Conscious vs Compulsive Eating—Part One

Pic1While in the throes of this glorious autumn weather we know that the holiday season is not too far ahead. Hopefully you are savoring these days—the brisk air and warmth of the sun. That said, in preparation for the holiday season its a good idea to tune into conscious eating.

Conscious eating is not necessarily about weight loss or any particular kind of diet—it is about eating with awareness. To illustrate this concept I’ll share a rather extreme, though for some familiar example about a patient of mine—a woman I’ll call Melissa for the purposes of anonymity.

For years Melissa had eaten as a way of regulating or managing her emotions. But while in the depths of her divorce, she decided it was finally time to make some changes and was motivated to eat more consciously.

After learning to manage some of the stress and anxiety she was experiencing through abdominal breathing and a brief meditation technique, which I talk about in greater depth on my website––she felt ready to take on the next big challenge in her life—which was to stop the compulsive eating.

I would like to interject here that for many women, eating becomes a paradoxical setup for pleasure and pain. Eating nourishes the body, brings pleasurable sensations, and can fill us with delight. Yet it can also lead to feelings of shame and guilt for women who eat to anesthetize themselves to pain and disappointment.

Triggers for compulsive eating are the same as for other addictions like drugs and alcohol. The acronym “HALT” which is used in Alcoholics Anonymous is one way to remember the most reliable triggers: Hunger, Anger, Lonely, and Tired. Any of these needs, when ignored or left unaddressed, can lead to a compulsive eating episode.

Getting back to Melissa—I asked her to talk about past triggers that might have fueled her compulsive eating. Melissa thought for a while and then told me about all her lonely nights growing up. Food became her reliable companion when her mother zoned out. Then in her marriage when Andrew, her husband grew distant, she again resorted to comfort and compulsive eating.


She shared with me one of her painful memories…

“Andrew would go to sleep and I would fill myself with ice cream, carbs, sweets, and whatever I could find. I sometimes hid food because I was afraid that he might discover my secret. I think now that he probably did not want to shame me by exposing my closet binging.

“He must have noticed my weight gain, but he never said a word about my weight or the emptied refrigerator.To this day the only thing that instantly calms me down is eating, but the feeling never lasts.

“I know the eating is doing me in and yet I can’t seem to get a grip on this behavior. Every time I binge, I feel disgusting and depressed. I hate having this lack of control. Most of the time, I don’t even enjoy the food, but I can’t stop myself. I just want to learn to eat like a normal human being, without the guilt and shame”

The origins of Melissa’s compulsive eating dated back to her early childhood, when food replaced love. I told her that, “For years, you filled the void with food. As a kid, this was a creative way to find comfort, but clearly the overeating no longer serves you. The eating might temporarily quiet your anxiety and numb you from painful feelings or any intense feelings for that matter––but in the end as you know it damages your sense of self

The food never really gives you what you need.

Slowing down, connecting especially when you’re feeling vulnerable or lonely, and  developing greater self-compassion will help change your relationship with food—and your SELF.

For now it’s important to make eating a mindful practice. This means becoming more tuned into the how, when, why, and what you choose to eat. Eating with awareness is about being more awake to the experience of eating so that you can more fully take pleasure in food and feel a greater feeling of satisfaction.


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