Foods we can’t stop eating

Sometimes there are foods that we find hard to resist, things that when we start eating, we can’t stop. It’s different for each of us. It might be white bread, or sugar, or chips or ice cream. Occasionally it’s breakfast cereal, even the so called healthy ones like Sultana Bran. It doesn’t matter what it is. When a food has a hold over us it can be terrifying.

We can both crave the food, and then feel as though we have no control once we start eating.

When I was struggling with food, I would test myself with the very things I found hardest to stop eating. And then, when had eaten beyond the point of comfort, almost beyond consciousness, as though I was an alcoholic drugging myself with my chosen poison until I was sedated and bloated and numb.

Many of the women who I coach, or who come to my classes struggle similarly. When I tell them that there are no rules and they can eat what they like, some of them go straight out and buy the foods that they haven’t allowed themselves for years, and then are distraught and horrified when they can’t stop eating them.

There are several things that come together to create this compelling urge to eat and eat. The first can be a physical one. Some foods, especially those high in sugar (or carbohydrates like bread and cereals) can trigger the pleasure centre in our brain that releases dopamine. Our brains love this sensation, as do we, and we want to keep getting more and more of this feeling, which means we want to keep eating.

Also physical, our insulin rises as we eat carbohydrates, and if we produce more than we need, we may feel driven to continue to eat so that we ingest enough glucose to mop up the insulin.

Psychological triggers also occur. Timmerman’s excellent research into deprivation shows that deprivation doesn’t have to be ‘physical or real’ (i.e. we don’t have to be starved) in order for it to be compelling. Just denying or forbidding ourselves something over a long period can be enough deprivation to trigger overconsumption once we are again within reach of it.

We also lose touch with our bodies, and what ‘enough’ feels like, especially if it’s a food that we don’t often permit ourselves to eat.

If there are foods you’re struggling with, don’t ‘test yourself’ when you’re lonely and hungry. We don’t want to set ourselves up to fail. You might try it in company, when you can enjoy it, and have a social surrounding that might help you stop eating. Or you might want to get stronger first, and by this I mean, have stopped dieting for a while, have fed yourself regularly, and begun to believe in the very depths of your soul that you won’t deprive yourself ever again.

Then, when you really know, in the very core of your being, that you could have this food whenever you wanted, if you really truly want it, you may find that its hold over you diminishes.

I feel fat and panicky: Part 4

In this final article on feeling fat and panicky, we’ll explore the emotions that accompany it – which can be the most devastating part.

This is because if you’re feeling fat, the shame that accompanies this can be a terrible sensation. It extends beyond the physical and makes us feel that the whole of us is unworthy, that something is wrong with us as a person.

Dealing with these feelings is an important part of getting back to an even keel, as these feelings of self disgust can cause us to eat even more. We feel like giving up on ourselves.

We believe that we should have more ‘self control’ and that getting ourselves into this situation is entirely our fault. And sometimes we believe that we don’t deserve better.

It can be hard to work our way out if we feel like this. Not only have we given up on self-love and ourselves, we’ve given up on hope.

Before I found a different way of eating and of treating myself, I used to feel like this and sometimes the feelings would be so intense that it would seem that the whole of life was pointless. It took me to a very dark place.

When the feelings are bad, it’s best to just take tiny steps, steps that are kind, even when we don’t feel kind to ourselves. It might be something like taking a hot bath, or going to bed when we are tired. It might involve a trip to an art gallery, or taking the time to cook our favourite recipe. The important thing is to be kind to ourselves and to stop the cycle of punishment and hatred.

The weight will come off. It might take a little time, but the bloating that can accompany it, will vanish much faster.

Ensure that your meals are enjoyable. Take time when eating them and try not to nibble in between – promise yourself that you will eat when you are hungry so you don’t have to stave off hunger pangs with incessant nibbling. This will also allow yourself to feeling sensations and emotions that you may be uncomfortable with. These emotions might include sadness, anger, loneliness or even boredom.

Try welcoming these feelings, as though they were small children that you had lost and were rediscovering. Bring them close to your heart and treasure them, even if you have been taught that they are ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. Gorge yourself on these, and watch what happens to your eating.


If you’re feeling particularly black, and the shame is too great to approach friends or family, there are lots of support groups from Samaritans to Overeaters Anonymous who are full of compassion for those who are struggling. Please reach out.


I feel fat and panicky: Part 3

You can develop your own plan. It takes a lot more work that reading one in a magazine or buying one from a blog. I work with my clients to develop a plan that works for each of them.

Believe it or not, you already know exactly what will work for you. It’s just been buried beneath all the ‘shoulds’ and rules and guilt. Below all those rules and restrictions, beneath all of the body hatred and lack of trust, is a quiet voice, a still small voice of calm. This voice, the one that we bury with food, the one we don’t listen to, knows things about us that we couldn’t imagine.

It’s this voice that can help develop a way out of the maze of diets and restrictions, of overeating, feeling out of control and then trying to put the lid back on our appetites.

Any way forward, if it is to be successful, needs to be three things:

  • Kind
  • Enjoyable
  • Sustainable.

It needs to feel kind to ourselves – not punitive or restrictive, but loving and compassionate. Unless it is based on this, it’s destined for failure.

Enjoyable: when we enjoy things we do them, we stick to them. Think about what you enjoy eating, the foods that you love. Write a list of all of them and try to make it as long and comprehensive as possible. Then go through the list and think of how you feel when you eat those foods. If you don’t know, or can’t remember, then try them. Have the bowl of pasta and find out whether you feel energised and great afterwards, or tired and sleepy. It might be different on different days.

Sustainable means something that we can do every day. Rather than a diet, which is short term, this needs to be a plan that can last forever.

So, work out when it suits you to eat. When do you get hungry? Is your appetite highest in the morning or later in the day?

As you focus on your preferences for food and what, when and how you like to eat, start developing a plan around that. My clients do this, so that they nourish themselves in a way that works for them. For some, that means they aren’t that fussed about breakfast, whereas others wake up starving.

Make sure you include foods that you enjoy. If you really love chocolate, then banishing it is likely to result in a binge later. Give yourself permission to enjoy it when you really want it, as part of your plan.



I feel fat and panicky: Part 2

When we feel fat and ashamed, it’s natural to want to punish ourselves. After all, we ate the food, so it must be our fault that we aren’t as slim as we’d like to be. And a diet is the perfect way to both punish ourselves (by depriving ourselves of what and how we’d like to eat) and to gain control (as we’re scared of how much we might eat if we allowed ourselves) and to lose the weight.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like isn’t because we don’t have enough control. Its because we’ve been subjecting ourselves to TOO MUCH control. There are many many scientific studies that have shown that dietary restriction leads to excess eating, beyond the point of fullness, and beyond the body’s requirements.

The reason we aren’t as slim as we’d like is BECAUSE we’ve been punishing ourselves – depriving ourselves of what we’d like to eat.

We’ve stopped trusting ourselves, stopped trusting our bodies. And the media reinforces this. It tells us that we can’t know what to eat. We need diets, or nutritionists, or television programmes to tell us. No matter that for thousands of years before these existed we managed fine. These days, we’ve been told we can’t be relied on.

If we want to lose weight, we need to eat less than we have been. And if we’re eating less, I recommend that we enjoy every mouthful.

So the first thing to do is to wait until you’re hungry. This again might make you feel panicky. It isn’t about deprivation – this is about listening to when your body is ready for food.

And once those feelings of hunger start, then take some time to imagine what you might like to eat. Chicken salad? Or do you really want something hot? Ask yourself what would make you feel satisfied. Give yourself permission to choose.

Allow yourself food. Tell yourself that you can not only pick what you eat, but that you can take time to enjoy it too. And once you have decided what you’d like, ensure that you sit down, at a table, with a plate, and savour every mouthful. Stop occasionally and ask yourself whether you’ve had enough. It might be tempting to eat more than you want to, because part of you will be scared that a diet is about to start, and it won’t get any more food.

The problem with dieting (or clean eating plans, or whatever we call them), is that we cheat on them. We cheat on them because we don’t like the food, or we get hungry or bored. Or because something happens that means we can’t stick to them: a late meeting, a family dinner, or we’re too busy to do all the preparation required.

And when we cheat then the shame envelops us – it makes us feel as though we’ll never accomplish anything, if we can’t get through a day sticking to the plan.

So how about a new plan? We’ll talk about how to come up with a new plan next time.

How food porn arouses us

I love the introduction to the scientific paper called Eating with our Eyes: “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species.”

The mouth is close to the brain, indeed! This same paper talks of ‘food porn’. We are currently obsessed with images of food. Instagram feeds are crammed with photographs of meals and snacks. Cookery channels dominate television with depictions of luscious ingredients whisked into appetising meals. Food has become more forbidden than sex. We are ogling pictures of it in the same way that men used to sneak glances at 1970’s centrefolds.

In America, digital media influences more than 70 percent of the food eaten by households. Research show that “external food cues, such as the sight of appetizing food can evoke a desire to eat, even in the absence of hunger.” Again – no kidding… these scientists seem to spend years researching things that you and I knew to be true from a relatively young age.

What’s really interesting is that physical things occur within us, just from seeing a picture. We salivate (we all know that). But more worryingly, we produce insulin. Our bodies shoot out the hormone required to deal with the sugar even when we haven’t eaten it. And of course, when our insulin goes up, we crave sugar even more to balance it out. Even our heart beats faster in anticipation of the food.

This is where we need to track back to hunger. Food manufacturers know that seductive images of delicious food will draw us in, hungry or not. And our brains will take the trigger and act on it, without even consulting our conscious selves.

If we can stay in touch with our natural appetite, and eat when we are hungry, it reduces the impact of these external stimuli, and allows us to remain in control of what we eat and when.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

How to get over the fear of feeling hungry

For a long while I was scared of feeling hungry.

“I’ll just have a snack now in case the meeting runs late.” “I’ll eat something to get me through the school run”. “I’m going out to dinner, and I don’t want to get hungry, so I’ll eat something now”

In fact, there was a time when I was so scared of feeling hungry that I hadn’t felt hungry for years. I never let myself get to that point.

At the very first sign that I might get a hunger pang, I’d tuck into something. At the thought that I hadn’t eaten for a few hours, I’d open a packet. If I began to realise that there may be a gap between meals – I’d ensure there wasn’t.

And it has taken me a long time to get over that fear.

A review of the (more honest) comments of Hollywood actresses, reveals that many of them admit to feeling hungry all the time. This is the only way they can maintain their abnormally thin frames. Feeling hungry all the time is very draining and exhausting.

But that is very different to feeling hungry for half an hour.

It is absolutely worth letting yourself feel hungry. When you eat, the food tastes better. There is a real sense of the body refuelling. It’s a true sign that you need to eat.

But first of all you need to know what hunger feels like, and that may take a while.

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