“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.
Read More:6 Ways to Deal When You’re Feeling Out of Control Around Food