Overeating: An Emotional Journey

Marion always thought she was fat. She wasn’t, but every time she looked in the mirror the critiques of her teenage body began.

“You shouldn’t be wearing those jeans. They make your hips look huge.”

“Your stomach looks like a spare tire.”

“Oh my gosh. Do you have cellulite already?!”

It was easy, too easy, to pick her body apart. It didn’t help that Marion’s Scandinavian roots fueled her food obsession. “If I love you, I feed you; that’s how our ‘good Norwegian family’ operated,” says Marion. For years Marion “managed her weight” by starving herself. Whenever she felt heavy, she’d simply stop eating and the pounds would disappear.

Then came her second child and so did permanent extra weight. Her previous plan of deprivation no longer worked, and that’s when panic set in. Marion had spent so many years controlling her weight that way, so when it failed, her sense of power over food was gone. “Once I ate one thing, I felt like I failed. I blew it. So I’d keep eating and eating and eating,” she explains. “Pretty soon it was, ‘Today is shot, this week is shot, this month is shot.’ That’s what I used to tell myself.”

The year was 1983. Marion was 42 years old. That’s when she walked into her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Now in her 70s, Marion is anonymously sharing her story in the hope she can help other people struggling with holiday eating when food is an addiction or obsession, like it was for her.

Man eating cakeThe Secret Life of an Overeater

Food obsession and/or addiction can be triggered, and manifest itself, in many ways, says Dr. Kim LaHaise, a psychologist with Sanford Health who specializes in eating disorders. Some of the most common signs of disordered eating are:

• A persistent, strong fear of minor weight gain

• Following strict food rules

• Use of diet pills or laxatives

• Extreme calorie restriction (starvation)

• Bingeing and/or vomiting

• Over-exercising

• Constantly thinking about food

• Eating the same ‘safe’ foods every day

Sometimes disordered eating behaviors look the same as eating disorders, but to be diagnosed as an eating disorder, the behaviors need to be present for a certain amount of time. LaHaise says people who exhibit disordered eating behaviors are more likely to develop an eating disorder, but not all disordered eating habits escalate into an eating disorder.

Nadine Hillesheim, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center with over 20 years of experience working with people with eating disorders, explains it another way. “If you are spending large percentages of your day thinking about food, what you are going to eat or what you just ate, and feeling bad about what you ate or your body image, you have a problem and need some help,” she says.

Researchers don’t know exactly why food obsession happens. “They’re always doing research on neurotransmitters and genetics and a person’s environment, but it’s still a really complex phenomenon,” says LaHaise. Experts agree, however, on two main reasons that lead some people to struggle with food:

• They want to look like the models and actors they see in the media. This is particularly true for girls and women who are shown that the standard of beauty is to be quite thin.

• They try to manage their emotions and control their stress and anxiety levels with food.

Overeaters, in particular, are prone to compulsive eating triggered by emotions. That’s why the mix of bountiful food and stress during the holidays is a recipe for disaster for many people, explains Marion. “My mind would constantly be screaming about food, and it only got worse during the holidays. Christmas work parties were the worst. You’re expected to be there, but it’s just stuffed with food. As soon as I’d walk in the door, I’d want to get out of there. But I felt trapped. I felt so unsafe around all that food. Finally, I got to the point where I’d starve myself all day so when I got there I could eat, eat, eat!”

The anxiety about holiday eating can begin weeks or months in advance. Everyone knows holiday food is special; it only comes around once a year and you want to indulge in those familiar, tasty treats. LaHaise says one of the major problems for people with disordered eating habits during this time of the year is the desire to relax, but knowing you can’t. “The tough part is wanting to let your guard down, but knowing with food you can only do that so much,” she says. “People feel if they let down too loosely, then the cycle of guilt and disappointment begins again.”

Tips to Avoid Overeating During the Holidays
By Patricia Carlson

Office parties. Potluck dinners. Church suppers. Baking get-togethers. BUFFETS!!!

Eating during the holidays can be tricky for someone with even the healthiest habits. These tips will help you stay on track:

Make a plan. Heading to a restaurant? Check out its menu online first so you know what to order. Office party next week? Take a look at the sign-up sheet to get a feel for what’s on tap, and offer to bring something you know is good for you. Feeling prepared is half the battle.

Eat regularly scheduled meals and snacks. Although it’s tempting, skipping meals and snacks to “save calories” will often cause you to overeat. Treat the holiday gathering as one of your regular meals, not as a special event.

Move away from food central. It’s easy to engage in mindless nibbling at holiday parties. Instead, serve yourself once and then go to another room to eat.

Keep up with your exercise habits. This is healthy for more reasons than just combatting holiday eating.

Tell yourself you’re doing a good job. “Self-affirmation is huge,” says Kari Thompson, Health Fitness Specialist and Certified Profile Coach, Sanford Health. “Saying something like, ‘I am in control of my thoughts, feelings, and actions,’ can help you make good decisions.”

Drink plenty of water and eliminate empty calories from alcohol, punches, and sodas. 

Scan the buffet table first so you’ll know what’s being offered. Choose vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. If you absolutely MUST HAVE Grandma’s sausage stuffing and garlic mashed potatoes, keep portions small.

Don’t try for perfection. Bestselling emotional eating author Geneen Roth wrote in Good Housekeeping to “…do the best you can within your limits and let the rest take care of itself.” If you have trouble sticking to your plan, don’t use it as an excuse to throw in the towel. You can start eating well again the moment you decide to.

Practice acceptance. This may sound counter-intuitive, but Nadine Hillesheim, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center, says if we can accept where we are now, while knowing we are doing what we can to change, we are less likely to overeat. “It is the impatience, frustration, and anger at ourselves that often leads to more overeating,” she says. “Whereas acceptance can help us approach the tough times with more inner calm, resulting in better choices.”

Who is an Overeater?

Obesity is the fastest growing healthcare problem in the world and the one that has the most negative impact to people’s general health. Roughly 30 percent of people in America are considered morbidly obese. “Given its association to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sleep apnea, and other medical conditions, obesity results in low quality of life and shorter life expectancy. Its fast growth and difficulty treating makes obesity the biggest healthcare challenge of our times,” says Dr. Luis Garcia, a weight loss surgeon at Sanford Health.

Since its first meeting in 1960 in Los Angeles, Overeaters Anonymous (OA) has been committed to helping compulsive eaters change their behaviors. OA is a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that helps people recover from compulsive eating. It provides physical, emotional, and spiritual guidance to more than 54,000 members in over 75 countries. There are three locations of OA meetings in Fargo-Moorhead, and many others in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota. Members come in all sizes: morbidly obese, average weight, underweight, and moderately overweight.

According to a membership survey, people in the program are:

• Well-educated–32% hold a graduate or postgraduate degree

• Longtime sufferers–41% started to have issues with food by age 10

• Compulsive eaters–95% struggle with overeating

• Married and female–48% have spouses; 87% are women

• Committed to treatment–74% received some other type of treatment before attending meetings

• Successful–69% have lost weight since coming to OA.

Marion says many of the people she’s met through OA have become members after trying, and failing, at everything else. The average size of a meeting in Fargo-Moorhead is eight to 15 people. There used to be as many as 70 people per meeting when Marion first started going in the early 1980s. “I feel, personally, it’s because there weren’t any other options for people back then. There are so many other things available like healthcare places and clinics now for people to turn to,” says Marion.

Overeaters Anonymous isn’t a quick fix diet, though. Marion says some people come into OA thinking it will be just like another diet program, but they soon learn it’s much more than that and requires a bigger emotional commitment. OA expects members to confront and tackle the emotional baggage that triggers their compulsive eating. Marion remembers newcomers being very nervous, emotional, and scared. The most successful members get a sponsor—similar to the support structure in AA.

“Many of us trained ourselves to think if we gained weight, we were a bad person and if we lost weight, we were a good person,” she says. “But in OA we learned to not talk so much in terms of losses and gains. There is so much other stuff that’s more important. Your weight and eating is a side effect to something else. That’s what we try to figure out, so we can handle life better.”

Hillesheim says, “Gaining skills that help you manage your emotions and develop self-acceptance are often at the core of lasting weight loss.”

Often, though, folks dealing with morbid obesity need extra help overcoming their compulsive overeating habits. Weight loss surgeries like gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, and the “band” are all increasingly popular options for people who feel they need medical intervention. All of these surgeries are performed laparoscopically so they are safer, faster, and minimally invasive. Garcia says his group at Sanford Health performs between 350 and 400 surgeries a year.

Patients who want these surgeries, however, must go through a rigorous evaluation and educational process that includes, but is not limited to, psychological counseling, dietary education, and exercise programs. “Patients need to recognize that surgery will not cure obesity, but rather will offer a tool to help them make the necessary changes to lose significant weight. Surgery is not an ‘easy out,’” says Garcia.

Hillesheim agrees. “Even after surgery, people still need to cope with life’s disappointments or difficult emotions. They need to find ways to cope other than food.”

How to Help an Overeater During the Holidays

Most people struggling with disordered eating keep it a secret. A tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and embarrassment accompanies the behaviors. If someone does confide in you, there are several things you can do to help them navigate the holidays (and the rest of the year, too).

• Support them. This can be an obsession, addiction, or eating disorder. You may not understand right away how severe their problem is. Ask them questions about what type of support they’d like from you. Consider attending an OA meeting together if they’re a member.

• Don’t minimize the issue. “One of the worst things that people say to me is, ‘One won’t hurt.’ Well, one will hurt me,” explains Marion.

• Offer to host or coordinate the family gathering, office potluck, or other holiday party. That way you can make mindful decisions about offering at least a couple of healthy options.

• Become a workout buddy. If exercise is an important part of their recovery, join in.

Like many compulsive eaters and people with other disordered eating behaviors, Marion knows her journey with food will last her lifetime. Even though she still considers herself overweight, she’s managed to find a way to make the right decisions—even during the holidays. “Food is not that important to me now. It doesn’t control me. At OA, I learned to follow the 12 steps and I’m much more emotionally balanced. My life is so much better now.”

Formerly from Fargo-Moorhead, freelance writer Patricia Carlson writes about baby boomers, parenting, and healthy lifestyles for magazines across the country. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.

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