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Taming of the Chew |
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The Taming of the Chew - Sample Chapter
GENERAL REASONS FOR OVEREATING
There are many reasons for overeating. We eat when we are sad, when we are happy, when we are lonely or tense. We may eat any time and for just about any reason. As anyone who overeats well knows, we need no excuse to abuse ourselves with too much food. It takes no effort. For many of us, the process of stuffing ourselves with food has been automatic. The food goes in with very little thought or notice. My clients sometimes look at this robotic behavior and say, "Thats just me. Its just the way I am!" The reality is, however, that it is not "you." It is not "just how you are." You are a person with a certain eye color, certain height, certain skin tone. Thoughtless out-of-control eating is not "you." It is, instead, a behavior that you have learned and any behavior can be changed.
Many women who have difficulty controlling their eating behavior report feeling out of control in other areas of their lives as well. Perhaps their relationships are less than satisfying or someone close to them is ill or in emotional pain. As women, we have often viewed ourselves as "soothers" or "givers." We may imagine that it is our innate responsibility to keep all those around us free from any form of pain or suffering. We respond to everyone elses needs and lose sight of our own. We allow others to occupy the spaces in our minds and hearts. We push ourselves out of the picture instead of keeping ourselves and our needs in the foreground. We think we have to protect everyone. It doesnt matter that this is impossible. If, for example, we see a loved one experiencing distress, we may feel guilty and upset as if we are personally responsible for their pain. There are good reasons for this and for the many other distorted perceptions we experience. We will look more closely at why we tend to take responsibility for others in the sections on emotional and social reasons for overeating. For the moment, just know that feeling out of control with food generally means you are feeling out of control in other areas of your life as well. Now lets begin by looking at some other common reasons for compulsive eating.
ENMESHED, ABANDONED, OUT OF CONTROL
We eat when we perceive our independence as threatened by others when people seem too "close." We also eat when others seem too "far away" from us. Because we cannot always control the level of intimacy we experience with another, we feel afraid and out of control. Then we seek food to soothe the anxiety that comes with these feelings. How close or distant to be with another is difficult to know at times. Healthy relationships require a flow a give and take of energy. Most of us were never taught how to achieve and maintain appropriate levels of intimacy how to dance with the changing rhythms in a relationship. This takes knowledge and practice.
You have heard of "dysfunctional families." You will most likely have a personal connotation around that term. Some of us are comfortable with the concept, others of us have strongly negative assumptions about it. The term is used and misused in our culture to explain every form of wellness or illness. For our purpose here, let me define what I consider "dysfunctional families." These are families where the members usually are not able to be genuine and honest with each other. Communication is poor or non-existent and family members can feel either isolated from each other and abandoned or totally enmeshed in each others lives and feelings. Either way, the result is the same. We end up confused and feel out of control. We fail to learn what good boundaries are and how to set appropriate limits. No one helps us to understand the feelings we are having or teaches us how to manage these feelings and experiences in a healthy way. We will discuss this in more depth later in the section on psychological reasons for eating behaviors. For the moment, suffice it to say that one reason a woman may eat in an "out-of-control" way is because she cannot control the experiences and feelings of those around her.
Another difficult time for many of us to approach our eating behaviors in a thoughtful way is when we find ourselves in any kind of transition. Transition means any time of change any time when there are important decisions to make or conflicting feelings to experience. We may be moving to a new location, beginning a new job, having a child, graduating from or entering school, for example. It is common to feel fearful and overwhelmed when we face change. Transition also means any movement, growth, or challenge. A woman may be changing her marital status, entering her menopausal years, coping with illness or caring for aging parents or a sick child. Transition can also be as simple as getting in the car to go from one location to another. (Have you ever wondered why you sometimes feel "driven" to binge while you are driving?) So be aware that whenever you are involved in any process of growth and facing change you may be particularly susceptible to overeating and your Chew may seem particularly powerful at that time.
Another common reason to overeat is to anesthetize uncomfortable feelings. Change is a part of life and it is generally accompanied by many feelings. Some may be pleasant, some not, but all feelings are valid and necessary. If we pay attention to our cravings and urges to eat we can use our experiences with food as barometers that give us valuable information about our feelings. For example if we crave crunchy foods that allow us to use our jaws powerfully, we might be angry. If we seek creamy, soothing foods, such as ice cream or puddings, we might be lonely or sad and seeking consolation.
If we notice what we are feeling and then pay attention to these feelings they will give us valuable information about the choices we are making and the experiences we are having. Often, however, we fail to pay attention to these urges and act on them instead. When we fail to attend to our feelings and deny or suppress them instead we set ourselves up to binge. Food provides a way of medicating ourselves so we will not feel difficult feelings and many of us learned how effective this is long ago. If we feel anxious, tense, depressed, bored or scared, for example, we might head for the kitchen to sedate ourselves with sugars, fats and carbohydrates. If we feel angry, we might stuff ourselves to keep a lid on things. This often works in the short term but, in the long run, we still have to deal with the situations that provoked these feelings. The longer we wait to deal with difficult situations, the harder they are to confront.
Our feelings are to be honored and valued not numbed with food or other substances. Later, when we examine ways to heal in Part II, we will discuss some healthier ways to cope with life situations and to deal with distressing feelings. There are other ways ways that are far more effective and satisfying. For the moment, it is enough just to realize that our feelings are interwoven with our eating behaviors and that we dont need to use food to manage our feelings.
CELEBRATING AND SOCIALIZING
Have you ever paid attention to how focused our culture is on food? Virtually every occasion we experience has food as a central theme. Think of Thanksgiving without turkey and pumpkin pie or Easter without candy eggs. How about Valentines Day with no chocolate, birthdays or weddings with no cake or even meetings without refreshment breaks? How often do we get together with friends without including food? We ask people to meet us for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner. We invite them over for coffee or a drink. When was the last time someone asked you to get together just to spend time enjoying each others company? Food is everywhere and a part of nearly every occasion.
How can we take care of ourselves in this food-oriented culture? How can we socialize with friends, celebrate birthdays, go to fine restaurants and relax about it? How can we manage to enjoy ourselves, eat only some of what is offered and feel satisfied? How can we survive this constant exposure to food? If we eat too much, the result is anxiety and we will want to eat to medicate this feeling. If we eat too little, we feel deprived and set ourselves up to binge later. If we have weight to lose, we feel anxious about that and if we have lost the weight we wanted to lose, we feel anxious that we will gain it back. (Many women report that they find it much harder to maintain weight loss than to lose the weight in the first place.) So we eat because we have not lost weight and we eat because we have lost weight. What a dilemma! At either end of the scale, anxiety lurks and if we dont know healthy ways to cope with the anxiety, we eat.
It is impossible to be harmonious, balanced and content all the time in social situations or in life in general. If we feel too successful or unsuccessful, for example, we find ourselves off balance and anxious. Anytime things are a little too "good" or a little too "bad" we find ourselves racing to the refrigerator in search of something to help us find emotional balance. We mistakenly think food can provide this for us. It can not. Only we have the power to cope with our own difficult feelings as we negotiate our way along our own lifes path. This book will teach you ways to do that.
All this can be very confusing and discouraging. We will talk about ways to keep our needs in the foreground and to nurture ourselves in Part II. Even in settings where opportunities to sabotage ourselves abound and our Chew is screaming for "treats," we do not have to feel helpless and victimized. It may be hard for you to believe at this point, but it is possible to feel under control even in the most food-focused situations.
REWARD AND PUNISHMENT
We both reward and punish ourselves with food because as children we were most likely rewarded and punished with food. In my home, for example, desserts were withheld until all of the vegetables had disappeared. We were given cookies or candy for reinforcement if we behaved and, if we were "extra good," we could have popcorn or a snack late in the evening.
You may have been sent to bed without supper as a punishment or not allowed the ice cream or candy others received because you had been "bad." For most, if not all of us, there are memories of food being used in these ways. Food is a powerful motivator. Behavior modification programs use candies, for example, to change difficult behaviors in children or in people who are learning impaired. Once the child or adult learns that he or she will receive a candy when they perform a specific behavior, they become motivated to perform that behavior again to receive another treat. It is extremely effective.
We have all been conditioned in this same way to some extent. If we learned as children that food is a reward, we may continue to use it in that way and the deprivation we experience on any diet plan may translate to us as punishment. If food was withheld from us when we were little to keep us in line, we may feel angry now when we experience any hunger. We may rebel against those who punished us then by eating even more now than we really want or need. Begin to notice how often you give yourself a "treat" as a reward. Notice how often you feel deprived and punished at times when you are restricting food.
Taking responsibility for what we put into our mouths means, in part, releasing some of our old beliefs about food. If we can appreciate food as neutral not good or bad we can begin making more thoughtful choices. Food is a powerful force in each of our lives. It is hard to untangle our present eating behaviors from the ways we viewed and experienced eating in our childhood years. It is helpful to recognize this and to begin paying attention to the ways you may be using food to reward yourself or how you may be experiencing even mild hunger as a punishment. If you realize your tendencies to do this, you will be less compelled to act on impulse and you can give yourself time to decide whether you really want to eat or not.
THE ILLUSION OF ENERGIZING
Food gives us energy and we need the right amount of the right nutrients for our body to function properly. Often, however, we fool ourselves into thinking we need to eat when our body actually does not need more food. For example, when we are tired (i.e. when we need to sleep), we might think we need to eat food to energize our body. Although this may be the case at times, such as in a life or death situation, usually, for compulsive eaters, the food is being used to save us from experiencing our feelings. When we feel tired, angry, frustrated, anxious, bored, lonely, unappreciated or afraid, for example, food becomes a quick and easy way to seemingly perk us up and fill the void we are experiencing. It is easier to tear open a bag of chips or pull a chocolate bar out of the candy machine than it is to sit with those painful feelings.
Feelings of hunger are tricky and often have nothing to do with the fueling of our body. Our body doesnt need excessive amounts of potato chips, chocolate or macaroni and cheese to function optimally, so when we tell ourselves we need them for energy, we are not telling ourselves the truth. Fats, sugar or caffeine may give us a temporary rush of energy but this is short-lived, and masking discomfort will leave us feeling even more "tired" than before because we are not giving our body the nutrients it really needs to "energize." So, when we choose sugars, fats or excess carbohydrates we may not be truly, physically hungry. Cravings we experience deliver valuable messages to us about what we really feel and what we really need. Our job is to pay attention to these messages and to give ourselves what we really need at the time. Proper rest, a healthful diet, and a peaceful lifestyle give us energy not junk foods. They may be what our Chew clamors for from time to time, but they are never what we really need.
I often ask clients what they are getting out of their compulsive eating behavior. Most look at me as if Im from another planet and insist that they get absolutely no benefits from eating compulsively or from being overweight. I can understand their surprised reactions, for how can an issue which feels so painful and all-consuming bring with it any advantages? Inevitably, when I suggest we talk about the possibility, people resist the idea. "How can this weight or this behavior bring me anything positive?" they ask. It seems too hard to think about, impossible to imagine. I often tell them the following story to illustrate my point:
Once I was working with a woman who had been steadily gaining weight since the birth of her first child. She was referred to me by her medical doctor when her weight began seriously taking its toll on her health. She was dangerously obese when we met and was becoming increasingly depressed and discouraged. We worked together for quite a while and, despite all of her best efforts and mine, she continued to put on more weight. Sporadically she would make attempts to take control of her eating but nothing was effective.
One day, after several months of unsuccessful weight loss attempts, we began talking about her family situation and she disclosed to me that her husband badly wanted another child. Her first child, an extremely active little boy, kept her busy constantly and she strongly resisted the idea of adding to their family (and thus her workload). She feared her husbands anger and possible abandonment if she openly stated that she did not want another child to care for. Soon she realized that her weight kept her from having to confront her husband or deal with the issue at all. Her doctor had emphatically told her that having another child was far too dangerous an undertaking if she became pregnant at her current weight. Losing weight would mean confronting the issue and admitting the truth to her spouse. Once she realized this she knew that she would never let go of her extra pounds until she figured out how to handle this matter directly with her husband.
Scenarios like this one happen frequently as part of the therapy process. Women find out that their weight and out-of-control behavior provides them with illusions of safety. If women are overweight, they can avoid the situations that they fear. Women may think such thoughts as, "If I am heavy, men wont make advances towards me. If I am fat, I cant possibly _______ (fill in the blank: go to school, ask for anything, be successful, take risks, compete with other women, have a good relationship, etc.). If I am obese, Ill be unattractive, other women wont be threatened by me and Ill have more friends. If I am fat, I wont be called upon to give my opinions or ideas. People wont take me seriously and I wont have to risk being wrong and feeling foolish. If I am overweight I may be excluded from good jobs where I will be expected to be responsible and competent (it is illegal, but it happens). If I am obese I can stay close to home buses, planes, trains and subways have small seats so I cant possibly travel." This thinking provides an illusion of safety.
Being overweight is not simple and generally there are at least a few hidden, unconscious agendas behind the eating behavior. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and think for a few minutes about the advantages you get from being overweight. Then return to the present. Write those advantages down. Now note any other, more nurturing ways you can take care of yourself and your feelings and write these down. Next, choose one area where you would like to make a change. For example, if you have discovered that one advantage of overeating has been to numb feelings of grief, you might plan to talk with a friend about your loss. In this way, you allow your feelings to surface and find expression and you no longer need food to anesthetize yourself. You can do this exercise often as a way of checking in with yourself and changing your compulsive behavior.
Sometimes we eat and dont even realize we are eating the biting, chewing and swallowing have become automatic. When we perform any behavior for a period of time, it becomes automatic. It is performed without conscious thought. Remember the first time you drove? Youd studied the traffic laws and watched the films in class. The first time you got behind the wheel and the instructor told you to start the car, you had to think of each detail. You had to pay close attention. You thought about putting the key into the ignition, placing your left foot on the clutch and your right one on the brake or gas, shifting into the appropriate gear, and then turning the key to the right. It felt strange and unfamiliar. It did not take long, however, for these behaviors to become automatic. Today, you most likely hop into your car and go without giving any of these details a conscious thought. You know how to drive. The motions have become automatic. Your subconscious is fully aware, however, to ensure you succeed at starting the car. And of course you must still be extremely conscious of being on the road and of other vehicles.
The same phenomenon takes place with our eating behavior and at a much younger age. As infants we cry for many reasons perhaps we have an uncomfortable, wet diaper or a pain somewhere in our little body. We cant speak to tell our caretakers what is wrong and they often respond to our cries by putting a bottle or breast into our mouths. So we learn through this that crying brings us oral gratification. We quickly learn to associate food with comfort. We dont even have to think about it. It is automatic. We feel "bad," we reach for food. We experience discomfort of any kind, we eat.
As adults, if we feel "better" eating chocolate when we are upset about something, it doesnt take long for eating chocolate to become an automatic response when we want to feel better and who doesnt frequently have times when they want to feel better? If we begin to eat snacks at night in front of our television sets, again, it can quickly become a thoughtless habit. Many women eat automatically when preparing meals for their families. They "taste" as they prepare supper and when the actual meal is ready, have already eaten more than enough. They then sit down with their family members and eat the full supper they have prepared for everybody else. The "before dinner food" was eaten automatically and barely noticed. They dont realize they have eaten the equivalent of two dinners and are truly surprised when the scale reflects their actions.
Another common situation in which people eat without consciousness is while driving. People who spend a lot of time on the road often find, if and when they notice, that they have been eating and eating and eating as they have been driving along. The snacking has become so automatic that it is virtually unnoticed. For most of us, food is readily accessible and easy to grab, especially fast foods and junk foods. Unhealthy food behaviors are easy to develop and impossible to change unless we are aware of them. How often do you "automatically" stop by the candy machine at work? How often do you eat and later feel surprised to notice you had eaten so much? How often do you engage in conversation with a dinner partner and finish your meal without having been aware of your food or the experience of eating? What are some of your patterns of automatic eating? Possibly you have been eating a great deal of food in this "robotic" way, barely noticing that you have been putting it into your mouth. Be assured, however, that although you may not be noticing what you are doing, your body is noticing, the calories are adding up, and your Chew is as happy as can be.
Sit down and think about times you may be engaging in robotic behavior. As you did in the previous section, close your eyes. Breathe deeply and think of ways you engage in robotic eating. Then return to the present and write down any automatic eating that you have become aware of. Next, make a plan to change one behavior. For example, if you realize that you have been munching while preparing dinner, make a choice to sip a large glass of lemon and water as you cook instead. In this way, you eliminate a behavior that is hazardous while substituting a healthy one. If you discover that you snack frequently while driving, choose not to bring food into your car anymore. Try this exercise often to see how many changes you can think of to make. Then make a plan to change them one at a time gradually and slowly.
Another way to bring robotic eating into conscious awareness is to write down everything you eat during a one week period. Keeping a diary like this for a brief period can help you bring unconscious eating behavior into your conscious mind. A word of caution is necessary here. Do not keep a food diary longer than a few weeks. If you do, you may become more rigid and focused on food. You may find yourself more obsessed with your diet than ever. This is counterproductive, so use your diary briefly and once you become aware of ways you have been using food automatically, you can make different choices. Now that we have looked at some of the more common reasons for overeating, lets look in greater detail at some of the physical, emotional, social and spiritual causes of compulsive eating.