Compulsive eating can be likened to a habit, and a recent shopping expedition with a friend highlighted some major differences in our eating habits—not just relative to what we eat but in how we go about consuming. Mind you, this friend aspires to follow a high-nutrient diet style but continues a decades-long struggle with—you guessed it—sugar, salt, and fat.
Our outing began with John’s arrival at my place. He exited his grey Scion munching a greasy bag of popcorn (compulsive eating habit #1: eating while standing, walking, or driving).
“You’ve been to the hardware store [where free popcorn is dispensed on Saturdays],” I teased him as we settled into my Miata.
“Uh huh,” he grunted with a final mouthful of salty, hydrogenated, puffed corn.
As he finished off the bag and we pulled out of the driveway, he reached around and magically produced a second bag and resumed his contented munching.
I was surprised—not one but two bags of what amounted to salted, buttered, fried corn, and it was only 11:00 a.m.!
“What’d you have for breakfast?” I inquired.
“Oats and frozen organic black berries and walnuts,” he responded, proudly. Rule out hunger as a reason for his snacking.
Where did he go wrong?
If you’re like most, your answer might be something like, “He shouldn’t have eaten the popcorn.” Or maybe, “He should’ve gotten just one bag.”
But I disagree. Having studied behavioral economics (the science of why we do what we do) and worked with people for years (myself included!) on dietary change, I have learned that attempting to control what you put in your mouth is an arrant waste of time and energy. Your instinctual hunger drive is an inexhaustible force too strong to overcome. No, you cannot control what you eat, but you CAN control other behaviors around food. And exercising control over those behaviors will build discipline which will, over time, result in the termination of your compulsive eating habit.
So while millions of years of evolution had usurped John’s rational decision-making ability, he could have taken back some control by deciding to eat the popcorn while seated (and not driving). That’s right, he could just sit there in the car eating popcorn, slowly savoring each bite.
Do you think he would’ve eaten his way through two bags in this manner?
Wait, there’s more
Our first stop in town was at T.J. Maxx, where my shopping companion impulsively picked up a discounted jar of salted and peppered Virginia peanuts.
“I’ve never had salted and peppered peanuts,” John commented at the check-out. Walking across the parking lot, he pulled off the vacuum-sealed foil lid and resumed his methodical, mindless munching. By the time we reached the car, at least half of the 8 oz. tin of Virginia legumes had disappeared down his gullet.
You may have surmised from the preceding popcorn incident that one of my rules for switching to a high-nutrient diet is to eat only while seated (and not driving). This guideline would have served John well here because it’s doubtful that he would’ve put away half a tin of salty nuts while sitting quietly on a bench outside a discount department store. In fact, he might not have even bought them in the first place, had he been committed to adhering to a few rules governing food behaviors.
New Internal Dialogue
Under these new guidelines, here’s how the internal dialogue might have sounded, “Mmmm, those look good. I think I’ll try them. Oh, but I have to find a place to sit to eat them. Then I could eat all I want, but what I really want is to walk around eating them mindlessly. If I can’t do that, they’re not worth it.”
What happens when you make a healthy food plan but allow yourself to eat whatever you want—under certain conditions—is that, over time, you begin to realize that gnoshing a family sized bag of BBQ potato chips isn’t really that much fun when you do it while seated and without distraction (that’s right, no TV or Netflix). And when you’re fully committed to sticking to the rules, when you follow through no matter what, you start to build discipline, and choosing fruits/veggies/beans/seeds over steak/potatoes/sushi/donuts becomes much easier.
Right now, commit to eating nutrient-poor nutriment only while seated and without distraction. Go ahead and give yourself permission to eat it if you really want it but only with your booty glued to a chair and with your entire attention focused on taste and texture sensations.
Check out Caroline’s 4-part compulsive eating program here.