Compulsive eating

What if almost everything we think we know about diet and exercise is wrong?

The farther into this journey toward health and fitness—and away from couch potato—I get, the more I think this is true.

We’re given this idea that if a person is fat, it is due to a lack of willpower. And many of us have internalized the idea that we weigh too much because we just aren’t good enough at self-discipline especially—but we also think we aren’t good enough about getting started early; about what kind of exercise to pick; about follow-through and consistency. We are convinced we are not good enough, and that’s a big reason we fail.

I don’t know about you, but I fail often and spectacularly. I try to keep every failure and perceived failure as a learning experience and not a negative in my life, but this is often difficult.

I keep coming back around to compulsive eating—another area that conventional wisdom tells me I simply lack self-control. And that’s exactly what compulsive eating feels like, being totally out of control around food, especially certain kinds of food (sugar) and at certain times of the day.

I’ve tried every approach I can think of: portion control and counting calories, which works great right up until it doesn’t; being mindful, and eating only when I am hungry and only until I am full; preparing meals ahead of time to take guesswork and stress purchases out; beating myself up about how weak I am—every approach at some level comes back to willpower.

But compulsive eating is far more complicated than simple self-control issues. In my case, it’s far more like addiction than anything else. In being addicted to something like cigarettes, it’s easy to say to myself that I need to quit because they are bad for me, but a person can’t really quit food.

That leaves everything I eat in the realm of “good food” or “bad food.”

Good food is homemade whole food and bad food is super-processed junk food, high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. There is a qualitative difference. But compulsive eating is more devious than just “eat this, not that.” It’s entirely possible to eat way too much of perfectly healthy, nutritious food.

The mental gymnastics I’m engaging in is to try and flip the whole paradigm on its head: Eating nutritious food and getting plenty of exercise—along with daily time for ritual and prayer—is all part of nurturing and caring for myself the best way I know how.

When I was younger, and chasing around a passel of kids, I always had a ready-made excuse of why I couldn’t put self-care on my list. There were too many people I was caring for already, and I didn’t have the time. That’s the story I told myself, anyway.

Now I’m an empty nester, with no one left to take care of except for myself. It should be easy now, right? Except it’s just as hard as it ever was. Compulsive eating is all wrapped up in childhood trauma and PTSD with the rest of my addiction issues.

Here is what I know: Exercise can help with the physical symptoms of PTSD. Specifically exercise can “burn off” some of those bad feelings. Not only that, but exercise makes me feel good, physically and emotionally. It makes me smile and it makes me feel happy.

Every day in my email inbox I’m pelted by dozens of messages like these: “7 Moves To Tighten Your Tush,” “5 Moves For A Better Butt By Valentine’s Day,” “7 Things You Should Never Put In A Salad If You Want To Lose Weight,” “5 Teas You Should Sip For Their Health Benefits,” or “365 Days of Slimming Secrets, Health Tips And Motivation!”

It is a paradox to say that my health and fitness is 100 percent in my own hands (it is), and yet to feel that my health and fitness goals are out of my control. Anyone who has ever felt powerless in the face of a box of donuts knows what I mean. And that “powerlessness” circles right back around to beating ourselves up and thinking we’re not good enough, or not strong enough mentally or emotionally, to do what needs to be done in the face of a box of donuts, namely, not eating the whole damn thing.

Here’s another paradox: I have two grandsons, both pretty young. I restrict their sugar and do everything I can to encourage them to get exercise, whether that’s playing outside or lifting weights with their grandma. I do this because I care about their health and I want them to internalize the idea that exercise is fun. But when it comes to my own health and wellbeing, I let my standards slide. I tell myself that I can skip a workout or 100 without consequence or that I can eat cake for dinner if I want. Then when I skip 100 workouts and eat cake for dinner, I loop right back around to beating myself up for falling prey once again to my own addictive personality. It can be maddening.

Every day I strive to learn a little more. What I’m learning lately is that maybe the spiritual aspect needs to come first. Maybe there is strength to be accessed through prayer and ritual that I’m not tapping into yet, or fully. Maybe I am good enough at all of this to figure it out.

What is your health and fitness Achilles’ heel? Contact me at 505-286-1212 or leota@lobo.net, or find my group on Facebook, “I’m Losing It!” I’d love to hear your strategies.