I spent many years as a chronic overeater, sometimes enjoying every bite while licking my chops, and other times ready to jump over a bridge after the evil episode because I felt so stuffed to the edge. I struggled with it, hated myself, loved my food and everything in between. And I gained quite a bit of weight in the process.
Now even though I didn’t realize there was actually a distinction back then, I was also a severe binge eater. After diving deeper into the study of Eating Psychology, and working with many clients who struggle with both, I have since learned that there is a very big difference between overeating and binge eating. My binge eating experiences were clearly driven by something much more internal with a “ my soul is crying” sort of overtone to it. And the driving factor that always distinguished my binges from the behavioral action of overeating was compulsion.
Ahhh… just that word, compulsion, carries a lot of weight.
Compulsion, in relation to a binge, is a feeling that you must start, cannot stop, will not stop, and will have to grossly indulge in food to survive the moment. It is way heavier than any one of the four categories of overeating I will describe below. For me, binges were defined by the feeling that something was overtaking my rational brain and I compulsively needed to keep eating to either avoid a feeling I did not want to feel or simply slip into a slightly altered state of consciousness than the one I was currently in, which was often accomplished with a football field worth of sugar.
Overeating is different, but before I define what the four levels of overeating are, let’s define overeating!
Simply put, it is the belief that “I eat too much.” This is a big, wide-open belief that leaves much room for interpretation. However, subjectively it describes the person who will freely say, “I can’t control my appetite,” or “I have a willpower problem,” or “I love the food so much I have to eat every bite,” or just simply, “I’m an overeater.”
Now the fascinating part that I see universally, whether I’m working with a mom of three, a corporate executive or a movie actress is that not everyone who calls themselves an overeater is actually one! Meaning, they don’t actually “eat too much.” Why? Well sometimes people are programmed to believe that an unusually small amount of food is considered normal and sufficient. This may be because they were raised in a family that fostered the message of “don’t eat too much or you will get fat.” I have also seen people label themselves falsely as overeaters solely because they are a slave to diet mentality. For example, I had a client who labeled herself as a troubled overeater because she sometimes ate 1/3 of a chocolate bar. Well 1/3 of a bar is not necessarily “too much,” but because this food was very strongly on her bad list to always be avoided, it turned into, “I just overate.”
So we have those who think they are overeaters, but really aren’t.
And then we have those who are truly eating too much, as defined by bodily evidence to prove that they are (i.e. gaining weight, digestive problems, etc). But my friends I have never met anyone who is a bona fide, diagnosed overeater. This is not a disease we find in the medical books! An overeater is simply a person stuck in a behavioral pattern. That behavior could be driven by varying degrees of underlying psychology, and still is just a behavioral pattern.
So after working with many different types of overeaters, I have found that most people fall into one of four categories / situations. If you resonate with thinking that you are indeed an overeater, you may find that you repeat the pattern of one of these situations, or fluctuate between a few.
The Four Overeating Categories / Situations:
1. Social Overeater.
You are dining with others, aware you have reached your “satisfaction” point and are getting full, but you just keep eating anyway. Others around you are still eating and you enjoy continuing to eat with them. You may be caught up in the social experience or habit of finishing your plate because it is there in front of you.
2. Mind Is Checked Out
You may be watching TV, on autopilot, distracted or bored. What defines this category is that you are very disconnected with your body’s cues and not present with any stage of eating while it is happening.
3. Emotional Response
This is what we commonly understand as “emotional eating.” There is a feeling you don’t want to feel, or are starting to feel, and you attempt to curb or cover that feeling with food. Usually too much food.
4. Strong Cravings
You feel a strong craving, or biological pull, to eat a certain food that may not be understandable or explainable. It feels hard to just eat a small portion of this food, so you eat way more than what satisfies your hunger. This category can also include those who self-label as, “I just have a big appetite.”
None of these categories are labels for you as a person; they are only labels for the overeating experience itself.
Yet, for many of these situations, I hear people claim that they have a willpower problem, or are hopeless around food, or are forever condemned to be a diagnosed overeater. Not true!
The first, and very important powerful step to shifting a pattern of overeating, is to simply classify which overeating situation you feel your eating experience falls into. Once you know this, you can approach the pattern so much more effectively because working with a social overeating situation requires a much different approach than transforming emotional eating. We tend to lump them all in the same category – and even worse – label ourselves – which is the opposite of the space we want to be in to forever transform overeating into pleasurable eating experiences that stop when we are genuinely satisfied.
So if you feel stuck in the label of “Overeater,” please know this is not a life-long sentence! Overeating is just one of the many eating patterns that offers a beautiful window into our relationship with self, and transforming this behavioral pattern can be more interesting, satisfying, and dare I say fun, than you may have imagined.
Cynthia is a pioneering relationship with food expert, national speaker and business coach for emerging practitioners. She worked closely with Marc David to help launch IPE, is a proud alumni, and co-taught IPE’s Signature Workshop with Marc. She offers a ground-breaking model for showing people how to profoundly transform their relationship with food – with flair – via one-to-one clients and group programs.
Learn more at EatEmpowered.com