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Your Emotional and Binge Eating has Served a Powerful Purpose Until Now: Here’s how to Rewire Your Brain

Calm river

Food, food and more food. We are about to approach the feast-focused season in which holidays, family gatherings, parties and more are centered around food. For many, this can be an extremely challenging time. Overeating seems to be part of the norm, but when does eating too much cross over into binge eating?

We’re entering the feast-focused season.

We often hear people talk about food addiction. The thing is that there has actually been no scientific data to show that this is true. It is not that we are addicted to the food. It is the behavior of eating and the pattern of going to food to cope to which we are actually addicted. 

Binge-Eating Disorder, also known as BED, is the most common eating disorder in America. BED impacts roughly one in 35 adults and presents itself in both men and women. To classify a true binge, one would have to eat a very large volume of food within a short period of time, typically within two hours or less.

Binge eating versus overeating

A binge is not eating a lot of Halloween candy. A binge is not eating a pint of ice cream. A binge eating episode may entail eating a cheeseburger and french fries followed by a jar of peanut butter and then diving into two pints of ice cream. The shame, guilt and sense of failure then takes over. The rush and “high” from the binge quickly turns into a paralyzing “low.”

A binge may be pre-planned or it could pop up out of nowhere. Once the binge starts, one typically feels out of control and eats to the point of pain and discomfort. If these binge-eating episodes are happening, we strongly suggest that one seeks professional guidance. A team of a licensed therapist and a registered dietitian is an important place to start.

A binge may be pre-planned or it could pop up out of nowhere.

At Skyterra, our Freedom with Food week provides a non- judgemental and safe environment where you will be supported by licensed therapists and dietitians to begin your journey of healing. During Freedom with Food week at Skyterra, we explore the facets of binge eating disorder and dive deeper into how one can recognize the signs of BED while teaching healthy coping skills that serve as preventative measures. 

Compulsive eating: it’s not about the food

You may not have a full-blown eating disorder. However, we hear from so many people struggling with compulsive eating who say they eat to cope, and experience moments of feeling completely out of control around food.

If this is you, then guess what? You are not alone. More often than not, people are not struggling with an actual eating disorder. So, what are people struggling with? What is really going on?

Deep down…it isn’t about the food. It is never about the food. Disordered eating patterns such as restricting, food deprivation, chronic dieting, bingeing, excessive exercise, exercising to only lose the inches, compulsive eating, and night-time eating are all a symptom of something else. These behaviors have served and continue to serve a deeper purpose:

  • They serve the place of “fixing” unmet needs such as basic self-care (e.g., sleep), self-love, belief in one’s worthiness and more
  • They serve as a coping mechanism
  • They serve as the quick solution
  • They serve as a safety net
  • These eating behaviors have been a protective mechanism for the brain and body. 

It’s all about learning a new way to cope.

What is keeping you afloat?

In our attempts to protect ourselves, we have wired our brains to choose food when we experience uncomfortable feelings.

There’s a parable we often reference during Freedom With Food, borrowed from Dr. Anita Johnston in her book, Eating in the Light of the Moon: For a moment, imagine you are in the middle of white water rapids. The water is rough and you feel surrounded by fear.  You feel a sense of panic and worry that you may drown. You have nothing to hold onto when a log suddenly floats near you. Instinctively, you see this log as a survival strategy and grasp on for dear life. You now have something to keep you from drowning; however, you are still in the midst of unsafe waters.

As you continue to hold on and go down the rapids, you notice the shore on both sides of you. You immediately recognize this as the safest place you could be, but how on earth can you get there? The way to get there is letting go of the one thing that is keeping you safe and attempt to swim to land. You decide to give it a try. You let go, but the intense fear and anxiety surround you and you feel like you can’t breathe. You are scared so you decide to go back to the log. A sense of peace takes over, but you continue to go downstream.

Eventually, you decide to let go of the log and give it another try. You decide to attempt to really get to shore this time and fight through the initial anxiety. Halfway through the swim you decide it is too risky and you go back to the log. You feel defeated that you couldn’t get to shore, but you made it further than the first attempt. This is progress, but you still didn’t reach the safest place.

Protection from life’s challenges

The story of the log represents the same story of those that use food to cope, soothe, heal, comfort and control emotions. Food has served a purpose. It has been your life jacket. It has been your log. Is it the safest place for you to be? No. However, it has somehow protected you from drowning from life’s discomforts and challenges. 

There is hope.

In our attempts to protect and love ourselves by never letting go of the log, we have wired our brains to automatically choose using food as coping when we are in the midst of experiencing those uncomfortable feelings such as shame, guilt, sadness, loneliness, or anger. It’s like our brains have just formed a bad habit, which is not actually bad at all, just a way to cope.

There is hope

There is hope. At Skyterra and in Freedom with Food we believe you can get to shore. We also recognize it isn’t easy. Often times, things feel worse before they get better. It may take you numerous attempts to get to shore, but we are hopeful you can get there. 

During Freedom with Food, you will rewire your brain to choose a different pattern of behavior for coping. We have the power to reshape our thoughts, which can affect our relationship to our feelings. Once we have changed how we view our thoughts and feelings, we can begin to change our conditioned patterns of behavior.

Deciding to let go of the log, no matter how many times we return, is proof that our brains can choose a different way. When we resist judging our thoughts, feelings and bodies and instead practice mindful awareness to stay in the present moment, we can begin to learn that our thoughts and feelings are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. They just are.

— By Lindsay Ford, Registered Dietitian, and Shannon Worley, MSW, LCSW

Click here for more on our Freedom With Food weeks.