What to Do If You’re Feeling Out of Control Around Food

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been a uniquely vulnerable time for many people struggling with eating difficulties. Add to that the regular seasonal toxic messaging—the post-holiday diet talk, or the pressure to “get in shape” for spring and summer—and you have a perfect storm for disordered thoughts and eating behaviors.

Facing a gamut of triggers and unable to rely on their usual support mechanisms, many individuals may find themselves grappling with a sense of feeling out of control around food. For some, this might surface as a compulsion to overeat or eat emotionally; for others, it can be an urge to binge on certain foods. These impulses can manifest in serious mental health conditions like bulimia or binge eating disorder, though not everyone who experiences these urges will meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific eating disorder.

There are tons of reasons for why you may be feeling out of control around food—and there’s likely not one simple trigger that’s responsible for it.

“This could be the result of biology, emotions, or the environment—and most likely, a combination of several of these factors,” Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, Ph.D., a professor of medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who researches eating disorders, tells SELF.

Because there are such varied causes, there’s also not one singular way to help thwart that out-of-control feeling. As someone who started recovering from bulimia seven years ago, I can tell you that multiple strategies are often necessary. Here are six actionable, expert-backed tips that may help if you’re struggling with food-related anxiety or, in particular, that unnerving feeling of being out of control when it comes to what you eat.

1. Do your best to eat regularly.

Skipping meals or restricting food can be a reason some people tend to feel a loss of control around food. So a key way to combat this feeling—though this can be much easier said than done—is to eat sufficiently so that you’re satiated and not constantly thinking about hunger.

“Eating regularly is a big piece of overcoming out-of-control eating,” Saniha H. Makhzoumi, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Maryland who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, tells SELF. “When we aren’t eating enough or we avoid certain foods, we begin to feel deprived. In response to this, our bodies seek out food, especially ones that we told ourselves were off-limits.”

So Dr. Makhzoumi recommends trying to eat regularly. For some people that could look like three meals a day plus a snack when you’re hungry. But remember, this is super individualized, and a “regular” eating schedule is likely going to look different for each person. What’s more important than a set number of meals or snacks is to make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day so that you’re not experiencing frequent hunger pangs. Dr. Makhzoumi also takes an “all-foods-fit” approach in her practice, advising her clients to consume everything in moderation (barring any medical/religious restrictions).

“If we allow ourselves to eat the foods that we crave, we can move on with our day rather than becoming preoccupied with that food,” Dr. Makhzoumi says. This is similar to intuitive eating, an approach whereby people don’t intentionally try to control their eating and instead focus on tuning into their senses of hunger and satisfaction.

Of course, eating regularly can be a difficult task for someone who does feel out of control around food or who has had issues with eating before. In those cases, resources like the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helpline, or meeting with an eating disorder treatment counselor, can be helpful as you navigate that.

As I moved through the earlier part of my recovery journey, I gradually moved to an intuitive-eating framework. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full, and I give myself permission to have what I desire. I’ve learned to build trust around food by responding to what my body needs and wants rather than relying on external rules to guide my choices.

2. Challenge and rephrase negative food talk.

Reframing unhelpful thoughts and beliefs is a crucial step toward food freedom. This often entails letting go of rigid rules about what, when, and how much we should eat, which fuel feelings of powerlessness around food.

Diet rules are usually difficult to maintain, says Dr. Makhzoumi, so when we eat something we demonize, we can feel like a failure. This leads to an all-or-nothing mindset: “We figure, ‘I broke this rule, I might as well keep going and start again fresh tomorrow,’” says Dr. Makhzoumi. As a result, many people find themselves vacillating between eating to the point of discomfort and restricting.

I’m mindful of the language that surrounds eating, whether it’s the self-deprecating self-talk looping inside my head or the negative food and body talk in conversations with others. While I predominantly make what I consider to be “healthy” food choices, I refuse to label certain foods as “good,” “bad,” and “off-limits.” In turn, mealtimes are no longer the emotional battlefield they once were.

One way to approach this reframing is through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based intervention that’s highly effective for rooting out negative thought patterns and formulating a healthier perspective. It involves examining the validity of our unhelpful cognitions (e.g., “I ate badly yesterday,” “I shouldn’t be eating this dessert,” or “I can only have a salad for dinner”), then reevaluating them and coming up with more balanced alternative beliefs (e.g., “There’s nothing wrong with indulging in something I enjoy,” or “I don’t need to compensate for past meals”).

While many people receive CBT with a therapist (more on that below), I’ve benefited from using self-help books to practice it on my own (one of my favorites is Overcoming Bulimia Nervosa and Binge-Eating). There are also many tutorials available online by licensed mental health professionals, including on YouTube, where you can learn and understand the concepts of CBT and how to apply them to your life. Practicing CBT tactics a few times a month is like getting the oil in my car changed regularly: It makes it easier for me to notice and manage the undercurrent of emotions in day-to-day life before they cross over into unwanted behaviors.

3. Address your emotions directly.

Another reason a person may feel out of control around food is due to challenging emotions like stress or sadness, says Dr. Makhzoumi. Many of us have learned to use eating as a way to manage our feelings. That’s why it can help to give ourselves a moment to pause and self-reflect so that we can work to unravel the root cause of our emotions rather than turn to food as a way to numb or escape them.

While studies have shown that comfort eating isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can serve as a valid coping mechanism, it’s also important to develop alternative ways to regulate our emotions. Again, this is an instance when a therapist can come in to help you understand and deal with the underlying stressors in your life in a more sustainable way.

But there are things you can do on your own too. Dr. Makhzoumi recommends journaling as a form of self-monitoring, namely recording and tracking when you feel out of control and the behaviors associated with it. This can promote awareness and accountability, as well as pinpoint possible triggers and patterns in how we feel and behave. Things to record might include how you felt, what you ate, where you were, and what was going on at that particular time. By tapping into your feelings and emotions—a process known as emotional regulation—you can give them time and space rather than pushing them down (here are some tips to use this technique effectively).

Over the years I’ve used a variety of therapeutic tools. Meditation has helped create space for thoughts to feel less urgent and intrusive. Journaling and art have been consistently cathartic, allowing me to step back and process my emotions and experiences in a more objective and compassionate way.

4. Do something you find pleasurable.

We often turn to food as a source of pleasure, especially if we’ve been restricting our dietary intake, Melissa I. Klein, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College who specializes in eating disorders, tells SELF. There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating recreationally or occasionally using food as a pick-me-up. In fact, joy, joyful connection, and other positive emotions can be a central part of forming a healthy relationship with food. However, if you think eating for pleasure is one reason you feel out of control around food, it may be helpful to develop alternative sources of pleasure and ways of responding to emotions like boredom or frustration.

Engaging in an alternate activity can shift your focus away from food, says Dr. Klein. It can be helpful to have some intentional distractions up your sleeve to interrupt and relieve overwhelming thoughts and emotions.

These can be activities such as playing an instrument, taking a bath, or creating art. Eventually, you might be able to turn to these kinds of activities for comfort or pleasure in moments when you would have felt out of control while looking to food for those feelings instead.

5. Seek out expert help.

A caveat to bear in mind is that people feel out of control around food for a wide spectrum of reasons, which is why a one-size-fits-all approach is unrealistic. With that in mind, it’s important to consult with an expert, if possible, to determine the underlying causes for why you’re feeling out of control. That could be a physical health expert, a mental health expert, or both.

“For someone whose eating is driven primarily by physiology,” says Dr. Tanofsky-Kraff, “suggesting behavior changes and activities can be not only highly frustrating but stigmatizing, which can further promote out-of-control eating, mood disorders, and physical health problems associated with stress.”

If you really don’t know why you’re feeling out of control around food, if it feels more physical than mental, or if it’s a sudden change for you, it may be helpful to see your primary care doctor to rule out physical causes. For example, conditions like diabetes (type 1 and type 2) and hyperthyroidism can cause significant increases in appetite.

Finding a therapist can be intimidating if you don’t know where to start, but there are lots of resources online to offer guidance. You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist who specializes in eating-related issues, and they may be able to recommend someone who’s covered by the same insurance or know about financial assistance programs that can provide support. (These tips on how to find the best therapist for you can also help too.)

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, there’s also an influx of therapy platforms that can offer more affordable and flexible counseling services online. A few options include BetterHelp and Talkspace. Before using an online company, though, do some research to ensure that the service you want to try carries out its practices ethically and will protect your privacy.

6. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling.

While seeking out the services of a professional therapist can undoubtedly be helpful, it might not be an option for everyone. There are various systemic barriers that prevent people from receiving the mental health care that they need. Some cannot afford therapy or lack the insurance to pay for it, while others may have trouble finding culturally competent therapists.

But opening up about our thoughts and emotions can be incredibly nurturing (while yep, also daunting). My disorder was often at its worst when I cut myself off from friends and family, as isolation served as fertile ground for feelings of “out of control–ness” to fester and snowball. Positive social support has been shown to promote eating disorder recovery, says Dr. Tanofsky-Kraff. Even the simple act of calling a friend and having a conversation in those moments when you feel overwhelmed might help de-escalate distressing thoughts and lighten your emotional load.

And with the dawn of telehealth, there’s now an abundance of free or low-cost alternatives to traditional therapy that allow people to reach out and share what they’re going through rather than tackle these issues alone (again, make sure you are vetting these spaces beforehand). This includes virtual peer support chat rooms like Supportiv and HealthfulChat, and clinician-led support groups for people with eating disorders, some of which can be found via the NEDA and Eating Disorder Hope websites. These platforms give users the opportunity to be heard, validated, and emotionally supported by one another. (Still, these groups can vary greatly in practice, structure, and the credentials of those running them, which is something to keep in mind before trying one out.)

There are also numerous 12-step programs with online support group meetings that are dedicated to helping people with issues around food, including Overeaters Anonymous, Eating Disorders Anonymous, and Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. These programs use an abstinence-based model in an effort to guide individuals on a journey toward healing their relationships with food and their body. Even if you don’t choose to follow the 12-steps (they aren’t for everyone), it’s possible to attend a meeting if you’re feeling particularly unsettled around food and want to connect and be part of a supportive community.

It’s important to remember that disordered eating and the thoughts that accompany it are deeply complex. You may explore different coping strategies before you find one that resonates with you. Be kind to yourself. If you’ve had a long history of dysfunctional eating and adhering to food rules, it can take some time to repair a fraught relationship with food. But it’s possible in many cases to learn to become attuned to your body and its natural signals again, and gradually feel more empowered with your eating.

Related:

  • Important Reminder: Anyone Can Have an Eating Disorder
  • 6 Ways to Set Boundaries Around Food With Your Family
  • 10 ‘Healthy Eating Rules’ You Should Throw Out Immediately

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