Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
I have struggled for years with overeating and dieting. I was put on a diet at a young age (I was not overweight; it was purely for aesthetics) and as a result I have spent over 20 years yoyo dieting. I mostly maintain a normal to slightly large physique, so my health is not in great danger. But I cannot seem to get beyond this. I use food to cope and to relieve any emotions I cannot handle. I basically wake up and crash whatever diet plan I concocted the day before. Then I feel full, bloated and guilty and come up with a new plan for the next day! I have tried OA but found it too extreme a diet. I also tried intuitive eating, just trying to eat healthier or just eating whatever I want in an attempt to put my eating issues at rest. I never seem to be able to do anything but binge. I am a mom of a busy house and I just don't know how to get over my food issues.
Overeating is a very common problem that often has numerous causes. Reasons for overeating include poor meal scheduling, possible physiological issues, and emotional needs. You suggest that your overeating is a direct result of the emphasis that was placed on dieting when you were a child. In fact, many people with eating disorders (ranging from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating) trace their eating issues to problematic childhood messages.
When a child is given the sense—intentionally or otherwise—that their value is linked to their body image, this is given a disproportionate significance in the child’s life. This can lead to poor eating habits. In addition, this sense often causes anxiety, which ironically can lead to the use of food as a temporary solution to the anxiety. Thereby a vicious cycle is created, in which the person feels anxious with regard to food, causing her to overeat to relieve the anxiety, which in the long run actually increases the food-related anxiety.
It is important to identify the emotional triggers that make us crave food. Two common childhood beliefs are that we are good only if we are thin, and that food is bad. Acknowledging these and other erroneous beliefs, and identifying current impulses similar to those that we experienced as children, can help to slow the cycle. We can thus stop and challenge the reasons that we are eating instead of simply eating emotionally without questioning whether we are actually hungry.
It can be very difficult to work on unconscious needs and impulses on your own. A therapist can help you to explore and identify these, and can help you to change your eating habits. Support groups can also be helpful. They allow you to discuss your feelings in a non-threatening and non-judgmental environment.
Perhaps the reason that you found Overeaters Anonymous to be too extreme is that you didn’t properly identify your emotional need to eat. Overly restrictive diets can trigger the very anxiety that sets an overeating cycle in motion. Intuitive eating also ignores the underlying needs, thereby causing you to fall back on childhood emotions and eating patterns. If you can begin to identify your particular emotions and your insecurities related to body image and food, you can begin changing your emotion-food-emotion cycle.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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