Disordered eating can range from mild to severe and from intermittent to constant, but its core characteristic is eating in response to something other than physical hunger. Like drugs and alcohol, food can be an escape from uncomfortable emotions. In particular, foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, and dairy are known to have properties which affect the reward centers of our brains. This also numbs our feelings, enabling us to go about our daily lives without ever acknowledging or addressing how we really feel. Crazy, right?
If you are like me and the idea of being an emotional eater, compulsive overeater, or binge eater resonates even a little bit, you’ve probably tried every diet in the book — twice. The problem is that diets don’t work, at least not in the longterm. This is why I and so many others have lost hundreds of pounds, only to regain them. Diets create an environment of emotional and physical deprivation, which inevitably results in binge eating.
Neuroscience research shows that our brains work in a way that is both protective and resistant to change. We are wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, particularly fear. When fear creeps in, we have a strong desire to return to our familiar, comfortable behaviors and thought patterns. As a result, any substantial change will automatically be resisted.
So how do we change? After years of trying to understand the science, psychology, and spirituality of human behavior, I stumbled across the work of Dr. BJ Fogg and his work at the Stanford Behavior Design Lab. His research aligns with what I observed in myself and others in recovery. He clarifies that there are only three things that will change behavior in the long-term:
Option A: Having an epiphany
Option B: Changing your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C: Taking baby steps
Option A is tricky. Creating an epiphany is difficult at best. Having a “spiritual awakening” is the intended result of the twelve steps and it does work very well for some people. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project refers to this category of change as ‘lightening bolt” moments. They can happen when someone has an experience that drastically shifts their view of the world, such as having a child. Needless to say, this is not the option you should rely on.
Options B is a good. Changing your environment means not only your location, but also the people you surround yourself with. For many people, this is not practical for financial or emotional reasons. It is worth pursuing, as the places and people you spend time with have a tremendous effect on your own behavior.
Option C is the most effective. Anyone can start taking baby steps right now. It doesn’t cost a penny, you don’t have to involve anyone else, and you can do it on your schedule.
I’ve spent the past 6 years unraveling a lifetime of disordered eating and slowly putting myself back together. My goal is to share how building tiny habits over time completely changed my life and helped me to recover from obesity, food addiction, binge eating disorder, and bulimia.