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.
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.
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.
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!