Not only is food necessary for our physical sustenance, but it also figures prominently in many social and religious events. Thanksgiving and turkey (or tofurky). The Super Bowl, chips, and dip. Easter, chocolate eggs, and Peeps. Passover, matzoh, and gefilte fish.
Enjoying a leisurely meal with friends or family can also help us bond with others while nourishing our bodies.
However, in too many cases food and eating can morph into a source of discomfort and potentially threaten one’s physical health and well-being.
Downing a one-pound bag of M & M’s can become the response to be jilted romantically or losing one’s job.
Grazing on bags of potato chips throughout the day can become a way to procrastinate about schoolwork.
Ordering an extra-large pizza and eating it alone at home with the blinds closed, and then falling into a food-fueled comatose state, can be a way to block out feelings of low self-worth.
This is serious business. What to do? How to regain a healthy relationship with food again? Or develop such a relationship for the first time?
Various types of compulsive overeating exist.
Binge eating is defined as the consumption of large amounts of food over a short period of time (from a few minutes to several hours) and the unsettling sense that one has lost control over one’s eating. Sometimes people can eat thousands, or even tens of thousands of calories, in the course of a binge.
Emotional eating involves eating in response to uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, grief, or anger. Many people attempt to “stuff down their feelings” with excess food. Sometimes positive feelings like joy or excitement can cause people to eat emotionally, especially if the person has a difficult time feeling deserving of good things.
External eating refers to eating as a result of seeing, smelling, or tasting a bit of food. The slogan “bet you can’t eat just one” applies here. Sometimes a photo of food or the mere mention of food, can precipitate external eating.
In all these cases, food consumption, which initially seems to be the best answer to an disquieting feeling or impulse, becomes the problem.
Fortunately, according to researchers at the University of Southern California, mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) can be effective for obesity-related eating behaviors, including binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. The study team conducted a search of clinical research studies that employed MBIs, such as:
All but one of the 12 studies aimed at reducing binge eating decreased the frequency and/or severity of the behavior, with most of the studies reporting a major effect. Five out of the eight studies that focused on emotional eating proved to be effective. For external eating, four out of six studies decreased the behavior.
Overall, the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy appeared to be the most effective approach to reducing compulsive overeating. In addition, most of the studies showed improvement in mindfulness and beneficial outcomes in body weight (either weight loss or weight stabilization).
The therapeutic interventions deemed to be most effective required several sessions over a few weeks (which is not long at all, in the scheme of things).
A multitude of mindfulness techniques exist. Here’s one simple example:
Mindfulness works in controlling compulsive behaviors in several ways.
When you choose to adopt healthier routines, such as following a balanced and moderate food plan, and refraining from compulsive overeating between planned meals or snacks, you’re bound to come up against discomfort. Change can be scary, even if the change is beneficial.
Mindfulness techniques can help you to weather the discomfort without adding self-imposed misery (through negative thoughts, obsessing about food or weight, or falling back into dysfunctional eating behaviors). In time, your new, healthier eating patterns can become the norm, and food can assume its proper place in your life.
Reilly, G.A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D., & Black, D.S. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15(6): 453-461.
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Last reviewed: 21 May 2014