Food nourishes us. But it also satisfies us, soothes us and helps us celebrate. Put that together with the fact that food is just about everywhere, and often in lavish amounts, and you have a perfect recipe for overeating. But just as we are hard-wired and conditioned to associate food with comfort and relief from anxiety, nervousness, depression, anger and loneliness, we can undo that conditioning — or at least eliminate the most destructive aspects of it. It’s not easy, but it’s also not nearly as hard as you might think. And, like most new habits, it generally takes no more than 21 days if practiced on a regular basis.
If you can think of overeating like a string of Christmas tree lights that twinkle in sequence, you can easily master the idea I’m about to present. Our overeating triggers are chains of events. It can start with a stressful argument with your boss or child, for example, which leads to feelings of helplessness or anger, which in turn results in a hunt for large amounts of something sweet (think ten packs of Ring Dings). This chain of events, however, usually happens unexpectedly and completely unconsciously; think of a smoker feeling stressed out and immediately reaching for a cigarette.
So here’s the trick: You need to short circuit the chain. I call this short-circuiting putting a “kink in the link.” Like the Christmas lights, one break in the circuit means that the remaining bulbs can’t fire up. Though it takes some doing, you too can curb the progression of your overeating triggers.
The first step requires a little reflection. Think back to your five most recent eating sprees. Was it last weekend when you ordered that tub of popcorn and large soft drink? Or when you gobbled up half the cookies you bought to pack in your children’s lunches. How about the night you spent with a pint of gelato after that quarrel with your husband? Now, think about what triggered the binge. It might be as simple as “movies equals popcorn” or as emotionally charged as “arguments equal ice cream.”
Or it might be the mere physical presence of certain trigger foods like cookies or nuts (the “Becha can’t eat just one” syndrome). Write it all down. This way, you’ll be aware of your triggers before you reach for that pint of ice cream.
Now comes the action step, where you put a “kink in the link.” What you’re trying to do here is substitute a new, positive activity for the old, destructive activity. Try any one of these simple activities next time you hit one of your triggers:
1. Change your surroundings.
A shift in setting has the power to change your mood-and keeps you away from the refrigerator.
2. Take five.
A five-minute break, whether it’s a walk around the block, a sprint up-and-down the stair or a deep-breathing pause, has a similar effect.
3. Fake out your mouth.
If you’re craving something sweet, try a pickle, hot pepper or any other completely different taste sensation. And if salty snacks are your weakness, go for something spicy.
4. Reward yourself.
Treat yourself to a relaxing activity you normally wouldn’t do: a warm bath, a surprise call to your college roommate in London or uninterrupted reading of gossip magazines!
5. Get physical.
Go for a stroll, run or do any physical activity at all.The endorphins released will often balance the chemistry of a “craving brain”).
6. Sit with your feelings.
Rather than stuffing negative or uncomfortable emotions like fear and anger by stuffing your mouth, try “being” with those feelings for five to ten minutes. Can you locate it (in your stomach, your chest) and describe it (a hot pellet, ball of ice)? Write it down. You’ll discover it’s less frightening than you think.
The interesting part of the whole exercise is that most overeating triggers only last 15 minutes. If you can outwait them — or outwit them — you can beat them. You’ll be amazed (and happily surprised) at how differently you’ll feel a quarter hour later