The Psychology of Overeating

February 7, 2010

overeating Let’s look at why and when you tend to put on weight in the first place. What is your relationship to food and more importantly, to your body?

We subconsciously associate food with nurturing. Tasty food brings about a sense of deep gratification and we associate it with filling a hungry gap, rewarding ourselves for effort spent or simply a good social time.

Ever imagined living only on water and a collection of vitamin tablets as a substitute for food? What would there be to look forward to?

Due to our strong mind-body connection we literally program our living cells moment to moment via our thoughts and especially our feelings. If you find yourself running for something to eat every time you feel emotionally upset, disappointed or hurt, you might be a comfort eater and use food to lift your mood.

Comfort foods, like chocolate and biscuits or starchy foods, increase the body’s natural feel-good neurotransmitter, seretonin. Unfortunately like all quick fixes and addictions, the instant gratification is soon followed by a strong sense of guilt and feeling like a failure, which brings on depression.

If losing weight seems like a monumental task to you, consider first how you feel about yourself in general. The greater your sense of shame tied up to your appearance, the more desperate your need for change of your appearance will be and the more you’ll be inclined to feel hopeless about losing weight. Your confidence becomes undermined and the ensuing sense of powerlessness soon predisposes you to become victim to the myriad of instant diet pills and potions on the market. Unfortunately these are geared to pry on people with low self-esteem, with only monetary interest at heart and very little concern about the long term and side effects of these pills.

The saying goes that inside every fat person is a thin person dying to come out. Psychologists call this inner person your “inner child” which probably needed a lot of cover up at some point in time in order to deal with difficult life circumstances. If we connect with this inner child and become aware of what causes him/her to run for the fridge in the first place, we can start to reprogram ourselves by tending to our real hurts and needs instead.

Take “Anna” for example, who experienced sexual abuse as a child. She grew up to be an attractive and voluptuous woman. Yet every time a man leered at her she felt shame and repulsion. Anna started eating, subconsciously motivated to put on weight as a barrier between her and the outside world and also to hide her curvaceous figure in order to avoid lecherous stares. Yet at the same time she has grown accustomed to using her sexuality to control and manipulate men.

Anna’s primal need is for respect, love and healthy affection from an intimate relationship, yet she is programmed to associate intimacy with sexuality and thereby she keeps compromising herself sexually in order to get her basic needs for love “fulfilled”. This discrepancy between her need for respect and love versus her tendency to self-sacrifice in sexual behavior increases her sense of shame and the need for her inner child to resort to various defense mechanisms as well as her compulsive eating disorder.

Anna needs to honor and respect herself by focusing on what really makes her happy. She needs to practice hobbies and develop talents where she could meet men who share the same interests and value her for other qualities than just her (physical) body. Anna also needs to change her attitude towards men as sexual predators in order to break free from meeting the “wrong” type of men who perpetuate her one-sided perception and overemphasis on sexuality. Thus the cycle keeps on repeating itself and keeps her entrapped in her negative habits.

Some people use food indulgently as part of a decadent life-style. They are quite aware that they are eating beyond a point of satiety, yet cannot seem to make themselves stop. Overeating puts tremendous strain on the liver and may lead to enlargement of the liver with fat infiltration and considerable damage to the functionality of the liver. Binge eaters are quite aware of the severe discomfort of overeating, yet this doesn’t stop their behavior. Food has become a means to self-destructive behavior or self-punishment.

We need to ask ourselves what it is that we dislike so much in ourselves that we need to punish ourselves. Why are we so hard on ourselves that the simple bit of self-discipline required to stop eating when we are full, becomes such a difficult task that we would rather abandon all reason and give over to our rebellious inner child? By becoming aware of how and when we felt trapped under excessive discipline and criticism in our past, we can break the pattern of such an unnecessary authority that we’ve subconsciously internalized. Pay attention to your real needs. Are they really excessive or out of line? Wouldn’t a different approach of gentle encouragement and the focus on our good qualities have better results in our behavior?

Another reason why we put on weight is when our nurturing needs as an infant, baby or child were not met. Our mother may, unintentionally and very well meaning, either fed us too often and too much or too seldom and little or simply the wrong kinds of food in order to entice us to do something or to reward us. This lack of being in sync with the child’s natural needs, may lead the child to experience anxiety and the inability to perceive the natural call of hunger and sense of satiety.

Often this goes hand in hand with an overprotective or controlling mother towards whom we always feel indebted or striving to please in our behavior. Our inner child feels neglected and not understood, so we grow up trying to please through our “doing” instead of realizing how lovable we are in just “being” ourselves.
Are you able to say “No” when you don’t feel up to a request? We might struggle to communicate our feelings and needs and have problems with our personal boundaries allowing people to take advantage of us and then becoming resentful afterwards. And guess what, the quickest relief again becomes the fridge or some stacked chocolate bar.

There are many more reasons why people become obese. What I am suggesting is that before we look for the quickest and easiest diet available to lose weight, we must first make sure we are happy wholesome human beings, and love the body that we’re in despite it’s extra few bulges and curves.

Next time you run for the fridge, ask yourself:
  • How do I feel right now?
  • What is my reason for wanting to eat something?
  • Is the food that I am about to consume really beneficial and nourishing to my body or am I trying to substitute food for feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, disappointed, bored etc?

Have a notepad ready in the kitchen and write down your feelings and motivation for eating.

This simple exercise will break the habit of compulsive eating and will buy you those few extra minutes which enables your conscious mind to intervene – just like counting to 10 when you are about to loose your temper.

Then find ways to readdress and care for your emotional needs other than through eating. This might be to learn to express yourself clearly to others who might’ve caused your hurt or disappointment in that moment. By stating your needs and boundaries, and voicing when you feel hurt and angry, you will be taking a large step in empowering yourself. It is by taking back our emotional and personal power (not ego, stubbornness or pride) that we feel strong and confident enough to break unwanted habits and addictions.

Surround yourself by positive and uplifting people who support you in your endeavor to lose weight.
Realize that critical people are unhappy people. Don’t take their negative remarks personally. This is also an exercise to strengthen your emotional boundaries instead of trying to protect yourself with a physical barrier of fat.

Talk to yourself, affirming that you don’t need the protective layer of fat anymore. Thank your body as is for serving you up to this point, but know that you are now ready to shed all those extra kilos and care and honor your real needs. Make your body your home and be proud of it.

Lastly, have an alternative self-nurturing activity at hand. Something that you really enjoy doing which does not impact negatively on anyone, including yourself, and does not lead to feelings of guilt afterwards. Phone a friend, go for a walk in nature, take a soothing bath, curl up with your favorite book, or do something creatively, listen to music and dance on the spot or make love to someone dear or yourself!

Article by Dr. Sandra Smit, contributing author for Elements4Health.
Dr. Sandra Smit has a Bachelors degree in psychology and philosophy, a 6-year Masters Diploma in Homeopathy, and is a qualified Craniosacral Therapist.

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One Comment

  1. John

    July 14, 2011 at 7:39 am

    That would be “these are geared to _prey_ on people”, I suppose.

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