Why can’t I stop eating?
The big question for many of my clients is: Why can’t I stop eating?
I asked myself the same question almost every day for years, back when I was in the grips of an eating disorder.
The problem with this question is that it places all the responsibility on you, and doesn’t address the fact that there are many layers to chaotic eating and food addiction.
I’d like to unpick some of these layers in this blog post.
Addicted to food?
Let’s begin with addiction. Did you know that addiction is not just about drugs? An addiction can be defined as anything (substance, food, behaviour, etc) that brings you temporary relief from pain/discomfort, and that you struggle to give up even though it might have negative consequences.
Given that definition, I think it is safe to say that all of us have partaken in addictive behaviours at some point in our lives. So, first thing to remember: no judgement.
It is just as possible to be addicted to food and eating as it is possible to be addicted to drugs, shopping, sex, the internet, doom-scrolling, gaming, or indeed anything that brings you distraction, numbing, pleasure or comfort.
The reason you reach for food (or something else) is because there is something you are trying to escape or soothe. Understanding this is the first step. It goes deeper than “I just can’t stop eating”.
It is NOT your fault
Nobody chooses to gain excess weight. Nobody chooses to eat in a disordered way. These are symptoms of a deeper imbalance.
If there is one thing that’s easy to form a toxic relationship with, it’s food. Typically, we interact with it every single day, several times a day, it’s unavoidable. Food is, in our Western societies, always available, and in the most unexpected places (like clothes shops).
This makes it incredibly difficult, because the thing you’re trying to give up (and lets face it, every diet is a giving up, of sorts) is in your face almost 24/7.
When food has become a coping mechanism, it can be difficult to untangle from it. Be kind to yourself.
Food is not food
Food has undergone many changes in the last few decades, changes that make it more pleasurable (at least in the short-term), and less nutritious. I am sure you don’t want a long lecture on the evils of processed food, so I’ll just say two things:
#1: Processed food is carefully crafted to hit what’s known as the bliss point. This means it is engineered to feel as pleasurable as possible, in order to have what’s known in the food industry as “repeat appeal”. In other words, the ingredients are chosen and combined in such a way to make you want to eat it (buy it) again and again.
#2: No matter what claims are made on the packaging, processed foods will never be as good for you as natural, whole, minimally processed foods. The more processed a food is, the less nutrition it contains. Let’s also remember that we are human beings and while our technology is more advanced than back when we lived in caves, our bodies are still very much the same. The body does not know how to deal with artificial additives and ultra-refined sugars – what it wants and needs is a variety of plant foods (trust me this is not as boring as you might think).
Processed foods are easier to become addicted to, and on top of that they do not provide the nutrients the body and brain need to feel good. This creates an additional layer of chaos, because when you don’t feel good (low energy, irritable, bloated, etc), you’re more likely to reach for something that makes you feel good temporarily (the very foods that perpetuate this cycle).
How does chaotic eating or food addiction develop?
Everyone’s journey is different – what follows is a very basic template.
At some point in your life (usually in childhood, but not always) you were unable to deal with difficult emotions or situations. Your brain at the time directed you towards a coping mechanism that was available to you. For many of us, food was this coping mechanism. Over time, this pattern of turning to something outside yourself for comfort became ingrained.
Your story may be different, but at the core of food addiction is the unconscious learning that your emotions are too much to cope with.
What can you do about chaotic eating?
The first, most fundamental, thing is: Stop judging yourself. I cannot stress this enough. If you judge yourself for where you are, or how you’ve coped so far, you’re just giving yourself more reasons to turn to food for comfort.
Secondly, get curious. The next time you notice a craving for food that is not driven by genuine hunger, give yourself a couple of minutes to ask yourself:
What emotion am I experiencing right now?
Where is this craving coming from? What triggered it?
What do I need?
Thirdly, give acceptance a try. Accept that asking yourself these questions may not always stop you from turning to food anyway (and that is okay!). That’s not what’s important. What matters is that you begin to get to know what drives your choices and cravings. The more you understand yourself, your past, your triggers, the easier it will become to shift things.
As you practice the above three strategies, you’ll develop compassion and self-knowledge, which in turn will help you to reconnect with your true self and develop strategies to cope with emotions in new ways.