Monday, December 31, 2012

How I Overcame My Compulsive Overeating

This holiday season, I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with friends and family, especially  family I don't normally get to see due to them living far away from civilization.

There was one trend that I noticed that popped up either from people describing themselves or others close to them and that was compulsive overeating. I'm sure there are men out there who describe themselves this way, but I don't know any so this post is going to focus on women. Specifically women who describe themselves as compulsive overeaters. Or, women in general, as every woman I know, myself included, describes themselves as a compulsive overeater.

For those unaware, a compulsive overeater is someone who cannot control what they eat, eating past the point of being full, eating when they aren't hungry, and also typically eating when they're emotional (depressed, upset, etc). Additionally, they tend to graze on food all day and eat very rapidly.

I mentioned that I have this problem. I am not overweight, though I used to be heavier, and it's something I struggle with frequently.

My boyfriend is frequently shocked at the amount of food I can consume, especially because I'm much smaller than he is. Most men I know are baffled because they simply say, "Just put the food down. What's the problem?" I typically explain compulsive overeating as a societal thing.

Food is a taboo product for women.

Let me explain. Women are told, explicitly or not, that our only redeeming factor is our looks. Yes, we can bring other things to the table. If we're good with our hands, great mothers, great thinkers, etc, then that's great. But how do we look while doing it?

If you watch an awards show or really anything Holloywood produces, women are expected to be as skinny and as beautiful as they possibly can be, regardless of age or role. Perhaps they bring it on themselves for working in a superficial environment, as it's often said, but using women as objects in Hollywood and the media affects women everywhere.

If you watch the news, women are still expected to be skinny and beautiful. First Lady Michelle Obama made the news when she ate a hamburger. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is asked who does her hair. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is criticized for being ugly and is sometimes referred to as an "it." 

Hopefully you don't read internet comments, because those are far, far worse. Quickly browsing through men's rights forums will make you want to shrivel up and die to stop the horror. 

(Not linking  to any of this due to terrible thoughts that no one should ever have to see, let alone championed.)

Now whether or not you internalize this and obsess about your looks or not, it's still there, everywhere you turn.

This affects our relationship with food. We're told not to eat it because it'll make us fat and undesirable. We're told that if we DO eat, we need to order the salad. We're made fun of for anything else. We're told if we do put on weight, no one will want us. We'll be lonely cat ladies who will probably go crazy.

So what do we do? We order the salad with vinaigrette dressing, not because we want to, but because we have to, and we plan out what we're going to eat at home. In secret.

Where we can eat ALL of it without any hassles from anyone.

When binge eating, your brain is happy. Really happy. For a short time. Then you start to get full. You ignore those signals and keep eating because there aren't real ingredients in food so you keep eating, hoping to recapture those euphoric first few bites, but you can't quite get there. Then you start to feel guilty for eating. Ashamed. Sometimes you start to admonish yourself in your head. Sometimes you take it out on yourself physically.

It's not pretty. And it's something we all struggle with.

So how do you overcome the compulsion and ultimately stop overeating? 

At my worst, I was about 40 pounds heavier than I am today. I hid food from my roommate, and I couldn't wait until she left so I could eat all of it. Sure, I'd go to bed with a stomachache, but I enjoyed the chemical sensations I got from eating my favorite foods.

Originally I tried therapy, which only got me motivated enough to get to the gym. The gym didn't help bring my weight down even though I was there for at least an hour, frequently 2 hours, and 3-5 days a week.

To go along with my gym routine, I restricted my calories. I tracked everything I ate and stopped at 1200 calories. 

How much weight did I lose? ZERO POUNDS.

To say I was frustrated after 6 months was an understatement. I was trying all sorts of tricks: upping my protein, upping my weights, adding more cardio- I even tried help in pill and powder form from popular  OTC supplements. Nothing helped.

The only, only thing that I've ever found that helped me lose weight AND stop the compulsive overeating was eating natural, processed foods.

I gave up all my stupid, ineffective dieting tricks. I stopped counting my calories. I stopped taking supplements. I even stopped going to the gym and working out (except for walking).

I wanted to be healthy, and I knew that what I was doing wasn't healthy. I switched over to an all natural, mostly plant diet, and everything changed. It wasn't overnight, it took about a month. Luckily I had the willpower for just that long.

I can now cook whatever I want, as long as it comes from vegetables, fruits, or meats, and eat a healthy amount. I don't overeat anymore. My portion sizes are smaller, not because I restrict myself, but because my body has a much easier time knowing when to stop. And I'm okay with it - there's no conflicting urge from my brain telling me to keep going. I also don't get that terrible full, bloated feeling like I used to get after every meal.

I'm sure you're skeptical. If you haven't switched over to a natural diet and you're still eating processed foods, it doesn't sound real. But this is how I know that it is:

When I eat processed foods, instantly I'm back to my old compulsive, overeating self.

I'm not sure if it's one of the chemicals added to hook my brain or if it's something else, but if my boyfriend comes home with a bag of Chex Mix, I eat the entire thing the second it's opened and offered to me. And it's like that with anything processed. 

I can only control myself around whole, natural foods. So that's the only thing I now keep in the house. I also refuse to buy frozen or prepared foods for a similar reason. If I'm hungry, then I have to be hungry enough to cook. No easy meals for laziness or grazing allowed.

As a result, I'm generally much happier. As mentioned earlier, I'm 40 pounds lighter, and I don't get terrible stomachaches after each meal. Nor do I get the guilt and shame when I do eat out or have an extra slice of cake.

Is it easy? Of course not, or else we wouldn't have this problem.

I had to learn what vegetables were (Leeks? What are those?), learn how to cook, and learn how to make meals ahead of time based on my schedule. It took me about a month to get fully on board mentally. I was strict on myself for the first month and I only ate homecooked meals, made from pasture meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. I had to create entirely new and foreign habits for myself. But the happiness and healthiness are so worth it in the end.

What do you guys think? Any tips or tricks you've found that work?

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