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.)