (obesity, fatigue, poor health, shame) are incompatible with my goals of aging well. Do I have this clarity of thought every day? Am I always able to stop a compulsive overeating session? No, but I don’t count on perfection as a measure of success. My ability to try again at the next meal—to make the next meal a healthy one—is my success story.

In the end, replacing compulsive overeating behaviors with healthy eating and exercise is an ongoing process that doesn’t end. I still have moments where my emotions overwhelm me; I still reach for food to comfort me at times, but I do it much less often and on a much smaller scale than I ever did. That progress is the result of replacing old comfort-seeking behaviors with new healthy habits.

In the end, I replaced my overeating with a new schema about who I am and how I live my life. My new life revolves around self-respect. I’ve given myself the love and respect that I longed for all those years ago when I was a scared child who only knew rudimentary things about self-comfort. I’ve grown, I’ve learned, and I’ve moved past my pain, one day at a time.

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