I wrote the following blog for the latest issue of Innovative Health Magazine/Florida edition. It is reprinted here with permission of my publisher — gp
Gil Peters, LMHC, LADC-1, CADC II
Staying healthy is not as easy as a-b-c. First, we have to solve for “y”, or, more precisely, why. As in: Why do we repeatedly choose actions and behaviors that are harmful to ourselves?
But before we can solve this problem, we have to enlarge the definition of “healthy” to include emotional well-being and a sense of purpose to life.
First of all, I believe — based on personal experience as much as on scientific research – that physical health is inextricably tied to our mental and spiritual fitness, and that how we deal with stress plays a key role in wellness and illness. For example:
- Persons who speak their minds calmly, then let go of resentments tend to live longer.
- Individuals who explode at perceived injustices and get easily upset in difficult situations are far more likely to suffer heart-related episodes.
- Those who stoically swallow their feelings rather than express them are much more prone to develop cancer (1, 2).
As a licensed dual diagnosis counselor whose clients present with co-morbid psychological and addiction issues, I’ve had a front-row seat to the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, and even “garden variety” emotional upsets and disturbances.
Individuals who internalize what we call “Big T” and “little t” traumas tend to battle anxiety, depression or both repeatedly until and unless they seek help. And those who act out their Traumas/traumas tend to get ensnared in a smorgasbord of addictions and consequent legal issues.
Sadly, we all have family, friends and co-workers who combat their demons with alcohol, drugs, gambling and a host of self-destructive behaviors. An entire industry has mushroomed to treat sufferers of these addictions. One more opinion about methodology and success rate won’t be useful.
Rather, let’s focus on the insidious devil hiding in plain sight, the addiction that gets no respect: life-shortening eating practices.
The literature is filled with tomes on anorexia and bulimia, which affect a disturbing 13 percent of Americans (3). Both are devastating disorders, and rehabilitation centers have sprung up around the country to deal with them.
But it’s the far greater, underserved segment of the population that worries me – the two-thirds of us who are killing ourselves through nightly binges and daytime grazing, one slab/slice/sliver, one box/bag/fistful at a time.
I’m talking about compulsive eating behavior. This affliction was ignored entirely and went undiagnosed officially until two years ago with the latest revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(4). Finally, the publishers, the American Psychiatric Association, included compulsive eating behaviors under the category of Binge Eating Disorder.
I maintain that B.E.D. still is not taken seriously by the public because, unlike other substance abuse disorders, binge eating is not judged to be illegal or immoral, even though such eating practices are most surely physically harmful and ultimately fatal.
This lack of respect for the subtly deadly addiction flies in the face of the avalanche of evidence to the contrary, showing a nation of out of overweight, out of shape children and adults.
The National Institute of Health notes in its literature that:
- More than two in three adults are considered to be overweight (Body Mass Index [BMI] of 25 to 29.9 — percentage of body fat ).
- More than one in three adults is considered to be obese (BMI of 30+).
- More than one in 20 adults is considered to have extreme obesity (BMI of 40+).
- About one-quarter of children ages 2-5, and one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese. (5)
Reports on the Internet and airwaves cite cookies, chips, and other sugary, salty snacks as the chief culprits. These so-called junk foods hijack the brain as powerfully as heroin or cocaine, according research (6).
In an effort to bring Americans’ eating habits back in line, federal, state and local agencies keep launching programs espousing healthier food choices, mandating alterations in school lunches and banning the sale of sweetened beverages in public places.
Fueling the attention about obesity are diets by the dozens promising quick weight loss, and floods of pop magazine spreads depicting beautiful people who have shed gobs of weight in mere weeks.
The problem is that none of the diets or pretty pictures addresses the underlying question: What am I doing to myself?
Or, put more directly: Why am I committing suicide on the installment plan?
Suicide? With food? Gimme a break, you’re saying.
Explain, then, based on the NIH statistics cited above, how approximately 215 million Americans are categorized as overweight, and how half of those are determined to be clinically obese.
We know that heavier people are more prone to a spate of illnesses, starting with heart disease. Yet the snack food/fast food companies continue to get fat on our denial (which, in therapy-speak, stands for: Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying).
Again, I ask: Why do we do this to ourselves?
Because we’re habituated to numbing ourselves from the daily dramas of life, that’s why. And because food is both an instantly available and socially acceptable numbing agent.
Bless you healthy ones, who say: “I can take or leave a bag of cheese puffs.” “One handful of jelly beans is my limit.” ‘I don’t feel like having dessert, tonight, thank you.”
But what about the rest of us who long ago flunked the Lay’s Potato Chips challenge: “Bet you can’t eat just one”?
The only long-term answer for this food junkie, who had lost and regained the same chunk of weight repeatedly over the years, was to “get down to causes and conditions,” as we say in the recovery field, and then make permanent changes in my diet.
Through self-examination, professional help and support groups, I finally became willing to look at the truth about my eating behaviors. I saw I had spent 25 years trying fruitlessly to manage my weight by:
- Exercising to burn off the empty calories I had crammed down the previous night.
- Fasting for two days after a period of out-of-control bingeing, before resuming my runaway eating; and
- Adhering to fad diets in short bursts followed by plundering the cabinets in a scene right out of Fatso.
But newfound self-knowledge was only the start of the equation. I still had to solve for Why.
Incrementally, and with help from therapists, nutritionists and recovering compulsive eaters, I became increasingly able to recognize times when food had owned me.
Clearly, the urge for sweet, salty and crunchy “treats” had nothing to do with being physically hungry. Rather, the cravings for such food grabbed me by the throat when I was emotionally starved – those times when I was feeling stressed, fearful, anxious, depressed or isolated.
Once I could get to the root of my sense of dis-ease, I then could take alternative action to shoveling “comfort food” into the hole in my soul, which only had gotten bigger the more I tried to fill it.
Much of my own journey to wholeness is a result of finding healthy ways to reduce the stress I may feel, to allay the fears that paralyze me, to tamp down my anxiety, to mitigate my depression and to break through the sense of aloneness I sometimes experience even in a crowd.
Each of us has to develop his or her own self-soothing techniques, but we all have the innate ability to do so, just as we all have the capability to dig up the buried reasons why we feel the way we’re feeling. At least for me, the answers were there, once I became willing to pick up the shovel.
And having solved for Why, the answer really was as simple as a-b-c.
I first needed to gain awareness of what I was feeling, then develop the belief I could work through the unearthed emotion without bingeing to rebury it, then make a change in my response to the upsetting incident.
Amazingly, the awareness/belief/change model not only restored emotional balance, it reduced the number on my scale by 25 pounds and has kept it there for nearly three decades.
Try it’ You’ll like it and start loving yourself more, too.
Next time, I’ll talk specifically about kinds of questions to ask yourself about your eating habits and behaviors. I’ll discuss the types of foods I do and do not eat and how I arrived at a food plan that works for me.
- Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships (5th Edition) by Keith J. Karren Ph.D. (Author), Lee Smith (Author), Kathryn J. Gordon (Author), Kathryn J. Frandsen (Author), 2013.
- Minding the Body, Mending the Mind – Revised and Updated, by Joan Borysenko, 2007.
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders — anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, American Psychiatric Association, 2013
- National Institute for Health — http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx .
- The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, Michael Moss, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 20, 2013.