09/07/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 11/07/2012 05:12 EST

Emotional Overeating Part 2: How to Tell if You're Doing it


This is the second post in an exclusive three-part series of excerpts from the author's book Emotional Overeating: Know the Triggers, Heal Your Mind and Never Diet Again.

If you're an over-eater, you know that being heavy and eating excessively aren't your only problems. In fact, you can't stop thinking about food and weight. Obsessing about food, weight and dieting is a major part of the problem as opposed to any part of the solution. One of the main problems with dieting is that it encourages this obsessing. A real solution should enable you to normalize your relationship with food and with your body and turn your attention to the things that will bring you true happiness and fulfillment.

Both compulsive eating and compulsive food restricting (dieting) cause a behavioural vicious circle, in which overeating leads to remorse, self-recrimination, heightened obsessions and then to further overeating. Not only does this vicious circle fail to address the problem, it creates enormous emotional suffering. You may or may not be dealing with the health or social consequences of overeating but if you're currently dieting, you're probably suffering from a constant preoccupation with food and weight.

It's possible to spend all your free time focused on the ins and outs of your diet and weight issues. People think that they don't have an eating disorder if their weight is normal for their age and body type, but it's not your size that's indicative of the problem; it's the degree to which you think obsessively and behave compulsively with regard to food and your weight. Until you've let go of the obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors associated with disordered eating, you'll never be happy or free.

The problem with diets is that they keep you focused on the false solution of food restriction. You're so preoccupied with food and weight that you're unable to consider what's really driving you to over-eat and how to effectively deal with your cravings. Diets would have you avoiding certain foods instead of indulging in them, but you're still caught up in compulsive patterns of behaviour.

Diets also draw your energy from the things in your life that could be meaningful and which could contribute to your healing. Letting go of dieting helps you begin to search for the real cause of your over-eating and for meaningful sources of healing. Only this will allow you to lose weight and free yourself of your obsessions and compulsive behaviours forever.

So, how do you know that you have disordered eating? First and foremost, you need to look at how and why you eat. You might be someone who just eats a little bit more than you should. You might not be that much overweight, but because of your tendency to overeat just that little bit, the extra pounds don't go away.

Alternatively, you could be someone who eats slightly too-large portions on a regular basis. You may engage in evening binges, eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, not even tasting what you've swallowed, only to repeat this behaviour the next day.

Whichever scenario describes you best, if you're even a little bit out of control of your eating, then you're someone for whom food isn't solely a source of enjoyable nutrition but is to some degree a charged subject. Those who over-indulge a little bit and are just a bit overweight and those who over-eat a lot and are significantly overweight aren't that different.

What differentiates a mild or moderate over-eater from a more serious one is related to two fundamental factors: the degree to which you've been wounded emotionally, and the degree to which food has become the solution to your emotional needs. Essentially, the presence of any amount of neglect, abuse, loss or trauma in your childhood has left you with the emotional wounds of unhealed pain and unmet needs which persist in adult life, and it's these wounds which drive you to over-eat in search of compensation and healing.

Dr. Vincent J. Felitti of the Department of Preventative Medicine at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in San Diego California describes how he and his colleagues did a population-based analysis of over 17,000 healthy, middle-class American adults to explore the relationship of what he calls "adverse childhood experiences" to the development of addictions. His conclusion was that childhood experiences of hurt, loss, trauma or neglect all contribute to the development of addiction, whereby a greater variety of adverse experiences is correlated with a greater likelihood of having one or more addictions. Through this study, Dr. Felitti recognized that addictions are unconscious coping devices as opposed to a brain disease, a chemical imbalance or a case of faulty genetics.

As Dr. Felitti points out, these types of experiences are a lot more common than we'd like to think, but both the affected individuals as well as the clinicians treating them have a strong resistance to recognizing this truth. If you're to overcome your own compulsive eating or other addiction(s), you'll have to open your mind to the possibility that you've suffered at least one of these adverse events (more if your addictions are severe or multiple) when you were growing up.

It's not uncommon that someone with a mild over-eating problem has a more significant issue with spending, drinking or smoking, for example. Alternatively, you could have several mild addictions that combine to make a more serious problem. Whether over-eating is your only problem or one of several issues for you, and whether over-eating is a minor or more significant issue for you, you're going to have to face the fact that your addictions have arisen from emotional wounds that need to be addressed.

Think of it this way: dealing with your eating problem could be a way for you to finally become conscious about unresolved childhood issues. By facing and dealing with your habit of over-eating, you'll be able to achieve real emotional healing. Once this is accomplished, you'll be able to access the energy that was being channeled into attempts at controlling your eating and weight, and redirect it into more meaningful and fulfilling activities. Also, the same emotional healing that allows you to let go of your minor eating problem will free you from any other addiction you might have. Understanding the meaning of your disordered eating can turn into an opportunity to deal, finally, with these other issues.

Emotional Overeating: Know the Triggers, Heal Your Mind and Never Diet Again. Copyright 2012 by Marcia Sirota, MD. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC.