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Understanding Compulsive Eating




Excerpted from
You Can't Quit 'til You Know What's Eating You: Overcome Overeating
By Donna LeBlanc, M.Ed.

Sixty to 70 million people in the United States are compulsive eaters, according to one conservative estimate. (The very, very few with an actual physiological basis for excess weight aren't included in this count.)

How do you know if you're among them? Not everyone who is overweight wants to be associated with the term "compulsive." But remember, it describes a person's conditioning, not character. Here's an informal guide that will help you evaluate your relationship to some of the major factors behind chronic overweight.

Compulsive Eating: Losing Control

You don't have to be just one of the estimated 34 million who are "officially" overweight, which is defined as 20 percent more than ideal body weight.

You don't have to be 200,100,50 or even just five pounds overweight to qualify as having lost control over your eating (that's the basic definition of compulsive eating).

Compulsive eaters are people who continue to eat when they should stop, who go ahead and eat something they wish they had turned down.

(Feeling squeamish and embarrassed as you read this? Guilt is one of the many indicators that compulsive eating has you in its grip.)

Compulsive eaters don't give in just once in a while. Giving in has become a way of life, a way of coping.

Note the "has become." Extra weight or food guilt wasn't always part of who they were. In the Compulsive Eating, where we're after permanent results, we reestablish contact with our bedrock natures that have been covered up by negative coping techniques such as compulsive eating. For many of us, these techniques reach back into early childhood.

The Extremes And The Mid-Pointers

The nth degree of compulsive eating is bulimia. The word comes to us from the Greek for "ox" (bous) and "hunger" (limos) and it refers to a continuous, abnormal appetite ("hungry as an ox"). Bulimia is eating in a binge/purge fashion, gorging and throwing up, although the latter usual result is not always part of the condition. It differs from compulsive eating because of the amounts of food eaten, not the weight gained.

Garden variety compulsive eating can include binging: eating industrial-size quantities of food in a short period. Once the compulsive eating urge flares up, a sense of additional haste to meet the needy feeling takes over. The thought process may be: "This is special and I may never get this chance again . . ." or "This has been held back from me for so long . . ."

A single-minded desperation sets in. We turn into animals, although mostly the friendly, tail-wagging variety. Ravenous, we now know what makes Fido tick. We gotta get to that bowl, and fast. Gulp, gulp, gulp and it's gone. Not until the container, plate or bag is empty do we come to our senses. "What have I done (again)?!" We feel like lack-the-Ripper-of-Junk-Foods.

The opposite extreme is anorexia (an-, without; orexis, a desire for). People with anorexia can actually starve themselves to death. Many are terrified that they are on the verge of becoming obese even though the mirror reflects a figure that, to everyone else, looks emaciated.

In between are those who struggle with an appetite less radically manifested. Perhaps you specialize in items you know are bad for you. Maybe you just can't seem to stop when you've started on certain foods; you have lost your eating "brakes." Once into a pie, you're committed until the end of the "relationship," which is a lot sooner than you had planned at the time of purchase. Yours may not be the type of eating that schedules four bagels and three bags of junk food daily. But perhaps you've come to feel that a meal without dessert is like a day without sunshine.

Should finding a description of your habits here make you feel very uneasy, alarmed or panicky, that's natural and healthy. Let yourself feel it. It's a process between The Urgent Urge and gratification that we routinely skip when caught up in the cycle of compulsive eating.

Not Me

In lieu of panic when we once again feel ourselves capitulating to compulsive eating, we substitute denial - one of the ways we manage to live with our imperfections. When we're face-to-face with the facts, we often want to duck.

Realizing you're a compulsive eater, however, is not the same as being charged with a felony. It is not a crime against personhood. It is very human and therefore very common, as the statistics show. You can approach it as you would any other habit, making the decision to live with it or live without it.

Like other habits, it is acquired, not hard-wired into our lives. It does serve the quasi-positive function of reducing stress over an issue or issues we don't know how to face otherwise. It is only when it creates yet another problem of great concern to us that we become motivated to dump it for good.



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