By Zara Zareen
If you struggle with compulsive overeating, I want you to know that I can relate.
My own food addiction started early. I was a child when I started self-soothing with chocolate. I hoarded toffees and mint imperials.
On weekends, I’d wake up at six in the morning. While my parents and brother were sleeping, I’d devour an entire 150g jumbo pack of cheese and chive crisps.
Fast forward into adulthood. At this point, I’d been binge-eating for years — long enough to know that gorging on family-sized Galaxy bars is a fleeting, ineffective method of emotion-regulation.
And yet there I found myself, at twenty-three years of age, secretly scoffing whole pizzas multiple week nights in a row. De-stressing almost daily after my desk job with blondie-brownie ice cream. Seeking consolation in triple-chocolate-chip cookies.
Meanwhile, my waistline was expanding at an unprecedented rate.
Whatever I was craving deep down — I knew it wasn’t something edible. But the force of habit had enslaved my body. I was trapped in a mindless loop.
The vicious cycle
The vicious cycle goes something like this. The first few bites of junk food are always delectable.
We all know the sigh and the softening that follows a dopamine spike. I’d feel my body relaxing into the sugar rush, as sweetly as the dollop of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra Core melting into oblivion on my tongue.
However, with each urgent spoonful, satisfaction became increasingly elusive. I’d keep eating. And eating. And eating.
Even on the verge of vomiting, I’d stuff myself because I still felt lacking.
I was so full, and yet so empty.
I would comfort-eat until my emotional heartache became palpable physical heartburn. But food never really cured my inner sadness. It only temporarily dulled it.
At some point, I’d finish — sluggish, bloated, and disgusted at my overindulgence. My chest and stomach searing, I’d scrape the bottom of the ice cream container, searching for something that wasn’t there.
“That’s it,” I’d tell myself. “I’m never eating junk food again.”
A few hours later, when the nausea and the acrid taste in my throat subsided, I’d start craving my next hit.
If I was very lucky, several days might pass — a couple of weeks at most. Then I’d cave in to my desires, feel gross all over again… and for the millionth time, I’d swear off the sweet stuff forever.
My resolve never lasted.
I kept up this exercise in futility until, eventually, the scale read 163lbs. I’m a short woman, just about 4’11″, and I’d reached the highest weight I’d ever been in my life.
My BMI put me in the ‘obese’ category. Formerly baggy clothes felt tight.
I was frustrated, exhausted… And as much as I wanted it to, food wasn’t making me happy.
I knew that something needed to change.
Breaking the vicious cycle
Over the past ten months, I’ve lost more than 20% of my body weight.
The number on the scale has dropped from 163lbs to 128lbs.
So far, I’ve lost 35lbs in total, and I’m just 5lbs away from a healthy BMI.
Ideally, I’d like to lose at least 10lbs more, because my ethnic background puts me at an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, even at a lower body weight.
My journey isn’t over yet.
Nevertheless, for the first time in my life, I feel proud to have taken responsibility for my body.
I’ve stuck to a long-term plan of looking after my health, instead of naively engaging in short-lived, dangerous crash diets.
Here are the three most important lifestyle changes which have helped me lose weight AND conquer my binge-eating tendencies.
I started using a mobile calorie calculator to monitor and regulate my calorie intake.
I know that not everybody likes to calorie count, but personally I love it.
For me, it has taken the guesswork out of weight loss, and put everything I eat into back into context.
When I was binge-eating, I didn’t think about what I was consuming, or how much — I just followed my impulses in the moment.
After a binge, feeling queasy and overwhelmed by guilt, I’d vow never to eat anything fatty or sugary again — not even a tiny morsel.
Sooner or later, though, I’d slip up. And you know how I punished myself for giving in and eating those so-called ‘bad’ foods? Yep… I stuffed myself with more of them.
This led to a shame-inducing and ultimately compulsion-driven relationship with food. Highly restrictive eating, in which I deemed entire food groups completely and permanently off limits, simply did not work for me in the long term.
Here’s an example which illustrates how disparaging my mental dialogue used to be:
“You ate a chocolate bar? You’re so greedy. Forget your diet! You’re screwed! You might as well eat ten chocolate bars now and try to restart your ‘healthy eating’ again next week.”
Of course, restarting my ‘healthy eating’ never worked because every time I ate something I considered off-limits, I branded myself a failure. And then I ate more of it.
On the other hand, now that I calorie-count, I allow myself measured, considered portions of all food types. When eating dessert is a deliberate decision, it no longer spells defeat — because I’ve calculated beforehand what its impact is going to be. I recognise what a small indulgence means in the grand scheme of things, and I understand that I don’t need to berate myself if I partake in it.
Recently, my mental dialogue sounds much more like this:
“You want to eat this chocolate bar? Okay, let’s check the calories… Alright then. You can fit one in today. Just make sure you don’t eat ten of them!”
Calorie counting has helped me take a more flexible approach to my diet. By comparing my actual calorie intake to target calorie intake, I know exactly when I’ve eaten too much, and when I can afford to enjoy that slice of cheesecake.
I’ve dispelled my irrational notion that I must be messing up my whole life if I choose to have a scoop of sorbet after an otherwise balanced, nutrient-dense meal.
I’ve come to learn that eating one doughnut isn’t an apocalyptic sign that I should give up and guzzle everything in the kitchen, because the numbers are clearly telling me it’s not a big deal.
Since I started calorie-counting, I take comfort in the fact that I haven’t ‘failed at my diet’ because there is no ‘diet’ to fail at. I’m eating in a flexible way which allows for treat foods in moderation. As long as I’m regulating my overall calorie intake, and ensuring that the majority of my daily allowance is spent on satiating foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein — I should be able to carry on eating like this, comfortably, for the rest of my life.
In short, I don’t go into meltdown anymore. I can make calm, logical decisions about what to put in my mouth, because I’m not plagued by exaggerated fears about the impact of any one food choice in isolation.
If you’d like an estimate of how many calories you burn in a day (everybody’s different!), an online calculator like this one is a good place to start. To lose weight, try to consume less calories than your body burns in an average day.
I turned my commute to work into an exercise opportunity.
I’m no athlete, and I’ve never enjoyed competitive sport.
However, I have to travel to work. I have to travel back home. Using my commute as exercise time is therefore the most efficient way to ensure that I will exercise every day. Going to the gym takes willpower, but I certainly don’t need willpower to leave the office at the end of a long day and make my way back home!
I keep my exercise routine simple. I just walk to and from work instead of taking the bus. Sometimes I use the walk to meditate and clear my head. At other times, I educate myself by listening to audiobooks. Often I opt for music if I want to de-stress.
The shortest route from my workplace to my house is 2.5 miles one-way. Therefore, even if I leave work feeling grumpy or craving comfort food, the moderately lengthy walk home releases endorphins, and my state of mind has improved by the time I get through my own front door.
At that stage, I’m better equipped to address any negative feelings instead of reaching for edibles to numb them.
Don’t underestimate the power of walking as a mode of exercise, either. I’ve gotten faster and fitter over these past ten months.
The average walk time from my home to my workplace is 50 minutes, according to Google Maps. That’s how long it took me to complete the route when I first started walking, too — but now I can cover the same distance in 40 minutes. Not bad for a 4’11” lady with shorter than average legs!
Instead of automatically eating when I’m distressed, I now look for other ways to cope with difficult emotions.
In May 2018, my partner at the time broke up with me suddenly. He ended our seven-month relationship with no explanation. That summer, I went for runs around the local park instead of using food to soothe myself.
Although I don’t run regularly any more (these days I prefer to walk), at that particular point in my life running was one of the best choices I made for my healing and my sense of self-worth. I decided that I was going to respect my body and treat myself well, even though I’d just been deeply hurt by someone else.
Exercising when you’re low may feel counter-intuitive if you don’t enjoy being physically active at first. In the beginning, exercising to feel better certainly seemed counter-intuitive to me. In the long run, though, learning to reward my body with post-exercise endorphins instead of the dopamine which follows a sugar rush has improved both my self-esteem and my physical health.
As I mentioned above, exercise is a very powerful alternative to comfort-eating. However, the objective is to promote self-care and wellbeing — don’t use exercise excessively or punitively to relieve your guilty feelings after a binge.
Moreover, exercise is not your only option if you want to feel happier. Examining the true source of your pain and tackling that problem directly is a much more effective method of emotion-regulation than eating.
I had a complicated upbringing and my parents’ behaviour was often emotionally abusive. I was not surprised to read recently that childhood emotional abuse and repressed anger have been found to be risk factors for binge eating symptoms in adulthood. I truly believe that leaving my parental home behind, reading self-help literature, and starting to resolve pent-up bitterness about my past experiences has helped me become a happier, more well-balanced person.
I’ve been to counselling. I’ve joined a family estrangement support group. Over time, I’ve also developed better eating habits. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that despite years of failed attempts, I successfully lost weight only after I removed myself from a toxic family environment and started properly processing the effect my upbringing had on me.
To be clear, I’m not blaming my family for the way I ate — I take full responsibility for my own choices. I’m just trying to stress that if you are inclined towards emotional eating, directly addressing the root cause of your feelings does help!