Your lack of willpower isn’t why you feel out of control around food.
The holidays are near, and with them comes a surplus of foods and treats. It’s normal to overeat every so often. That’s what Thanksgiving is for, right?
Studio 5 Health Contributor Miki Eberhardt says that if you’re feeling out of control around food more often than not, you’re not alone. And, there’s most likely a reason – and that reason isn’t your lack of willpower. She shares three reasons why you feel out of control around food.
Find more advice from Miki on Instagram, @nutritionbymiki.
3 Reasons You Feel Out of Control Around Food
Reason #1: You’re letting yourself get too hungry
When you skip meals, forget to eat, or don’t eat enough food, your body knows. Neglecting to feed your body regularly each day puts it into survival mode. Your body has smart mechanisms to ensure it survives. If you’re putting your body into an energy deficit daily whether that’s from purposeful restriction or forgetful busyness, it will respond by ramping up hunger hormones and reducing your fullness hormones. You’ll be more likely to seek out and obsess about food—hello sugar cravings! Letting yourself get to the point of ravenous hunger or chronically underfeeding your body in general means we are more likely to inhale the first foods we see and feel unable to stop when we feel full.
- Don’t ignore hunger signals. Respond promptly and eat. (Do you ignore the urge to go to the bathroom? No, that’s ridiculous. But hunger is a similar physiological response…honor it, don’t ignore it)
- If you let yourself be undernourished, you may not get a grumbly stomach. Look for low energy, headache, shakiness, or problems focusing which are other hunger cues.
- Eat regularly and limit long 4-5 hour gaps between nourishment. A good starting point is striving to eat 3 meals with 2-3 snacks in between.
Reason #2: Not allowing yourself permission
Typically, the foods we feel most out of control around are the ones we are actively trying to limit or avoid. Having foods we label as “bad” can create a “last supper” type of eating. This is where our brain is convinced that this may be the only time I’ll be able to eat this particular food. And because our brain anticipate future restriction, we feel out of control and are more likely to eat past satisfaction to an uncomfortable overfullness. When we perceive that we’ve had “too much” of a “bad food” this can be linked to guilt or maybe fear over weight gain, so we then revert to restriction, which in turn fuels out of control eating. (I use the analogy of “restrict & binge” being two besties linked arm in arm. When one is present, the other shows up too.)
1. Stop labelling foods as “good” or “bad” and allow ourselves permission to eat all foods. When we take the perceived “bad” foods off the pedestal and bring them down to the same level as other food choices, you actually get to taste the food.
2. This creates room to ask yourself
- Do I even like this?
- Do I want this right now?
- Does this feel good in my body?
- Will I feel deprived if I don’t eat this?
- Will this satisfy what I need right now?
3. This allows you to finally decide what foods make you feel good rather than choices being driven by rules and restriction. This sounds scary, I know. So what’s stopping you from just eating junk food all the time? While it may be the case in the short term, this dissipates as time moves on when you keep a curious, non-judgmental mindset. It’s called habituation.
4. Here’s an example: I made a full pan of Carmelita bars…chocolate chip cookie base with caramel and then the crumble topping. Delicious. A week later, there was still 1/3 of the pan left. (picture included) That’s because my kids know this isn’t the only time they will be offered a treat. They know this isn’t a bad food. They know they can have it on their plate with other food choices. They know there isn’t any shame or guilt from choosing this. They get to listen and decide how it feels to their body. If they want it, if it sounds good. And turns out after having it a few days in a row, everyone got sick of it. And there it sat. This is habituation.
You know who is usually really good at habituation of treats? Grandmas. My kids always know that Grandma Sans will have chocolate milk and sugar cereal and treats in her pantry when they stay with her or go and visit. Now, if my kids never have access to these types of foods and we label those foods as “bad” at my house, how will my kids behave around those foods? I’ll tell you how. They’ll eat until they’re sick and I know this first hand because I used to have strict rules at my house when my kids were younger. And since I have changed the environment in my own home, my kids have learned how to regulate themselves.
Reason #3: Food is your main way to cope with emotions
If you’re already eating regularly and not restricting or giving morality to food, and yet still feel out of control, it could be emotional eating. While it’s normal to turn to food for comfort or distraction sometimes, if food becomes your primary coping mechanism, it doesn’t feel great.
The Solution: If emotional eating is the reason you are feeling out of control around food, then getting in touch with the needs of the underlying emotion is key.
For example, if you’re feeling lonely or sad and you eat a big hunk of chocolate in an effort to feel better, it may work for a moment, but the relief will only be temporary. In the long run, you will likely remain unsatisfied because the needs were connection or joy, not food.
Seeking out a good therapist to help address some of the underlying emotions is always a good idea, but here are a couple things you can try on your own as well.
- Use journaling as a tool of self-monitoring to help you become more aware as to the circumstances that when you feel out of control around food. This can promote awareness and accountability as well as pinpoint triggers and patterns in how we feel and behave.
- Recording things like how you felt, what you ate, where you were, what was going on at that particular time can be helpful in finding patterns.
- Meditation is another tool to create space for thoughts to feel less intrusive and urgent.
- Art is also another tool that can be cathartic in helping us process emotions and experiences in a more objective and compassionate way.
In summary, there are some common reasons why people tend to feel a loss of control around food. Regaining control and tuning back into your body is 100% possible, but it is a process and does require some extra compassion and patience towards yourself and trusting the process. I’m a big fan of intuitive eating as a proven framework that I use to help clients to rediscover a positive relationship to food and their bodies.