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The Common Mistake of Trying to “Gain Control” Over Food

Overcoming binge-eating
is not about “getting control” over your food,
but about realizing—
that “control” is a figment of your imagination.

meditation in chaos

Our pursuit of “control,”

based on the very false assumption that we can make our food go our way if we just try hard enough,

is the product of truly delusional thinking, 

considering the infinite and unknowable universe in which we live.  

Let’s be real—

We are NOT in control of our body’s needs in any given moment,

We are NOT in control of our emotional needs in any given moment,

And despite what many self-help gurus might suggest,

We are NOT in control of our every reaction to triggering, environmental stimuli. 

We are only human,

and denying or trying to change this fundamental reality, 

is a sucker’s game—leading only to frustration, rebellion, and evermore compulsive behavior.

Contrary to the suggestion of every diet book ever, 

sanity around food will NOT be afforded to those who tirelessly try to gain control— 

the pursuit of which is a never-ending hamster-wheel leading only to dead-ends and rebellious outbursts,  

but rather,

sanity will be afforded to those who make peace with and accept
our fundamental out-of-control-ness,

to those who can ride the waves
of uncertainty, of messiness, of human error,

to those who can sit in food-chaos, and find okay-ness. 

Can’t self-soothe instead of eating?

coachingSmall1Q: Hi Isabel! I read your coaching emails periodically and have been introduced to [fill-in-the-blank “non-diet” approach] for some time now. I’ve worked with many professionals to try to change my behaviors, and I would say I have all the tools I need to stop overeating/binge eating. BUT when I’m in the thick of it, all that goes out the door and I feel like I actively choose to continue or start eating instead of using my skills. I want the easy way out and I’m having a really hard time doing the work, because… well…. it feels like work. I want so badly to change my behavior, but I’m feeling super frustrated. 

So, the first word that jumps out at me in this question is the word “instead;”

It sounds like you’re trying to “take a warm bath instead of eating,” or are trying to replace emotional eating with some other “superior” coping mechanism.

This strategy (the “do-XYZ-instead-of-eating-strategy”) usually doesn’t work long-term…likely because it’s inherently restrictive, and relies on willpower to work.

Willpower rarely overcomes emotional or binge-eating urges longterm, especially when we’re dealing with emotional stressors or fatigue, which weaken our resolve.

Additionally, when you tell yourself not to do something (e.g. “don’t eat emotionally—do something else instead!”), food often becomes more seductive…like a lover you can’t have, or the toy you’re not supposed to touch—resisting it just makes you more obsessed.

So, first off, eliminate the word “instead” from your attempts at self-care. When we aim to take an action instead of eating, the implication is that emotional eating is wrong, not allowed, or otherwise not a valid choice. We’re effectively on the “don’t-eat-emotionally diet,” which ironically makes food more tempting.

INSTEAD (lol), can you try practicing your new self-care skills without making yourself wrong for eating emotionally as well? Believe it or not, journaling still counts as self-care even if you also eat a cookie—and in the long run, self-care practice WILL make you less dependent on emotional eating, even if right now you still want/need the food sometimes. More on this here…

Second,

It’s important to realize that ending binge-eating permanently is not something one does by making the “right” choices in the moment, but rather, is a natural result of a profound shift in thinking around food—away from dieting and towards food and weight neutrality. 

What really sticks out to me about your use of the word “instead” in this question, is that it signifies whatever shreds of diet-mentality you’re still holding on to (e.g. the belief that self-care skills should be used to help you resist food, rather than just enjoyed in and of themselves because they make you feel good!)

As long as you’re trying to resist or control food (even emotional eating), you’re probably gonna keep bingeing in rebellion. You’ll be much better off practicing self-care skills in the context of emotional allowance around emotional eating—

since resistance is what turns one cookie when you’re lonelyinto ten cookies, because, “fuck, I fell off the wagon…

Want to read more answers from Isabel? Sign up for weekly Coaching Emails here! (They’re free). 

Trying to “gain control” of your food? Roll with the punches instead.

There is a myth that overcoming binge-eating is about “gaining control,” 
or that being “out of control” is the problem to be solved. 

This myth encourages people to grasp for control in any way they can think of—
restricting, dieting, trying the new this or the new that; 
anything that affords us the illusion of certainty,
the illusion of
“this time I’ve got it,”
the illusion of
“this time things will go my way.”

But this way of thinking about food is a trap; 

when things inevitably don’t go our way,
when something unforeseen or out of our control
hits us in the face and affects our food,
we binge—
unwilling or not knowing how
to roll with the punches.

Considering the wide array of factors that affect our eating,
(things like instincts, hormones, emotions, environmental triggers)
it’s safe to say that full control over our food is unlikely. 

But we can learn to roll with the punches. 

Overcoming binge-eating is not about “gaining control,”
but about being able to work with and adapt to 
our fundamental out-of-control-ness.

Changing Behaviors vs. Changing Ideologies (the core of the Non-Diet Approach)

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

When we focus on trying to change our behaviors, 

like when we try “not to binge,”
or try “not to eat emotionally,”
or try to “do the right thing” with food,

we are left frustrated, confused, and depleted—constantly faced with new circumstances and new situations, where we “don’t know what to do,” or are simply unable to do what we think we “should.”

On the flip side,
when we focus on changing our attitudes around food and weight—
when we focus on shifting our beliefs, our values, our underlying ideology, 

away from diet mentality and food-related moral judgements,
away from weight biases, and other beliefs that give food power in our lives,

we always know what to do—

food decisions of all kinds become relatively simple and effortless, once we have made an underlying ideological shift — towards body-positivity and weight neutrality; towards compassion, acceptance, and self-care.

Click here to view the video series.