I’ve struggled almost my whole life with food. During my late teens I was obsessed with dieting and calorie-counting, which turned into compulsive eating and a powerful addiction to sugary, fatty foods in my 20’s and 30’s – even though I had both a medical degree and a degree in dietetics (human nutrition).
Obviously, having scientific knowledge about food and health isn’t enough to help someone control their uncontrollable behavior around food – you need to understand the real roots of compulsive eating patterns, something I was never taught in medical school and only really began to understand and heal from in the last few years.
1. You can’t tell the difference between hunger and appetite. Before you reach for that junk food snack (which you promised yourself yesterday that you wouldn’t give in to today), check in with your body. Are you truly hungry? Where is your urge to eat coming from – your stomach or your mind? Can you tell the difference? If you ask yourself enough times, you’ll begin to be able to tell the difference. Will an apple or other healthy snack begin to satisfy your need for food? If not, you’re probably not truly hungry and just wanting to snack.
2. You let your mood push you towards food. Again, the next time you feel like reaching like something too sweet, salty, or fatty (or the next time you want to stuff food in your mouth even though you know you’re not hungry),check in with how you’re feeling. Are you sad, bored, or stressed? Once you start connecting the dots between certain moods and certain foods, it’ll be much harder to fall into what was once “automatic” (and unconscious) behavior.
3. At the supermarket, you let yourself buy things that sabotage you. My control of my eating behaviour starts at the supermarket, as I’m more likely to enjoy triumph there than I am at home. Otherwise, if I’m tired or stressed that no-no food’s already in my cupboards (with a flashing neon sign over the cupboard door that screams “you know I’m here, what’s taking you so long?”). Make a pact with yourself not to buy problem foods when you’re out shopping for groceries. Practice making yourself look away when you start eyeing up a tempting store display (I do this when in line, especially at the video store, when I’m captive and flanked by so many fat- and sugar-laden treats).
Focus on the people or non-food items around you or just keep on walking determinedly towards the foods which are supposed to be on your list.
4. You don’t pay attention to when you hit full. Years ago I saw a dietitian who taught me this golden rule about food and maintaining your ideal weight: “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” When you start paying attention to this, you’ll be shocked by how often you push past full (and move into the land of totally stuffed) just because you’re liking the eating process and don’t feel like stopping. This is especially risky when eating with others, as studies have shown that’s when we’re most likely to overeat. Eat slowly, and as the meal or snack progresses, check in with yourself regularly before the next bite or before serving yourself again. Are you hitting full? If so, time to stop. I shock myself now with how often I say no to dessert these days, simply because I’ve learned to notice when I’m full. And when I’m full, I stop. If we push past full, we’re not respecting our body, and it’s just going to end up on our hips anyway.
5. You don’t get enough sleep. If you get less than 7 hours of sleep a night, your brain actually starts producing appetite-stimulating hormones, and you’ll feel hungrier (and eat more) throughout the day without meaning to do so. Lack of sleep also affects your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, and can make you susceptible to diabetes. Many researchers believe that our excessive sleep deprivation as a society is partially to blame for the epidemic of obesity. Get more sleep, and your brain will produce another type of hormone that actually suppresses appetite.
Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.
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