Eating regularly

For almost everyone, the first step towards changing an overeating pattern is to eat regularly. This means eating no less than 3 times in a day-- even if you have had a full-on binge that day-- and no more than 6. If you’re trying to change a pattern of overeating, it would be natural to look for strategies for avoiding food rather than focus on scheduling eating into your day. But in fact most people who feel out of control of their eating find that long periods without food just perpetuates unhelpful eating patterns-- even if there was once a time when fasting or dieting seemed to be working for them. Some people are just designed to function better with gap of no more than a few hours, whether it’s because of their blood glucose patterns, or how their hunger/satiety system operates, or for another reason (you may be interested in researching what Ayurveda, the ancient approach to health created in India, has to say about this). But even those who can function well physically with 5 hour gaps may have a psychological fear of not getting enough food, or of not getting the kind of food they want. If this fear gets activated by a long gap between eating times, or by not knowing when the next meal will be, overeating follows.

If your unwanted eating patterns involve grazing (eating small amounts repetitively), you may think that the longer the gaps between food, the better. But experience shows achieving long gaps is short-lived and in the long run makes matters worse. By contrast, a structure which still allows eating between 3 and 6 times per day may make a surprising difference to your quality of life. And you’ll probably find that in the long run it’s more sustainable.

So even if your long-term goal is to eat only when you’re hungry, the journey towards that destination will probably involve structuring in regular eating times. This means sticking to the planned times regardless of your hunger levels, and varying the amount instead.

• Think about what your eating patterns have been over the last 2- 3 days. What time did you get up, and what was your first time of eating after that? When was the next one? If you can’t remember, keep a record for a few days to find out.
• What determined when you ate? Was it decided for you (such as the time of your workplace lunch break), or initiated by an external cue (such as seeing food), or by an internal one (such as an emotion, or feeling hungry), or did it seem to just happen?
• Notice what your reaction is to the idea of a plan which involves eating 3 - 6 times per day for a while. If you notice an unwillingness, what is this based on? If you have some concerns about what will happen, consider whether there be some benefit in experimenting to find out. (For example, many people fear that eating regularly will mean eating more, but find that it soon means a reduction in their overall food intake.)
• What challenges might you encounter as you experiment? How could you deal with them in a way that will allow you to continue with the experiment?

Take action
Try out the following regular eating structure first, and then amend it to suit you:
• As soon as you get up, drink a glass of water with some lemon juice (many people find room temperature or even cup-of-tea temperature water suits them best).
• Between half an hour and an hour later, have something to eat. Allow the amount to be determined by your hunger level. If you’re not at all hungry, have something small (for example, 6 almonds). Set a timer to eat again between 3 and 4 1/2 hours later.
• When the timer sounds, have something to eat. Allow the amount to be determined by your hunger level. If you’re not at all hungry, again have something small to eat.
• Continue this process through the day and notice what happens. If you have a time of unplanned eating, reset the timer for 3 - 4 1/2 hours later.

After a few days, take stock. Are times of unwanted eating now fewer, less intense, on different food, easier to stop? Are you thinking or feeling differently about food? What else have you learned about yourself?

Getting your serotonin levels right

Serotonin is a chemical messenger which is found in the brain and the digestive system, and which is relevant to whether or not we get a good night’s sleep, have a well-regulated appetite, and feel contented or have a general sense of well-being. When our serotonin levels are low we may experience a number of symptoms including insomnia, feeling low, having a ravenous appetite for carbohydrates or a lack of satisfaction even when we’re full. Some people can also find themselves being impulsive or having an increase in bulimic or self-harming urges.

Of course, all these symptoms can have other causes, too, but for people who have difficulties with food, low serotonin is often involved in these symptoms. A combination of genes, childhood stress or present stress, our menstrual cycles, and repeated dieting can all play a part in creating this situation. For some women, their serotonin levels plummet before their period starts; for many women, just going on a moderate diet for three weeks can lead to a significant drop in this feel-good chemical (more women than men are affected by dieting in this way). Because the bodymind system knows from experience that carbohydrate-rich foods can provide a serotonin boost, the result is often a craving for bread or other baked goods: an unhappy irony where the serotonin imbalance has been caused by the intention to stick to a low-carb diet. Many people then blame themselves for having no willpower, but in fact it doesn’t make sense to think about this situation in terms of willpower. These cravings can be overwhelmingly strong and for a good reason: your bodymind system is doing all it can to bring you back to functioning at your best and to feeling good again.

Science is still finding out about the effects of low serotonin and how it relates to difficulties with food, but it’s possible that all of the following symptoms are related to it. As a starting point for exploring whether your serotonin levels may be low, score your experience in the past week for each symptom on the list, where 0 is not experienced at all and 10 is experienced very intensely or experienced all of the time. Put each score in the column labelled ‘Week 1’.

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Now reflect on your scores. Are there any surprises for you? Does your experience of these items fluctuate through the week? Overall are things worse or better than you expected? See if you can identify another possible cause for the high scoring items; if you can’t consider whether they might be symptoms of low serotonin.

Take action
If low serotonin may be affecting your eating, here are some steps to consider:

  • Put aside any plans for weight loss for now, and focus instead on sorting out any difficulties with food (such as compulsive eating) first.

  • Avoid experimenting with a low-carb eating style such as paleo: commit to sorting out any difficulties with food (such as overeating) first.

  • Starting with right now, notice one thing that is positive in your life. Then plan to do this noticing practice at the same time or in the same situation every day. Over time, this kind of realistic but positive approach will support your brain’s serotonin levels.

  • As serotonin levels go up when our eyes are exposed to morning light, Dr Libby Purvis suggests getting out into daylight at the same time in the morning every day for an experimental period of 4 weeks.

  • If low serotonin is an acute issue for you, consider supporting your bodymind system with a supplement such as 5HTP. Some GPs prescribe 5HTP, others don’t. If your GP doesn’t, seek advice from another health practitioner such as a good naturopath to find out whether it’s right for you.

  • If you have been experiencing low serotonin for a while, consider supporting your bodymind system with anti-depressants. Talk it through carefully with your GP and stay in touch with them if you decide to give it a go: some people feel much better on antidepressants and others feel worse.

  • To find out whether your serotonin levels are cyclical, and to monitor whether they are changing in response to the action you’re taking, put a reminder in your diary to score yourself again at weekly intervals for at least 4 weeks. (To avoid being influenced by your previous scores, cover these up first.)

Identify inner conflict

Someone may want to change the overeating pattern of a lifetime but find that somehow the days are going by and they’re not taking any action. Another person may decisively plan to stop binge eating for ever and start an eating plan which they keep to carefully-- and then be surprised when they end up binge eating again. What do these two people have in common? They are both being affected by a part of themselves they aren’t aware of. Sometimes people know, deep down, that there is something painful they want to keep out of their awareness and so they never face it; this is a very natural impulse but doesn’t allow for informed choices. Other people are so determined to change they decide to ignore and override any dissenting voices in themselves; this seems like an effective approach at the time but later these people may find their plans unexpectedly sabotaged.

If you are find that your wishes to change your eating don’t translate into action, or your New Year’s resolutions don’t last, it’s possible that one of the factors perpetuating your unwanted eating relates to conflicting wishes around change. Sometimes it can help to think of these wishes are belonging to different parts of you, each with its own concerns and priorities. Although it may be tempting to ignore some of these parts, it is wise to take account of them in your decision-making. Your progress will be faster and surer if there is no chance of their agenda getting in the way later on. Taking account of them doesn’t have to mean giving up what you really want; it means listening to what they have to say and consciously choosing how to respond to this.

The next activity is designed to help you uncover any conflicting wishes about changing your eating patterns. See if you can allow any answers you weren’t previously aware of to come to the surface of your mind without censoring them. Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.14.32 PM

Once you have written down all the information you can access, you can read it through to get an overview.

Take action
Where did this activity leave you? If you have become aware of an inner conflict, congratulations. You may feel more stuck than before, but the increase in awareness is in fact a big step forward. The next task is to keep bringing this inner conflict back into awareness and noticing how it affects what you do.

Alternatively, you may now feel ready to make an informed, wholehearted decision to change. If so, your task is to find the right words to set a formal intention, write it down, and then read it out aloud as a declaration. You could use the following format: From now on I (name), will start creating a new habit of...

This intention setting is enough for now: whatever old habits may persist for a while, you have created a new blueprint in your mind as a foundation for the future.

Get to know your teams

People who overeat often get discouraged about finding a solution. Sometimes this is because they’re confused about why they would be eating this way. Sometimes it’s because of so many past diets, when they tried to push their body to do something it wasn’t designed to do-- and naturally the body fought back. Sometimes it’s because they have tried a recommended strategy to stop overeating, and then found it didn’t work (or didn’t work for very long).

For example, Sharon heard that people overeat because they fear being deprived, and so gave up all her rules and restrictions around food. Yes, she felt less deprived as a result but this didn’t stop the unwanted eating-- in fact she found she was even eating more. What she didn’t know is that difficulties with food are multi-factoral: there is more than one reason for them. This means it’s not only hard to see clearly what is going on, it’s also hard to make changes when just one aspect of the situation is tackled.

You could think of difficulties with food as a tug of war: on one side are a number of factors which are pulling in the direction of unwanted eating (psychologists call these perpetuating factors); on the other side are a number of factors pulling in the direction of more positive eating habits (psychologists call these protective factors). Some people find they are being pulled first one way, then the other, with neither team gaining ground for any length of time; others find that one team is consistently stronger than the other. When Sharon reduced the power of the team member called Fear of Deprivation, there were still plenty of others on the team pulling her towards overeating. But when she identified a number of the other key players in the overeating team and reduced their power, while boosting the strength of the other team, she was able to make lasting changes.

What will you call the team that supports the continuation of unwanted eating in your life?

And who are its key members? These may include things like the environment you live or work in, ongoing stressors, how you experience your body, habitual ways you respond to certain feelings or situations, or habitual thinking patterns. It may also include brain/body factors like fluctuating blood glucose, low serotonin, having to deal with food intolerances. You can use the headings below as a guide as you write down your ideas.

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What will you call the other team? Here are a few possible team names:
Right Eating Team, Balanced Eating Team, Positive Eating Team, Healthy Relationship to Food Team.

And who are the key members? These are factors that will support you in creating the food life you want. You can use the headings below as a guide as you write down your ideas.

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Take action
Over the coming 24 hours, see if you can add anything to both lists.

Because our brain/body system is so fundamental to good functioning at every level, it’s a priority to sort out these factors first if this is at all possible: this will make addressing the other factors easier. If you listed any brain/body factors, what is
one thing you can do to start addressing them? Here are some examples: book a health appointment, research on the internet, consider what has helped me or others before.

Planning the journey

Moving from one set of experiences with food to another set is like going on a journey, a journey towards freedom with food. Knowing where you are at the start of the journey can help with planning your route. Also, knowing your starting point makes it possible further down the track to look back at the journey so far: you may find yourself pleasantly surprised with how far you have come.

In planning your journey it’s also important to know where you’re heading for. This knowledge can help keep you on track, and may also inspire you to keep going when the terrain gets rocky. Some people find having a clear destination in mind helpful; others find that fixing on this trips them up: it seems like an impossibly far-off goal and they get disheartened.

If this sounds like you, instead of thinking of the future in terms of a destination it may work better to think in terms of a direction with a number of milestones along the way. You may find this helpfully shifts the focus of your attention onto what you are working on now and the next milestone ahead of you. And it may mean you notice each time you reach a milestone, and allow yourself to pause and celebrate.

To plan your own journey, you may find it helpful to consider how you would answer these questions (I’d suggest write down your answers so you can come back to them at a later date and monitor how your journey is going):

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Take action
Here’s one way to act on what you’ve written down. When planning a journey it’s a good idea, if possible, to check out the terrain and the possible challenges in advance. So over the next few days you could get prepared for moving towards that first milestone by
  • checking your everyday experience of food and eating against your answer to question 1. Some of us overestimate how severe our difficulties are because we focus on what isn’t going so well; others underestimate, fearful of facing the reality.
    • checking how close or far away are you to the first milestone you identified. Some of us overlook that on easier days we may have already reached our goals; others regularly set targets that are too challenging for where they are on their journey.
    • noticing what aspects of your daily life will be a support to you on your journey.
    • noticing what aspects of your daily life may make it harder for you on your journey.

It may help to talk this through with someone, for example a trusted friend or family member, or a counsellor experienced in working with people who have difficulties with food.

Starting the process

The lotus flower is an ancient symbol. This white flower grows out of the mud, so it symbolises the growth of something beautiful out of an unpromising situation.

If you’re experiencing unwanted overeating of any kind (such as compulsive eating, emotional eating, comfort eating or binge-eating), you’re likely to be familiar with some of the distressing feelings and thoughts that often go along with these difficulties. These can include a sense of not being in control of what you do, low self-esteem, a sense of shame, and negative expectations about the future. You may not know that overcoming eating difficulties can bring about enjoyable experiences such as a confidence in being able to make choices in life, a rise in self-esteem, a sense of achievement, and positive expectations of what you and your life can become.

This blog includes ideas to support you in creating these more enjoyable experiences. In the same way as the lotus grows out of the mud, you may find that dealing with the difficulties you’ve experienced around food will allow something beautiful to emerge in your life.

Here is a suggestion that may help you to find out more about what is going on now and how you want your life to be.

Create a piece of A4 paper that looks like this:

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Starting with the left hand side, write a description of how things are with you and food these days. You can consider including: the kinds of foods you eat; the amounts you eat; the foods you avoid; your feelings and thoughts about food and eating; your daily overall eating pattern; how the current situation with food affects your life.

Then on the right hand side write a description of how you would like things to be in the future. You can consider including: the kinds of foods you would like to eat in the future; the amounts you would eat; the foods you would avoid; your feelings and thoughts about food and eating; your daily overall eating pattern; how this new situation with food will affect other areas of your life.

Take action
You can support yourself in creating the future you described by strengthening certain neural pathways in your mind, the ones that relate to the inner experience of that future. One way to do this is to identify a quality you will need for this journey of getting you from how things are now to how you would like them to be. For example, courage, self-compassion, determination, persistence… or something else.

Close your eyes and imagine being filled with this quality in this moment. It may help to bring to mind a time when you experienced having this quality. Or you could imagine a situation in which you would feel filled with this quality.

Write about your experience of this activity and add any other reflections you have.

If it was easy for you to imagine being filled with the quality you chose, great. Doing this activity If you found this activity too challenging right now, you may find it helpful to talk it over with a counsellor or psychotherapist.