Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Jun

Dear Mark: Curbing Compulsive Eating

Living the Primal Blueprint is all about taking ownership of your health and everyday choices. A lot of readers tell me that once they had made the commitment and jumped in with both feet they enjoyed a sense of control and peace with both their health and physical selves that they’d missed for years. For some of us Primal types, this experience might come fairly easily. Others’ journeys require more. For those with disordered eating backgrounds, food itself (not simply food choices) is riddled with a myriad of baggage. One reader raised the issue in response to my Ask Me Anything post a couple weeks ago. A few community members weighed in with their follow up inquiries and tips, but I thought I’d take up the question for this week’s Dear Mark.

How about some ideas on how to cope with emotional and/or compulsive overeating? The standard line is “don’t keep treats and snacks around the house….” yeah, but that doesn’t stop me from overeating on primal fare. Not the worst thing that could happen but it sure is hindering my fat loss. I know you’re not a psychiatrist but any insight on this would be great.

First off, you’re obviously right that I’m not a psychiatrist or any other kind of mental health professional, and I’m clearly not going to respond as if I were one. Actually, plenty of readers bring real life challenges to me and the MDA community, and I think we all respond with practical earnestness as well as collective Primal support. That’s the spirit I’m working from today, and I imagine a whole group of folks will follow up with their own obliging comments and perspectives. That’s the nature of the MDA group. Pretty groovy in my estimation.

Compulsive eating is no small challenge, and my response includes suggestions from several angles. Let me take it apart.

Emotional Examination

Clearly, compulsive eating isn’t about enjoying your food too much. Food is simply a vehicle for playing out entangled emotional scripts. For anyone dealing with compulsive eating (or other disordered eating patterns), the most essential thing you can do for yourself is to unpack the baggage and look at in the clear light of day. (Obviously, working with a professional and/or support group like Overeater’s Anonymous or Compulsive Eater’s Anonymous can help facilitate this process.) If you can examine your basic relationship with food – the associations from your past, the ongoing triggers for compulsive eating – you’ll be able to understand the emotional underpinnings of the compulsive behavior. You’ll be more equipped to see what’s coming, head it off or talk yourself down before the compulsive force takes hold, so to speak.

Ultimately, this journey is a continual one. From what I understand, experts in the field say that recovery from compulsive eating isn’t “achieved” within a moment of emotional illumination. Although the personal introspection is crucial, recovery itself will remain a lifelong process. It’s not about an “aha! moment” but an ongoing commitment, which is why most groups like Overeaters Anonymous are based on a twelve step principle similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is to both accept your power within the moment and center yourself within it. That means taking it literally day by day, meal by meal.

Practical Strategy

First off, come up with new coping mechanisms for emotional stressors, which tend to be the biggest triggers for compulsive eating. Make your new coping strategies clear and concrete, and be sure to have some that are doable within any setting. (Having a sponsor in a support group can help you in these moments.) Take a walk, call someone, go plant something in the garden, pick up some weights, a paintbrush, or whatever it takes. Carry a rock or some worry beads with you as a physical touchstone that you can hold until you can immerse yourself in the coping diversion.

That said, I think a lot of people with compulsive eating backgrounds do over time establish specific methods for diverting their thinking to help avoid “lapses.” I’m sure our good readers can offer plenty of ideas as well. For one, imposing structure into your eating (as well as the rest of your day) can help some folks. Pack or set aside what you will eat for each meal in a day. Make it an enjoyable menu and a meaningful tradition in your day.

Along that same vein, have activities that will keep you not just busy but fulfilled in your day. Put pleasure back in your eating – and your life – as much as you can. Take up an old or wished for hobby. Get back in touch with old friends. Spend more fun time with your partner or kids.

Spiritual Dimension

Finally, some folks tell me that spiritual faith is key for their disordered eating recovery. When they can’t do it for themselves, they can tackle it for or with the help of their relationship to a higher power. Even if you don’t associate yourself with a spiritual tradition of metaphysical persuasion, there’s still meaning to be found in your experience. Eating and the preparation of food has always held a hallowed place in human life and society. Religious traditions are often centered around collective feasts and the deeper nourishment they provide to each at their table. Restore – or reclaim – the sacred in your relationship with food in whatever way you find meaning and support.

Primal community, what thoughts and suggestions do you have? Share your perspectives, ideas and questions on this issue. A thanks today to “unchatenfrance” and everyone else for the great questions. Keep ‘em coming, folks, and have a good week!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Eva hola and thanks…..Please perhaps re-read my mail.
    I did not say nor suggest that being fat was natural just that our drive to eat voraciously IS perfectly natural and i’d wager that our drives to eat whatever, now all the shite thats available, were hardwired millenia afore we became good at some level of food storage too.

    Simon Fellows wrote on June 29th, 2010
  2. For me, compulsive eating is all about the food. Not other problems. I have no desire to overeat healthy fare. The things I want to eat until I can’t breathe would be food like pizza, ben&jerry’y, Doritos, etc. So, I just don’t eat those things and Im fine.

    zach wrote on June 29th, 2010
  3. Great post; something so many people deal with! the comments are interesting to follow up on too

    Katherine wrote on June 29th, 2010
  4. Awesome post! I’m finding it’s all about the concept of intuitive eating. Which is what I’m working on in my own life. This post is definitely encouraging!

    Taylor @ Changing Habits wrote on June 30th, 2010
  5. I’m a holistic nutritionist, a personal trainer and most recently an EFT practitioner.
    I struggled with my weight since puberty. Binging/Purging and emotional overeating were a major struggle for me. Having that food/weight history is what drove me to learn about nutrition and fitness. I was always looking for the way to find peace with food and weight issues but I didn’t realize I would find it with emotional work.
    If you are struggling with food, you owe it to yourself to learn about EFT. EFT stands for the Emotional Freedom Technique, it’s sort of like an emotional version of acupuncture and it is phenomenal at helping people identify and release the REAL reasons that they don’t honor a commitment to themselves. You can learn the technique for free, just look up EFT, there are TONS of resources on the web. My website has a free teleseminar on using EFT for food and weight issues.
    Any addiction is driven by some type of anxiety and EFT is the fastest, easiest and most powerful tool I’ve ever found to release that anxiety. You can also use it to quickly dissolve food cravings as well. EFT has changed my life and the lives of many of my clients.

    Ellie wrote on June 30th, 2010
  6. I can highly recommend Overeaters Anonymous, and I’m thrilled to see Mark include OA at the top of his post. Over 20+ years, I’ve tried everything short of having my jaw wired shut. OA beats everything, hands down (including the two $150/hr. eating disorder therapists I’ve seen). OA saves lives. OA gives people their lives back. (I should mention that OA is for anybody who is a slave to food — anorexics and bulimics also attend.)

    As mentioned by another poster, Geneen Roth’s books are also fantastic and helpful. But nothing beats having a wise 12-step sponsor who loves you and looks out for you that you can call while pulled over on the side of the road (which I have done!).

    Primal eating (and certain supplements [amino acids, 5-HTP, fish oil]) help tremendously for the very real physical/biochemical aspects of this disease, but that’s only part of the picture.

    Honestly, I am pleasantly surprised how spot-on Mark Sisson is in this post. “Normies” usually don’t get it. But Mark does.

    go_ginger_go wrote on July 1st, 2010
  7. I have been a compulsive overeater since as long as I could remember. I believe this behavior was borne partly out of a sugar addiction. Since I began the pd I would say that the co is 70% gone. I have noticed that all of the foods that I would binge on in the past are carb-heavy: ice cream, cookies, chips, etc. Now that I have eliminated them and they are not an option anymore the overeating has declined dramatically. I still sometime overeat on paleo foods but not nearly with the severity or frequency that I did on the starchy fare.
    It’s a huge improvement. I am a work in progress, and hopefully there will be a day when I can leave this disorganized way of eating behind me for good.

    Daisy wrote on July 9th, 2010
  8. I think this is a great post. I’m really glad to see Mark cover this topic. There are SO many people out there that feel they are alone in dealing with this. Obviously, (proof from these comments) this is not the case.

    Taylor wrote on July 9th, 2010
  9. For anyone who has issues with compulsive eating and/or food addictions, I highly recommend the book “The end of overeating: taking control of the insatiable North American appetite,” by David Kessler.

    This book goes into great detail to explain the addictive properties of various foods (especially highly processed junk foods), and how the food industry and changes in societal norms lead us to overeat.

    The book is mostly a summary of various research studies; thus, it doesn’t offer too much in the way of suggestions on how to curb these addictions and compulsions. That said, the suggestions it does offer are practical, easy to implement, and will appeal to the pragmatist. And knowledge is power. For me, just having a complete understanding of how I have been manipulated was enough to “reason myself” out of my junk food binges (for six weeks and counting!).

    Carli wrote on July 12th, 2010
  10. I’m starting to accept the fact that I have an emotional eating problem. Recently, I decided to do the Whole30. I was doing great for two days. Then I became stressed over life things: busy schedule/overlapping meetings/my missing cat/ a fight with my partner, and fell heavily off the wagon. And I mean OFF. For two days now, I have been eating ice cream, cookies, battered fish, french fries, and I feel like absolute crap.

    How much damage did I do to myself?

    It’s difficult because I don’t look like an overeater. I’m about ten pounds overweight, and desperate to fit into my old jeans. However, I carry all my weight in my curves. I’m told that I look curvaceous and womanly. My obsession with my body, however, won’t let me take that compliment. I know I could be healthier, and I know I could be thinner.

    I feel just awful about falling off the wagon. If I weren’t in the middle of my work day, I would probably be in tears over it.

    Any suggestions?

    Stephani wrote on October 4th, 2011
  11. Hi Stephani,
    I know exactly how you feel. Don’t worry, you haven’t done that much damage to yourself, just get back on track with your next meal and don’t wallow in guilt.
    Having so much emotion and obsession about food and your body is a horrible way to live. I know because I lived through it myself for many years.
    Although I love Mark and the primal way of eating, it too can lead to obsessive food behaviours that are limiting and can have a negative impact on your life.
    It’s just food, for goodness sake, it’s not worth getting this upset over, and let me tell you, that advice comes from years of struggling with food. I’m now a holistic nutritionist, sports nutritionist and personal trainer. I work with people all the time on overcoming the emotional ties of food and poor body image. I’d be happy to help you if you’d like to chat on Skype sometime…I live to serve. :) You can email me at if you’d like to chat (no charge of course).

    Ellie wrote on October 5th, 2011
  12. Ellie, I’m going to look into to EFT. It sounds like something that will really help me. I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with food for years. It’s been better since I went primal a few months ago, but I do agree with you, Ellie, for those of us who obsess over food, it can sometimes exacerbate the problem.

    That said, I’m rarely overeating processed/high sugar foods anymore, but I do find myself overeating primally with spoonfulls of nut butters, protein bars, and dark chocolate bars. I started taking amino acid supplements -GABA and Glutamine- a few days ago and it seems to be helping. Dinner at 7:30pm was the last thing to enter my mouth before bed at 11pm the other night. That hasn’t happened in years! Night-time has always been the most difficult.

    Also, after reading some in Gary Null’s Food-Mind-Body Connection, I plan on taking liquid zinc as soon as possible.

    Thoughts on supplementation?

    ArruliaGreen wrote on October 16th, 2011
  13. I know it has been years since anyone has posted on this thread. I was a bit surprised that binge eating doesn’t come up in more threads. I have had a lot of success with the Paleo lifestyle in the last month or so. I switched because I wanted to feel better physically. I noticed that it also helped me feel better emotionally too. I do not have a weight problem. However, I am a sugar addict. It’s definitely a soothing drug to me. Today is the first horrible day since turning Paleo. It started with a huge Sushi dinner three days ago with a lot of Saki. Today I ate three donuts, a small bag of oreos and a croissant. This was in addition to a great paleo lunch with a great salad and grilled salmon. Now I feel terrible both physically and emotionally. This all happened while I was at work feeling depressed. Hopefully, tomorrow will be better.

    BV wrote on March 19th, 2013

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