In the last 29 years, I’ve succeeded and failed at weight loss and maintenance no less than 400,000 times. I’ve run full force at several million brick walls. I’ve lied to everyone, and in particularly painful ways to myself. No part of this journey has been more difficult than trying to figure out how to stop emotional eating.
Emotional eating and I — and binge eating, in particular — God we’ve battled. It’s only in the past year that I’ve found myself sobering up, on this slow, quiet ferry to a better place. I’m no expert, and this post, like the rest, should have no halo of perfection around it. But for the sake of sharing, and generally making you feel less alone in your own crazy, here’s some more of me exposing parts of myself that make me cringe, and three lessons I’ve pieced together so far. The rest are coming soon in a future post. I hope they mean something to you, wherever you are on your way.
Something very particular happens when you begin eating out of control. It starts out like every other time: an old craving debt to settle, or maybe your fingers have slipped past those last few inches on the rope of your willpower; you’ve tossed back a cocktail too many; you need some relief after having been ‘on’ for longer than is tolerable. The list, the reasons — they go on, unending. You’ve got yours.
Maybe there are these three doughnuts. And you need them. Look, you’ve chosen the best ones even! And that’s all you’re having, obviously. Because that’s all you wanted anyway, right? Right. Right. Well but wait — remember two weeks ago when you wanted an eggplant parm? God that sounds good. You just wish they’d use more cheese. You know, and maybe this is crazy but — wouldn’t it be wise to just get that today, too, so that it’s all out of your system? Get them all done and out of the way on the same day, so you can start fresh tomorrow? And that way, you won’t even want them again, because you just had them! (Logic!)
You go to the sub shop. You’ve ordered the eggplant parm, extra cheese. And at the register, you see they’ve got freshly baked peanut butter cookies. I mean, peanut butter cookies? Come on, though. How could yo—well…you feel them inconspicuously just to check the softness of their centers. God that’s soft. They’re even in those little baggies that your Nana used to use, the ones that don’t have zip tops, just fold-overs, so they’re sure to keep nothing fresh for no length of time. That’s how sure these sub shop owners must be of the fresh-bakedness of their cookies. They know they’ll sell today; that’s how good they are. You buy them. Three to a pack.
You get home. Doughnuts are long gone, because who’s kidding who? Eggplant parm: hello and goodbye, old friend. The cookies: you wait. With the patience of no one dignified, ever, you’re in the bag. One. Oh hey. Two. See you. The third leaves you lying down.
The thing about this scenario — and ones like it — is: at least one part of it is blissful. It’s a letting go, a complete relinquishing of control. In life, that feels good every once in a while. And we all know some form of submission to food. Not necessarily this story — God hopefully not this story because it’s mine from four weeks ago, damn it, but we all have food tipping points that send us sliding. Maybe for you it’s family parties, maybe it’s a certain type of food in particular — regardless, it’s there. We start and can’t stop. We think, “Well…I’ve started it. Might as well just get it all out of my system.” And that brings us to lesson 1.
Lesson 1: You can not retroactively or proactively quell a food craving
At times, when I’ve lost it, I’ve had this feeling of, “Let’s pack it all in now. Here.” It’s a warped kind of logic — one in which I lull myself into believing that once I’ve started to eat, there’s good reason to seek out all the foods that once tempted me or WILL tempt me soon. I did want carrot cake two weeks ago…Or, What if I eat the Easter candy NOW? The thinking being that by the time Easter gets here, I’ll be over it. But is anyone ever over Cadbury?
It’s a strange thing to do, mostly because, while the food does taste good overall, the particulars aren’t always what I want most in that moment, or that day. The whole thought process that informs a binge becomes less about satisfying immediate cravings and more about thinking through the list of every delicious item I once might have wanted and could possibly want in the foreseeable future. It’s a frantic, five-minutes-til-close grocery store sweep.
Why does this happen? Because binges, of course, are never going to happen again. That is what we tell ourselves every single time we overeat. We’ll never binge like this again. Maybe we’ll overeat, but no, God not like this.
We’ve got to eat it all now. (And then, never again.)
The way I began to understand the trouble with this binge mentality that wants to pack it all in was to realize that the cravings, old and new, that I thought I was satisfying? They never stopped coming. When I was sure that having pumpkin cheesecake now would stop me from wanting it in spades every day in November, I was wrong. When I thought that getting a large buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese pizza was the way to get it out of my sad system, again — I was wrong.
The next day, I wanted them. The next week, too. As much as I ever did.
If I have learned anything in my struggle with binge eating it is this: there is no such thing as fulfilling a past craving or preemptively filling a craving to come. They come whether you fill them, whenever you fill them. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t delude yourself into thinking that you could stuff your heart with love enough to plug up the void of past pain, would you? You also, then, wouldn’t dare now to think you could fill it past it’s stretching point with enough love so that you won’t ever run out, would you? Right. The heart changes. It wants different things at different times. It wants things you don’t always want it to want. Mostly good things, but also heaping gobs of outrageous, lusty things. It wants, in unrelenting ways. Sometimes less, and sometimes so much you feel needy. Desperate.
The stomach, though ruled by that heart, and its friend, the head, isn’t much different. It changes. Quickly. Often.
I’ve done this so, so many times. I’ve thought that a binge could be contained to just one day if I simply ate all that I could ever want in that one 24-hour window. I was wrong. I’ve told myself that I was just taking one day off, only to find myself, three days later, in a shame spiral the likes of which only the desperate among us have seen. I’ve failed at staying sober from the addictive pattern of food addiction — God too many times to count, because I kept telling myself that this time was the last time I’d ever eat everything all at once.
We can’t fool ourselves. We’ve got to wise up.
Lesson 2: There is no food that satisfies the deep, deep cravings
A few months ago, on a late Friday night, after hours spent drinking with friends at bars around Manhattan, I walked in my apartment, starving. Now, I know something to be very, very true of alcohol and me: No matter if I’ve just eaten a hearty dinner, once I have two drinks, I am ravenous. Just downright hungry like I’ve never been before. From what I’ve gathered, this is a common phenomenon. It happens to a lot of us. It’s part of the reason we ate nothing but pizza and calzones every Thursday through Saturday night of college. And fine, Sunday, too.
This night, though, when I got home, I had food at the ready. In my fridge already sat the leftovers of a meal I’d made the night before. Great, I thought. I ate that. Then, as I grabbed a glass for water, I decided, oh what the heck, let’s just see what other snacks I’ve got. There, in the cabinet, I found a can of frosting. Duncan Hines and I had just worked out a partnership — a plan to post about fall baking — and they’d sent me, among other spicy, warming treats, a can of cream cheese frosting.
In my heyday, this would have been something to dip pretzels into, to eat with a spoon. Just something to curl up with, really. I picked it up. Really weighed it in my hands, my head. When I’d spent a good minute with the delicious thoughts of it, I set it down again. Then I put it back into the cabinet.
Even in my tipsy state, I knew. The frosting — the whole can — it wouldn’t even be enough. When a realization like that comes to you, you’re not entirely sure if you’re happy to have it, or ashamed of its sad, searing truth.
I didn’t just want a few spoonfuls of frosting. I didn’t just want the can of it. I didn’t even just want two. I wanted, and wanted, and wanted. I just had a wanting, and that wanting — the one that I tend to try to satisfy with food — isn’t the kind that takes to getting filled up. It stays wanting. I stay wanting.
What does that say?
It says that I’m not hungry. Not for food.
If you’ve ever convinced yourself that two cupcakes will be better than one, have you ever found yourself, upon crumpling the second’s paper liner in your palms, wondering why two didn’t do what you thought it would? Do you ever finish eating like mad only to feel a still-present, still-unmet want?
If the jar of frosting, the duo of cupcakes, couldn’t fill you, left you wanting, then you know: it wasn’t ever them who could do that.
I have this wanting. So many wantings. We all do. And I grew up really believing, and still kind of believing to this day, that food is a way, the way, to satisfy desires and cravings. It has nothing to do with my logical, rational brain; it’s so deep within me that undoing it feels at times impossible. And only slowly, I am changing that. I’ve got to. You’ve got to.
We need to acknowledge the moments when the frosting just isn’t going to cut it, because I think deep down, we all have an inkling when it won’t. We know when our cravings, our desires, are just too vast to fill up on…anything. And in those cases, we’ve got to ride the wave of emotions that threaten to pummel us. They won’t. We’ve got to know that whatever harsh feelings come — they won’t last forever. So we’ll sit down on our couches, and we’ll wait out the intense cravings. Or we’ll engage with something else that we enjoy (friends, an activity); but no, we won’t eat for the sake of filling some canyon of desire that won’t even take to a day’s worth of filling. Because in the end? If we try to fill it? We won’t be full. We know this. You know it because you’ve stayed wanting; I do, too. And why? Because we weren’t hungry for food. For something else, maybe. But not for food.
Lesson 3: It’s not a binge if you don’t make it one.
People overeat every day. Every minute of every day. People of healthy weights — they’re doing it right now, even. Some woman went into work this morning and found doughnuts in the break room, and said to herself, “Oh my God, I love doughnuts! What a TREAT.” She put the oatmeal she’d packed in the fridge, got a plate, and made like a buffet. By lunchtime, she was called into the conference room for a pizza party for Linda’s birthday. Guys, there was eggplant and caramelized onions on one pie. So she had three slices, an end piece of sheet cake because she’s generally a celebrator, and then she walked back to her desk and thought about how many vacation days she had left for the year.
Her day wasn’t ruined. She might go home, still feel kind of full, and have a light dinner — who knows? She might promise herself that she’ll stick to her packed oatmeal for breakfast for the rest of the week. Or she might be happy to have had such a delicious, albeit out of the ordinary, day. But here’s what she doesn’t do: paint it all black. She doesn’t tell herself that any plans she had to be healthy are over, done, dead. She moves on. She carries on with the generally healthy life she had been living. People with solid relationships to food and their bodies get on with it.
These are people who have more gradients to their lives than black and white. They pass through a week with an off day, a non-normal breakfast, and not a bit of it spirals them into a guilty mess of crumbs and chaos. They’re not hiding wrappers under other wrappers in the trash.
Those of us who are caught in the binge net, we white knuckle it until we can’t, and when we can’t — which is absolutely inevitable in the business of white knuckling, mind you — we fall hard and fast into that abyss. We’re wrecked by imperfection. Doughnuts at breakfast have only ever meant pizza for lunch and a cheeseburger with fries for dinner. There’s restraint — discipline, we like to call it — and then there’s oblivion.
But there’s a choice there. Even in the black and white, there’s a choice.
Shifting perspective, in any capacity, is a challenge. When I wanted to begin releasing the binge eating from my life, I realized that the way I was framing what I was doing in terms of goodness and badness was the thing that was really becoming toxic. It was this moral baggage I was attaching to bingeing that was weighing me down. Eating a lot, though it was making me gain weight rapidly, wasn’t what nagged at me constantly. Don’t get me wrong, I cared about that weight, and yes, the re-gain made me feel fifty shades of failure, but that wasn’t all of it. The rest was the terrible no-goodness of it all, the self-hatred that comes along with telling yourself that you’re broken, weak-willed, and discipline-less. None of which is true, but still.
There will always be danishes in the break room and warm bread on the table. There will always be parties. Cake. Reasons someone is celebrating something, every day. And these are not things to be avoided altogether. Life — it goes on, whether or not we’re orchestrating every note. What I’ve learned in the past 8 years of weight losses, gains, and maintenance is that we’ve got to stop dwelling on what might have been the perfect actions and we’ve got to flow a little more.
This means, when we eat less than “perfectly” — when we have the unplanned Boston Cream in the morning — let’s just live the day as we’d originally planned. Let’s keep our healthy intentions in mind all the while, but allow room for life’s fun, unexpected pleasures.
And this also means that when we gain weight, let’s acknowledge that we’ve gained and get real about it — accept it as what it is: something we’d like to change — if we do, indeed, want to change it — rather than a terminal diagnosis. Let’s not ruminate on the shame of it; let’s do something and move forward. Not stay stuck and sad.
Moving on, moving forward, is the way you get unstuck. It’s also the way you lose weight mindfully without losing your mind completely. One thing Daniel always says to me is, “The time will pass anyway.” And when he says it, he means that this ride we’re on? Baby, it’s just going. We’re going to get older, we’re going to be losing weight if we’re trying, we’re going to have to do work, we’re going to be sad if we’re sad, we’re going to be dealing with a break up — and we can either drag along, leaden, through it, or we can ease up on the resistance. We can even enjoy it a little if we want.
Either way, we’re going.
Read more of my Lessons on Overcoming Emotional Eating