From Binge Eating to Balance

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My client Jessica* walked into her session saying that she imagined herself lying face down on the rug in my office pounding her fists. I told her that she was certainly welcome to embody her feelings. Although she chose not to hit the floor, she did cry more forcefully than usual this session.

Jessica has been feeling very frustrated with her eating. She has been eating lots of things that she considers “non-food,” like cheez-its. She has been preparing and cooking food that she considers healthy, but then she chooses not to eat it while at work, going out to get other “less healthy” takeout food. The other day she ended up eating a whole pizza.

Her tears came with feelings of hopelessness: “I am not strong enough to do what I need to do to take care of my health, and I’m going to kill myself with my bad habits” (something like this). I tried to reframe this for her. Could she observe her eating habits less judgmentally, so that she has more room to problem-solve?

For example, Monday came and she was exhausted from all the housecleaning she did over the weekend. Instead of beating herself up and saying that she can’t get her eating right, she could say with curiosity (instead of criticism): “Hmmm…? I am really exhausted today after the weekend, which is supposed to be a rest from work. This doesn’t seem to be working for me. I know I “treated myself” to that food partly because I wanted to take care of myself in some way or soothe myself because I was exhausted. Maybe I need more help, or to lower my standards about cleaning on the weekend, or something else...”

Jessica’s work in high-tech is stressful and demanding -- and the standard in this industry is perfection-or-you-may-lose-your-job --  so this contributed to her negative self-talk, too. She ate something that didn't feel “right” for her to eat. In her own view, she’d failed at taking care of herself, even though she had really just been doing her best to cope. Binge-eating may have consequences that don’t feel so good, but it’s a very effective coping strategy that many of us use when we want soothing. We also often use food when we want to get out of our heads and into our bodies to experience some sensory pleasure for awhile.

Jessica wants to eat a vegan, plant-based, no-unnatural-oils, very low-fat diet, but she can’t seem to do it. We discussed the way that eating food that tastes good is important to her. However, this “clean” way of eating ends up feeling like a diet, and it doesn’t leave her fully satisfied. When she feels deprived, she rebels and seeks out highly-palatable, filling foods. The cycle starts again when she feels guilty about eating in an “un-clean” way and she goes back to her “virtuous” eating. The overeating and regaining control and overeating cycle continues...

I suggested that when Jessica is faced with a craving or desire for cheese, she think about a way that she can honor her craving for cheese and still create a healthy meal with it. Instead of being black and white (she either won’t eat cheese at all or she will eat a whole cheese pizza), she could have a sandwich with hummus and tomatoes and melted cheese. Yummy and healthful. The part of her that is rigidly clinging to the strict vegan plan will not see this as healthy, but it is still a better choice for her body than the large cheese pizza that ends up not making her feel very well afterwards. This was an example that made sense to my client. She thought she could try this concept of listening to -- instead of denying -- her cravings and working with them to find a balanced food choice. (This is not to say, by the way, that pizza is not a viable option, too. For Jessica, however, this was not the kind of meal that she really wanted to eat in the middle of her work day.) 

I suspect that she will struggle with finding this balance, as the grey is always more of a challenge for Jessica than the black and white. I also suspect that while her work and home life is very stressful and she’s not getting enough sleep, it is hard for her to take care of herself with food and find this balance. She also admits that she uses her struggles around food as a way to avoid harder things and to feel like she has some control over her life. I love the way she called her binge-eating  "lubrication" (something that helps her through tough times), but acknowledged that it has "grit" in it (consequences that make it less helpful to her body, mind, and spirit).

Since the session where she wanted to pound her fists into my floor, Jessica has been gradually embracing the “middle road” in her eating. She is not eating in the most virtuous way that she has always wanted to eat, but she tried it for decades and it didn’t work. She is letting it go. As a result, she is not doing as much binge eating -- particularly when she is being mindful and present and slows down enough to make her self-care a priority. It’s been quite a journey, and I am honored to be a supportive witness to her growth and determination as she improves her relationship with food.

So... how do you find balance in your eating so that you eat in a healthful way that doesn’t deprive you of the sensory pleasure of eating...? (Please share your Comments below.)

* Client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.