How to stop overeating: 10 steps to help you break free

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If you overeat, dislike your body, or believe that losing weight will make you happy, I know how you feel. It’s taken me years (um, decades) to forge a healthy relationship with food and my body. Today, I eat a whole foods diet – most of the time. I feel good about my food choices.  I no longer obsess about food or thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t eat.

This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. Heck no. (In fact, my pursuit of eating perfection is what kept me stuck in overeating for many years!) But the shame and self loathing and obsessing has softened. Food is just food; not the center of my life. When I make a mistake, I learn and move on.

Dear one, if you’re struggling with overeating, I understand. I’d like to help you find this peace from overeating – and from the shame that accompanies every binge.

First, let me say this:  Overeating is not a sign of poor will power, discipline, or a character flaw. Period.

You overeat because you hurt. You overeat because you have an unmet need. You overeat because you have this very tender, very vulnerable, human heart, and you want to protect it from pain. When a painful feeling arises, we may eat to make it go away. We may eat because our true deep needs – our needs for love, for validation, for connection and belonging – aren’t being met. Food becomes the substitute.

This doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us real and human.

To heal from overeating, we befriend our needs, our feelings, and our very tender humanity. We honor our needs and feel our feelings so that we don’t need this escape valve - overeating – to cope, feel better and to feel okay. I appreciate this is much, much easier said than done. (My journey out of overeating has taken decades. So you’re in good company!) And it’s possible. We can find true refuge in our own hearts, in compassion, in self kindness, in self love – so that we don’t need the food to feel better.

For more help, here are 10 tips that helped me stop overeating. I also invite you to explore my support program, Heal Overeating: Untangled, to find the deepest level of emotional healing from overeating. Untangled is the synthesis of everything I’ve learned about healing the root cause of overeating. It’s also a radically different approach than one you may have tried – one where you heal the roots of overeating by healing your relationship with yourself. I’m so passionate about this program – I want everyone to have it!

You can follow the link above to listen to a free sample.

1. Embrace your stuff. Embrace your overeating. It’s how you discover your true self. Instead of blaming your overeating for your problems, use it as a pathway to uproot false beliefs. Use your overeating as a way to learn and grow – not as a way to beat yourself up. Accept the pathway of healing as a way to become whole. Overeating was a blessing – because it enabled me to heal.

2. Unravel your overeating hairball. Overeating is never about food. Food is the window to your soul, showing you all your dark sides, the places that scare and shame you. As you expose them, accept them, forgive them, and integrate them, you heal these broken parts of yourself. Healing the food stuff is the natural consequence of healing your deeper pain.

Here are some of the ways I’ve abused food:  I overeat for comfort; to feel nurtured; to soothe my anxiety, anger and other “bad” feelings. I overeat as a way of keeping me from my life purpose (eating as insulation.) I overeat because I’m afraid – I feel like I don’t belong, like I don’t fit in, as if I’m a stranger in this world. I overeat because I take care of others at my own expense. I overeat because I push myself too hard, eating when I should be resting. I overeat because I crave downtime. I overeat because I’m sensitive, and food grounds me, protecting me from other people’s negative energy. I overeat because it’s easy – a bag of tortilla chips feels really good in the short term.

For more support, I cover this problem in more detail in sessions 5 and 6 of Heal Overeating:  Untangled.

What about you? What are your food traps?

3. Ask for help. I believe we live in a benevolent universe, and that if you ask for help, resources will come to your aid. Study different approaches. Join a support group. Reach out to others. Follow your intuition.

Many of us carry internal voices that shame us for needing help; we feel foolish and embarrassed about our inability to stop overeating. We feel like we should know better and do better – after all, isn’t it just a matter of eating less? But this kind of thinking is judgmental and counterproductive.

What would it take to accept that you need help, to be okay with being a beginner in this area of your life? Once you accept where you are, you drop the shame about needing help. Of course you need help – you’re in pain! We are human beings, designed to help one another. Believe you are worthy of support, love and care. Drop the false belief that you should have all the answers – and that you should change on your own.

4. You are not your thoughts. A thought is just a thought. It doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s so easy to become attached to them, to define ourselves by them, to let our thoughts control our behavior. But if your mind tells you that you can’t live without a cookie, you don’t have to believe it.

Question your thoughts. When my thinking goes haywire (like trying to justify eating raisins, my favorite binge food, because they’re “healthier” than candy), I talk back to myself. I’ll say, “not helpful.” When I feel an intense desire to overeat, I sit with it. I ask, “What do you need right now?” Questioning my self talk quiets my fears and helps me separate from the mind talk that leads to overeating.

5. Examine your fear. Your fears and overeating are good friends. As the Reverend Ed Bacon eloquently said:  “You’re either living in the house of fear, or in the house of love.”  When we care for ourselves from a place of love, it’s as natural as a mother caring for a baby. When we’re hungry, we eat. When we’re full, we stop. When we’re tired, we rest. We move to enjoy the delight of our physical bodies – not as penance for eating too much.

When we’re living in the house of fear, we eat to feel better, calling it comfort, self-soothing and nurturing. The difference is in how we feel. Love always brings its own reward, the fruits of the spirit:  peace, compassion, self-discipline, kindness. Fear brings jealousy, resentment, frustration, criticism, judgment, and control. Fear brings shame. Fear brings only temporary relief, because unless we feel, embrace and release the fears underneath our eating, they’ll pop up over and over and over again until we finally face them.

6. Honor your limits. Accepting my limits was a challenge for me. Beyond healing from overeating, what I really wanted was to be able to eat candy, pastries, fried foods, and junk and not gain weight. I wanted to be free from the consequences of my actions.

But we don’t get away with anything. All choices have effects. If I eat too much, I get a stomachache. If I eat sugar, I become obsessive about food. If I eat late at night, I don’t feel good the next morning. If I’m eating mindlessly, I will eat more than feels good.

I have to honor my limits if I want to reap the rewards of healthy eating. That means sometimes saying no to food when I want to say yes; keeping trigger foods out of my house; and setting limits on nighttime eating. These limits help me stick to my intention to honor my body with food.

What limits help you support your intention? Support yourself by recognizing your triggers, and by being honest:  are you trying to get away with something?

7. Plan for your success. If I don’t have healthy food options in my house, I will eat junk. That means doing the work of shopping for and preparing whole foods – something that takes time and planning. The alternative is overeating or eating junk because I don’t have healthy options. I had to make peace with structure and routine; of the repetitive nature of self-care.

Sometimes we’re hesitant to care for ourselves because we think it will make us look “high maintenance,” neurotic, or fixated on food. In the beginning, changing our eating patterns is an intensive process. We may appear out of balance as we direct much of our thoughts, time and energy to healing. But this shifts over time, and our new patterns become automatic. As our new way of eating and caring for ourselves becomes integrated into our daily life, we lessen our intensity, lose our fear (Will I know what to eat at the party? Can I make kind food choices while traveling?) and trust ourselves. We are grounded. Our attention shifts. We don’t have to think about healthy eating all the time.

Honor this ebb and flow. Honor where you are – knowing that there are times in your life where you’ll need more structure and routine, and times when you won’t have to think about it as much.

8. Start where you are. You can start over, at any time. Did you just gorge yourself on chocolate ice cream? Okay, start over, right now. Put down the spoon. Just because you ate too much ice cream doesn’t mean that you have to add brownies, potato chips, and french fries to your plate. Every moment is a fresh opportunity.

If you overate yesterday, be kind to yourself. Eat when you’re hungry. If you fast in a misguided attempt to save calories, you’ll only end up starving at dinner and prime yourself for another binge.

You may need to “snap yourself” out of a binge. It’s like being in a trance. So leave the kitchen or even your house if you need to; take a bath or a shower, a cleansing ritual in itself; pray, meditate, listen to peaceful music; take a walk (moving helps remove the energy from your body), call a support person or friend; brew yourself a pot of tea (Celestial Seasoning’s Tummy Mint is wonderful for a bloated digestive system,) cry, vent, do deep breathing. Then plan for how you’ll care for yourself the next day, because you may be feeling regretful, sad, ashamed, bloated and gassy, frustrated, angry, or any number of mixed emotions.  The day after a binge, I always schedule a workout to help cleanse my body of  intense emotions. I cook simple foods with protein and vegetables as a kindness to my digestive system. I meditate or pray and offer myself compassion with self-talk:  I love you so much. Even though you binged last night, I love you. I will care for you today. Soothe yourself as a mother would a child.

9. Practice self-care. If you’re denying your deep, true needs in your daily life, you’ll fulfill those needs sideways, destructively, with food. Spend some time in quiet to uncover what you need. Is it more time for rest? Is it to honor your creativity? Is it love or feeling a part of the community? Nourish your needs, and your body’s hungers won’t be so demanding.

Many of us live energy draining lives. We neglect our “burning yesses” at the expense of the urgent – the laundry, the cleaning, our children, all the ways we give to others but don’t give to ourselves. No, we don’t want to ignore our responsibilities. But we may need to come into greater balance. Ask yourself:  what can I let go of? What can I delegate? How can I support myself so that my life has more purpose, power, joy and passion? Feed your passion and your energy will expand. When you give yourself the leftovers of your time and energy, you are starved for love and attention – which you fill with an insatiable appetite for food.

10. Eat. This last tip sounds almost comical. You might say, “That’s the least of my problems!” But much of my overeating stemmed from real physical hunger. I was trying to eat as little as possible throughout the day, because I was always trying to lose 10, 15, or 20 pounds. By dinnertime, I was famished and would eat three meals instead of one. I overate not from a lack of willpower, but because I was simply hungry.

You can’t fight biology. You are an animal:  you have to eat. Our bodies need healthy fuel. Eat enough and regularly enough so that you feel satisfied.

Most overeaters want to lose weight – the extra pounds from their habit. It’s normal to want to fix this. But I found it much easier to focus on one goal at a time. First focus on eating to your balance point – where you are comfortably full. As you consistently abstain from overeating, then work on losing weight.

The irony is that by feeding yourself regularly and by overeating less you’ll probably lose weight:  the natural, organic consequence of self-care, self compassion, and self kindness.

I’d love to offer you 3 kinds of support from First Ourselves to help with overeating:

  1. Join our Support Forum to get support, talk with others, and to feel less alone on your journey.
  2. The in-depth Heal Overeating: Untangled support program can transform your relationship with food.
  3. Listen to these free audio blogs on how to unplug from food:  Trusting your needs, navigating transitions without food, help for “I can’t handle this!” moments, removing the barriers to love, and trusting in the growth you may not see.

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About the Author:

Karly Randolph Pitman
Karly Randolph Pitman helps men & women transform food compulsions like binge eating, sugar addiction, and body obsession through compassion and connection, from the inside out. In her classes and courses, she teaches people how to say no to sugar, binge eating, and body obsession - but the answer isn't what they think. Rather than learning strategies to control or manage the compulsion itself, Karly's “heart over binge” approach heals the inner dynamics that drive it, leading to freedom, relief and hope.

12 Comments

  1. Delores Rhetoric Haz March 2, 2009 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    After reading this article and all the comments, I see that I am not alone in my struggle. We spend a fair amount of time hiding our food issues and hoping to be as normal as everyone else. Well here it is, in black and white; we're all in this together. Our habits are not uncommon, and now I see, are not impossible to correct. Thanks so much for the hope. Everyone – stay strong and remember "You come first."

  2. Karly Randolph Pitman
    Karly Randolph Pitman February 7, 2009 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Dear Sandra,
    Thank you for writing and sharing your story. I can empathize: food addiction has been a huge source of pain in my life, what I use to hide from my fear, pain, and loneliness.
    I would greatly recommend this book: The Solution by Laurel Mellin. It helps uncover the root of overeating, taking away the desire to overeat in the first place. It was very, very helpful to me. Geneen Roth’s work has also been a great help to me: http://www.geneenroth.com.
    Take good care. Honestly, I write or my own benefit as much as everyone else’s: you teach what you need to learn, and sugar and food addiction has been one of my biggest teachers. When I’m feeling discouraged about my sugar addiction, or feeling sorry for myself (I just want to eat some pie!!!!) I try and remember this truth: that isn’t not about the food, but about who I become by healing this broken part of me. If I embrace this “food stuff,” it can transform my life, my fear, my ego, and my pain into joy, peace, compassion, acceptance, and love.
    You, too. I’m proud of you for taking the first steps.

  3. christina February 1, 2009 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    Ten minutes ago, I was doing vigorous jumping jacks to try and undo the overwhelming fullness and shame I feel. Now, I literally have tears in my eyes.
    I have just discovered that I am sugar sensitive, and also that I have never met anyone who was on a wavelength so synonymous as mine.
    I eat healthy meals all day, but at 3pm and right after supper even though I'm not hungry I'll have some fruit or chocolate and then the next thing you know I just devoured 800 unnecessary calories. Thank you so much for pouring your heart out the way you did, because evidently I am not the only one who is seeing the knowledge they were trying to hide from written out on a computer screen.

  4. Sandra January 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm - Reply

    I cried when I read your 10 steps. What struck me was how insightful your advice is. I have been trying to stick to very low calorie meal replacement system for 4 years to no avail and I have tried various diets prior to this. This new diet seems to be pushing me into even unhealthier ways of eating and I am feeling lower than ever. I really hope I am able to take your advice and put it to practical use to tackle my demons which I have had all my life. Is there a way I can contact you directly?

  5. gina January 2, 2009 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Thank you, each one of these tips were very helpful. The one that realy hit home was taking exquisite care of yourself and sugar sensitivity. I know that I need to get off sugar completely (again) and caffine. Thank you for the inspiring words.

  6. Tonya December 28, 2008 at 1:53 am - Reply

    You have no idea how many lives you are touching with this website. You truly are an inspiration.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this; you are literally saving thousands of lives. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s no life being addicted to sugar and binge eating – a cycle I’ve recently managed to break out of.
    In my darkest days, my job, family and worst of all my health all suffered greatly. I came to the realisation that what I was putting into my body was exacerbating the situation, and that lack of self care was the key factor in all of this.
    I spent the last month slowly weaning myself off caffeine and sugar, and increasing healthy foods, vitamins and supplements. Yesterday was the day I completely gave up sugar, and I was ok until about 8pm (previously that’s when my bingeing would start in earnest). Rather than give in to the craving for sugar, I came online and found your website. You have no idea how much of a God-send it was! I read your articles and found that my craving disappeared, and I felt uplifted instead.
    I know the next couple of weeks are not going to be easy, but with your support in the form of this website, and with my family and friends, I know I can do this.
    Thank you so much!!

  7. IM A GUY December 18, 2008 at 11:58 pm - Reply

    Im 24 years old…and i am at my heaviest…im 6'5 and im 300-400 pounds. I feel like im wasting my younger years cuz im fat and i cant fit the clothes i like…people dont look at me twice, nor do i turn heads. On top of that Im Gay. So Men are not knocking at my door. Im very depressed. I go to work and go home and just stay in my room. I will go out every once in a while…but im ready to change. I wanna be 6'5 and 230 pounds but it seems so IMPOSSIBLE!!! This Is So HARD!

  8. Eve December 7, 2008 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Thank you, thank you.
    I hate every moment that I binge and yet I don't stop. Then I have to exercise for literally hours to make up for it. I have looked at dozens of articles for help but I never thought to ask for it, because I am trying so hard to hide it,(although In the right light I am sure it's visible.) Thank you.

  9. Carolyn November 27, 2008 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    Im so glad someone else has been through what iv been going through for a year. I hate my self daily for binging..but once iv had one thing i carry on. Knowing how others deal with it has helped me feel better and hopefully tomorrow il be able to eat normal and not feel so full i have to sleep thanks x

  10. claudia November 15, 2008 at 5:06 am - Reply

    It's really comforting to see in writing what I myself have been going through exactly. I felt like I was going crazy because I also hide from the world when I've been overeating. I even miss out on work, family and social outings and feel irritable and have mood swings and it affects all areas of my life. Sometimes getting up feels overwhelming. And reading this I feel understood I can relate to all the items, from wishing I wasn't like this to not believing what I think and like there's light at the end of the tunnel.

  11. Corinne November 14, 2008 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    I love you.

  12. randi October 1, 2008 at 3:28 am - Reply

    I just want to thank you for taking your time to write this, it has made me feel so much better, I literally love number 8 because that is me right now, you have seriously moved me. I have struggled with everything and I always say I will stop and never could. I feel like I can do it now hearing someone else do it. May god be with you and I much love – randi

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