Break the Cycle of Mindless Eating
Creating a positive relationship with food and normalizing eating patterns are of equal importance in treating an eating disorder. While therapists use many different interventions, combinations of these treatment methods can have a powerful impact. Two key approaches are mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
The skill of mindfulness can be traced back to the ancient Buddhist philosophy of meditation. The goal is to create a heightened awareness of one’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions without any judgment. Mindful eating is not about being obsessed with food selections or meticulously counting calories. Instead, it is becoming aware of mind and body signals every time you eat. When you eat mindfully, you can begin to observe the different emotions, thoughts, and body cues that influence how you eat. As you become more aware of these influencing factors, you can work to change them (Albers, 2003).
People who suffer from eating disorders tend to disconnect themselves from food and their bodies. When this connection is destroyed, the relationship with food is affected. Mindfulness techniques can be used to combat these negative eating patterns, such as choosing foods for nutritional value, equating self-worth with who you are (not what you eat), keeping watch for all-or-nothing thinking, and using food for hunger—and not as a coping mechanism.
Thought & Behavior Techniques
The cognitive treatment model proposes that negative, dysfunctional thoughts are at the core of all psychological disturbances. For many, these thoughts arise from past experiences. In treatment, the therapist’s role is to help uncover these negative thoughts and guide the client in a disruption process. Clients are then taught how to use cognitive techniques on their own to live a healthier, balanced life.
Behavioral therapy is partially based on social learning theory, which states that we learn every behavior that we engage in, and therefore, can unlearn them. According to behavioral theory, every behavior is somehow rewarded. This treatment method focuses on not only identifying the rewards, but also on understanding the triggers of specific behaviors.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a treatment aimed at challenging and correcting negative, ineffective, and self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. CBT is one of the most empirically researched treatment modules for individuals suffering from eating disorders. This technique can be helpful in changing dysfunctional attitudes about body shape and weight, as well as unhealthy perceptions that arise from food and eating. It can also be helpful in breaking the cycle of mindless eating, in incorporating healthy eating habits, and developing positive coping skills for dealing with emotional distress.
The literature on mindfulness and CBT demonstrates the individual effectiveness of each treatment method. However, combining the two can allow the person with an eating disorder to become even more mindful of their self-perceptions and beliefs. Simultaneously using these skills can disrupt dysfunctional thoughts and radically change perceptions, contributing to a healthier relationship with food and a normalized pattern of eating.
Three suggestions for combining mindfulness and CBT skills:
1. Identify the foods or energy nutrients, such as fat, carbohydrates, and protein believed to be “bad.” List the specific negative thoughts that result in judgments made about the food or nutrient. Become aware of how harsh judgments result in negative thoughts and feelings about the self.
2. Brainstorm the positive attributes of particular foods or energy nutrients (e.g., fat keeps hair and skin soft and healthy). At the next meal, let go of the negative thoughts entering the mind while being aware of the other qualities of the food, such as taste, smell, texture, necessary nutrients, and other items from the positive attribute list.
3. Notice the patterns of disordered eating. For example: I eat. __> I feel guilty and shameful of what I ate. __> I make myself throw up. __> I feel guilty and shameful of my purging behavior. __> I punish myself by restricting food. __> I ignore feelings of hunger. __> I get tired of starving myself so I binge. __> I feel guilty and shameful of my bingeing behavior. __> The cycle continues.
A few tips for interrupting this cycle:
- As you eat, be mindful of both the hunger and your thoughts.
- Be present with difficult emotions. Observe how their intensity decreases over time as you allow yourself to acknowledge them.
- Make a list of positive self-statements you can refer to throughout the cycle.
- Be compassionate. Know that these thought patterns won’t stop overnight, but by attempting these tips, be mindful that change has begun.
By Marlee Lynn Lemoncelli, RD, LDN
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2005 Volume 3, Number 2
©2005 Gürze Books
About the Author
Marlee Lemoncelli, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist, as well as a counseling intern specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. She is completing her Master’s degree in Community Counseling at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
Albers, S., Eating Mindfully. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2003.
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.