I used to think counseling was the answer to my overeating. I believed that if I did enough personal growth work or psychotherapy, I’d no longer overeat. If I only had enough self-understanding and fulfilling relationships, if only my life were in better order, or if I made enough money—then my food issues would finally evaporate for good, and I would go through life eating healthfully and only when hungry.
My journals overflow with entries like this one: I want to eat but I’m not hungry… I asked myself countless times what I really wanted. Was I lonely and needing companionship? Yes, but food goes well with company. Was I angry and needing to have a pow wow? Definitely, but wouldn’t some green tea and chocolate biscotti form a great backdrop to an airing-out session? Was I just bored and needing some stimulation? Certainly, but what goes better with entertainment than popcorn and jujubes?
Luckily, to ditch your bad eating habits, you don’t need to investigate your childhood, write letters to deceased people, talk to empty chairs, make amends, hit pillows, or scream while hitting pillows (though doing so can be very satisfying). I’ve done all that stuff and more, and my eating drive never once slowed down to even take notice.
Now, I’m not knocking therapy. In fact, I’m just short of a master’s in clinical psychology. Counseling is a great tool for increasing self-awareness and learning better ways of coping. But it’s probably not going to help most people stop overeating and making poor food choices.
I finally came to realize, after much study on the way our brains work, that I wasn’t eating for love, sadness, ire, or excitement. I was eating because I’m an animal with an unlimited food supply. Millions of years of successful evolution have endowed in me a healthy desire to seek calories and take advantage of them when they’re available. I finally realized that I never really had “food issues” to begin with. I was simply responding to the current food situation in the most appropriate way possible, considering my genetic heritage.
So, if spending time on the couch won’t do it, what will? Happily, the only ability you need in order to begin confronting your “food issues” is awareness of your thinking. For instance, I went to our local natural foods store yesterday, and, passing the bulk chocolate goodies, thought, “Oooo! I could get just a tiny little bit.” That thought—“I could get just a tiny little bit”— was an undercover way for my old, hungry brain to declare, “Alert! Alert! Food available! Eat now, while you can!”
Luckily, having struggled with compulsive eating for literally decades, I finally know how to deal with such sneaky, seemingly-innocent thoughts. You’ll be learning soon enough yourself, but first you have to bring those thoughts, which covertly drive your food choices, to the forefront of your attention.
In order to align your behavior with your desire for health and long-term weight loss, you must master the ability to notice and think about your thoughts—aka metacognition. Let’s try it right now. What thoughts are running through your head right this moment? Stop reading for a second to find out.
Now take it a step further and ask yourself, “Does the thought __________________ inspire me to take action on my desire to lose weight?”
For example, maybe you had the thought, “This is interesting, this idea of thinking about thinking.” Is that thought helpful, moving you towards your goal? I’d say so. If you’re telling yourself what you’re reading is interesting, you’ll probably want to continue reading this excellent and intriguing article about long-term weight loss.
On the other hand, maybe you thought, “How is this crap gonna help me? I just want to know how to lose weight!” Is this thought going to inspire you to continue reading and learning?
Mind you, there’s no judgment on your thoughts, whatever they may be. The important thing is that you notice them and don’t allow them to slip by under the radar, where their clandestine activities can wreak havoc on your sincere efforts.
Also, don’t try to figure out the why behind your thoughts. Interesting, maybe, but of little practical value. Oracular insights are virtually useless against a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
For now, think of it this way: thoughts that prompt you toward your goals are helpful, while thoughts that move you away from your goals are harmful.
For the next week, take note and write down the thoughts you use to justify low-nutrient eating. If you don’t notice any thoughts, try completing this sentence, “It’s ok for me to eat [object of your desire] because _______________________.” Then come back here next week with your list, and I’ll show you how to handle your unhelpful cognitions, including the most common diet-derailing thought, “I just don’t care.”
For more tips about healthy eating and lifestyle, schedule a free 30 minute session with one of our expert nutrition coaches!
Caroline’s coaching helps people adopt a nutrient-rich diet by teaching them the psychology of permanent weight loss at EatGreenVeggies.com.