How to Make Sense of Your Eating Issues

By Michelle May, M.D.

As I was reading more than a hundred comments about the two biggest eating issues you are struggling with, I could sense your frustration and I deeply wanted to help each and every one of you make sense of your eating issues!

So, I had a great idea about how I can do exactly that! More on that in a moment, but first, it is important for you to know that…

Your biggest eating issues are symptoms of an underlying pattern!

As I explain to the health and wellness professionals in our mindful eating training programs, every eating challenge involves one (and often more) of the decision points in the Mindful Eating Cycle.

Although your longstanding eating issues might feel overwhelming, frustrating, or even hopeless to you, to me, they are patterns we work with all the time! As you can see, there are many common issues so you are NOT alone.

And, I promise, there are reasons these are happening to you over and over, and there are specific skills and tools you can learn that will help you finally break free! But we need to get to the roots of the issues first.

So, here’s what I decided to do:

  • I reorganized the eating issues you shared into the six decision points of the Mindful Eating Cycle to show you how this tool gives us a logical place to start. (Granted, there was so much more I wanted to ask about each trigger to help me understand the pattern, but more on that in a moment.) You’ll find my article, “Making Sense of Your Eating Issues,” below.
  • I decided that eMindful-Eating-Support-Community-BONUSveryone who registers for Level 1 or 2 of our Mindful Eating Support Community will get an hour of Group Coaching with me every week for eight weeks so we can rapidly get to work resolving your biggest eating challenges.During our time together, we will work our way through the Mindful Eating Cycle and address each of your challenges with food (see below). It is a long list, but in the article below, you can see what we’ll cover.
  • To get this valuable bonus and begin working on your eating issues right away, read about everything our Mindful Eating Support Community offers, then register for Level 1 or Level 2 right away (registration for new members is only open for one week!). In June, we’ll begin meeting weekly for eight weeks. These group coaching sessions will be live but I’ll record them in case you can’t attend.

Making Sense of Your Eating Issues

Let’s use the Mindful Eating Cycle format to begin looking at how your eating issues are part of a larger pattern:

  • Why do I eat?
  • When do I eat?
  • What do I eat?
  • How do I eat?
  • How much do I eat?
  • Where do I invest my energy?

Why do I eat?

Emotional Eating

Concerns about emotional eating are very common. Madeline said, “I immediately turn to food when angry, sad, stressed or frustrated. I am definitely more aware of it now, but I seem unable to stop.”

Like Kanne, who said, “I eat something when I feel hungry, but also when I want some reward or distraction to help me feel better,” numerous others mentioned emotional eating (Melissa, Turanga, Sandra, Wanda, Wendy, Adrienne, Kim, and Heleene).

Emotional Triggers

Many people mentioned specific emotional triggers, including stress (Maria, Dina, Amy, Wanda, Laurie, Lindsey, Patricia, Robin, Mike, Patty, Karen, Simma, Roxan, Jackie, Kristina, Kelle, and Kim), boredom (Al, Patty, Simma, Roxan, Kristina), sadness (Adrienne, Julie), depression (Melodey), loneliness (Terry, Al, Jackie), anger (Adrienne, Terry), and procrastination—eating to avoid or put off doing something else—which I call “procrastineating” (Kathy, Bev).

Some had specific insights, like Julie who shared, “My biggest challenge is when I have had a bad day or I am feeling down,” and Dolores who said, “I notice that I am driven to eat when I feel unheard or “less” than others, especially when I feel powerless to rectify a situation, like at my job.”

Eating for Comfort

Some (Carolyn, Simma, Karen) recognized that “eating is soothing,” “ice cream makes me feel better,” and “food is a coping mechanism.” Dana shared, “I eat sweets to comfort myself and to fill the time on weekend evenings. Weekend evenings include beer, some type of chips, and candy. I live alone and this has been the ritual that I look forward to yet hate.”

Social Eating and Celebratory Eating

Not surprising, people also commented on the social and celebratory nature of food. Sharon said, “We nurture most every encounter with food: weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, holidays, group meetings / ice breakers, and welcoming into a home.”

Roxan eats when she’s “excited, happy, or proud; celebration with ice cream or cake or dessert.” Anna, Adrienne, and Jodi mentioned special occasions, holidays, vacations, and outings. Wendy and Amy are challenged by social events with friends, whereas Judy said, “My biggest challenge is meeting friends or family and staying on track with my plan and admitting that I am watching my food intake. I feel as if others think “when will you finally lose the weight?”

Physical Eating Triggers, like thirst and fatigue

Physical triggers are also common, including eating when thirsty (Karen) and tired. (Hillary, Susan, Jane, Lindsey, Robin, Patty, Karen). As Jodi explained, “Exhaustion at the end of workday, too tired to make dinner so I grab fast food.” Heather said, “My biggest challenge is my fatigue level and consequently cravings. When I’m exhausted my desire for sugar goes way up. And I’m exhausted a lot of the time.” Physical pain from heel spurs causes Felicia to reach for comfort food.

Restrictive Eating is a Powerful Trigger for Overeating!

Although often unrecognized, restrictive eating is a powerful driver of the overeating cycle, leading to the pattern I call the eat-repent-repeat cycle. Carrie describes it like this: “My challenge is the all or nothing syndrome: Either bingeing or dieting… never eating by my body.”

Linda said her challenge is, “Reverting back to the rigid, strict disciplines of maintenance I used for years and being persuaded by well-meaning friends to return with them to rigidly imposed rules and counting, resulting in obsessive behavior.” For Sama, it is, “Struggling with both overeating and/or undereating (the constant back and forth between the two extremes).”

Some aren’t yet sure why they eat, like Carrie who said, “My biggest challenge is sabotaging myself and not understanding why!”

When do I eat?

Am I Hungry?

Identifying hunger and eating when hungry is a common challenge. Conyers is having difficulty “knowing if I am really hungry” and Heleene, “stopping before I eat to determine whether it is hunger or just wanting to eat.” Similarly, Pam said it’s, “eating when I’m at hungry; eating due to the presence of food as a trigger versus actually being hungry.”

Kay is trying to “evaluate my hunger before just diving in and eating anything and everything in sight; being more in touch with my body and feelings to understand what I really need when I know it’s not food.”

Trusting Your Body

Because we are surrounded by diet culture, it is no surprise that some people are having difficulty trusting their bodies and using their natural signals to guide their eating.

Simma says, “I am still learning what hungry feels like. It’s shocking how removed I have become from my body.” Sue says she is having difficulty “Trusting that my body will tell me when, what, and how much to eat, without trying to control it in some way.” Carin’s challenge is that she is “afraid of the hunger feeling.”

Getting Too Hungry

As a result, several people mentioned that they had issues with becoming too hungry, like Linda who said her challenge is “eating at regular times to prevent being starving.” Kelle’s issue is “getting so stressed and busy that I don’t take time to eat until I am at the extreme end of the hunger scale.”

Similarly, Jane waits “too long to eat, then I’m starving and shovel food in too quickly” and Sharon struggles with “eating enough throughout the day to keep my body in working mode vs starvation mode.” Maria says she skips meals and Athena said she has “no real hunger cues until dinner then nighttime binge eating.”

High-Risk Times for Overeating

On the other end of the spectrum, many people talked about their high-risk times for overeating. Jane mentioned the very common “daily 3:00 pm slump.” Carolyn, Susan, Terry, Bev, Pam, and Sherry all mentioned eating in the evening, eating at night after dinner when not hungry, or snacking while watching TV. Rita said her challenge is “eating in the afternoon when I am tied to my desk; I’m not sure if it is boredom or just a desire to get away from the desk and move around.”

Patricia, Sharon, Laurie, Karen, Rita, and Mike struggle with nighttime eating. Lindsey said she snacks “when I get home from work or at night before bed. I usually feel stressed or tired from work and just want to eat.” Jodi said it’s “eating at night when home alone. My mind convinces me to go out and buy ice cream!”

Brook admitted to “secret eating right before going to bed” but I know she’s not alone!

Impulsive Eating

Al, Dean, Sandra, and Dina talked about eating in response to urges, impulsive “no think” eating and Kathy, Sharon, Tanya, Kathleen, and Esther mentioned eating or grazing between meals.”

Family Meals

Timing meals with family is a very practical concern for Deborah who said her challenge is “not being hungry at the same time as my family but still feeling pressure to make a meal and sit and eat it with them for dinner” and Annette who said, “others in my family eat at very set times, so I sit down to a whole meal when I may not even be that hungry and would have been better off with a lighter meal.”

What do I eat?

Although many people identified what they were eating as their biggest challenge, after two decades of working with thousands of people, I’ve seen time and time again that what you eat is greatly affected by why you are eating in the first place!

Craving Sweets

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that a lot of people talked about craving or overeating sweets, or were concerned about “eating too much sugar,” specifically chocolate, ice cream, desserts, sleeve of cookies, biscuits, and M&Ms (that’s you Wanda, Tanya, Kathy, Debbie, Angela, Coleen, Nster, Lynn, Karen, Jane, Sherry, Rita, and Pam).

Melinda said she has “overwhelming sweets cravings.” Patty said, “sugar is a BIG problem for me. I am pretty sure it causes an addictive behavior for me. I need to just avoid it—if I eat chocolate, I want MORE—a piece does not satisfy me and then my choices go down until I detox from that episode.” Kelly feels her problem is “soda and sugar. I feel addicted to these and need them often. I have worked hard to let go of good and bad foods and know they don’t make me feel good and it is not what I really need but I still can’t control it most of the time.” (Patty and Kelly, you’re not addicted, but I understand why it feels that way!)

Deborah said it’s “Coca Cola in any form or fashion….diet, regular, it doesn’t matter….it is my gateway to binge eating and ‘treating myself.’” For Cheryl, it’s “eating too many biscuits – mainly in the evening when I am not actually hungry. I feel I need something crunchy which only a biscuit provides. And wanting cake….well, yearning for cake really.” Linda has difficulty with “food that others bring into the house, such as pastries, chocolate, ice cream.”

Craving Salty Snacks

But it’s not just sugar! For Carolyn, it’s “cravings for sugar, carbs, fatty snacks,” for Rita, it’s bread, and Tanya, Jane, and Lindsey mentioned salty snacks like popcorn, corn chips, and pretzels while Mary craves nut butter.

Donna said, “I find it hard to say no to a second wine or beer and once I do, the gloves are off. I am more likely to try a little this or that.” Pam said she eats “food that looks good just because it’s out, whether at home or elsewhere.”

Attempting to Limit Certain Foods

Cathy said, “I have no real sense of what a “normal” day of eating would be anymore. It seems like there is always something wrong with whatever it is I eat. I always feel like I am cheating or eating the wrong thing.”

Others talked about their attempts to limit certain foods and the difficulty it was causing them. Irene said she was “missing pasta, pizza, and bread and butter and sandwiches.” Barbara is trying to find “low calorie, low fat foods that I can take to work for lunch that consists of more than just the same old thing. I think it would help me a great deal if I has more variety.”

Michele said, “I have always constantly desired to consume every dessert in the world every day. I have not eaten sugar—real or fake—for over 10 years, but still crave it. I try to avoid all the grains and potatoes with minimal success. Mike said his problem is “eating foods that are unhealthy for me. I have major health challenges, so I need to stay away from salt and carbohydrates. Then I end up eating tasty bread or salty nuts or salty crackers.”

Michele and Mike’s challenges are not surprising, as I explained in this video about the effects of restriction and guilt. As Katherine, said, “My control does well for 6 to 12 months, then I hit the wall and want everything I have been restricting.”

Trying to Eat “Healthy”

Kim complains of “food boredom” because she is “eating the same foods over and over again because they’re healthy.” Others, including Denise and Turanga, struggle with “making healthy choices.” Dina said her challenge is “the choice between something yummy and convenient that is not really what I feel is best for my body and the choice of a healthier option.” Lori is trying to eat “more protein and nights and weekend and control the snacks.”

Jim explained, “I was raised with great-tasting, but high-calorie, foods as the staples of my diet. I try hard to make better choices, and in some cases I have made meaningful changes in my diet, but I still find myself falling back to the high-fat and high-sodium foods of my childhood.”

For Jodi it is “saying NO to all the junk food and lunches at work!” Theresa is attempting to “moderate sweets, knowing when to indulge and how much should be enough, and not allowing the indulgence to last days or even weeks! Getting right back at eating well.”

No Good or Bad Foods

Apparently, some of you are trying to relax your restrictions (yay!) but having some challenges. Katherine is having difficulty “keeping balanced when allowing carbs in my diet. When I allow bread or sweets into my diet, then I want them every day.” Bethany said, “If I am craving pasta, carbs, or something that others would consider ‘unhealthy,’ I have a really hard time honoring that and having those kinds of foods.”

Beth is trying to “remove food rules, such as being OK with ice cream or candy.” Kathleen said, “I have been dieting my whole life which created many forbidden foods.” She is now working on “allowing myself to eat forbidden foods, to not feel guilty, or fear it may set off a binge.”

Meal Planning and Preparation

Others, like Kim, Sharon, Dean, Kathleen, Coleen, Kim, Martha, and Robin, have challenges with meal planning and preparation. Hester says she is “not giving myself enough time to cook food and eating bars or other prepared foods and not giving myself enough time to eat between activities.”

Kimberly said she is “Not cooking at home when I should. Relying on fast food options. Cooking is not what I want to do after a full day of work, then there is the worst part…the clean up!” Sue agrees: “I HATE cooking and LOVE the taste of food.”

Judy said, “Another challenge is budgeting for healthy eating.” Kelle struggles with “planning and preparing food for my family, as well as for my own needs, which usually are not aligned.” Similarly, one of Lori’s biggest challenges (“only two?”) is “aligning my food wants and needs with those of my family without preparing separate meals. Definitely, we are not all on the same page: Food choices, preparation, even timing.”

Eating Out

Eating out is a challenge for Cathy and for Kelly who said, “My mindset when we eat out tends to be that it’s somewhat of a treat time, so I overindulge or eat things that I know won’t make me feel good.”

Lori shared her challenge of “eating out – especially while traveling or on the road where the restaurant’s healthy selections are an afterthought. Every menu feels like a quiz: what’s the thing I like best that’s the best balance among taste, health, and what the restaurant can prepare well?”

Katherine says, “I travel a lot with work. It is difficult to make the right choices when eating out and ordering room service.”

Sharon says the challenge is the “availability of food – almost everywhere and ANY time.” For Nster, the challenge is “buffets and/or food I didn’t have to pay for, like samples” and for Barb, it’s “free food at the office.”

How do I eat?

Mindless Eating

Mindless eating is a challenge for Barb, who says, “I struggle with not doing something else while I eat.” Chris says the challenge is mindless snacking. Julie says she eats while watching TV in the evening.

Paulette, shared about “mindless eating in front of the computer as a way to cope with the stresses in my life.” Like Paulette, Kelly says she eats “while I work at my computer. I work from home so no one to watch me! I do it as a stress reliever for sure. I keep saying I will find an alternate thing to do but it has to be something that allows me to still do my work at the same time!”

(These are two of the numerous examples where people recognized that “why” they are eating affected other decision points.)

Secret Eating

Simma says one of her struggles is “secret eating – as if it doesn’t matter if no one knows I do it.” (Again, I don’t think she’s alone in this!)

Somer recognizes the pattern of “eating fast rather than enjoying my food,” and Lindsey says her challenge is “eating too much, too fast.”

Ray said he is “trying to slow down my eating. Having eaten my meals quickly most of my life, I find it a little difficult. I do put my fork down regularly, to pace myself. Putting less food on my plate does help to set myself up for slowing down while eating.”

Mina and Melissa have similar struggles. Mina’s is “mindlessly eating while preparing dinner and then having dinner” and Melissa says, “excessive snacking while I am prepping dinner, so I am not hungry at mealtime but proceed with eating meals anyway because it’s mealtime.”

Paulette wants to “take the time to make a meal a special occasion when eating alone.”

How much do I eat?

Portion Sizes

Jim says, “Managing portion size is far and away the hardest thing for me. I have a tough time feeling satisfied unless I’m eating large portions.”

A lot of other people say they struggle with “portion size” or “portion control” too, including Melissa, Denise, Anna, Ronald, Irene, Beth, Wendy, Lisa, Rita, Brook, Kim, and Lindsey. Somer and Lynn simple describe it as “overeating.”

Kimberly explains, “Snacking on chips or crackers gets out of control in terms of serving sizes. A serving is not half a big bag of chip or a whole sleeve of crackers with peanut butter, cheese or dip.” Jane said, “I am a confirmed Chip Aholic, not sure why there is not a support group for this problem. A large bag is no challenge for a gal like me.”

Jane says her issue is “not being able to have a couple of squares of chocolate and eating the whole bar.” But like Susan, it is not always chips or chocolate! Her problem is “eating more than my body needs, even if it’s healthy food.”

Am I Full?

Others are having difficulty identifying satiety, like Beth who struggles with “Knowing when I’m full,” and stopping before they feel too full, like Jane who says, “I don’t feel full until it’s too late,” and Carin, who says one of her challenges is “to stop eating when I am satisfied… I eat till I feel the food in my stomach and then it is too much.”

How to Stop Eating

Lisa said, “I don’t know how to stop eating when I am full.” Hillary agrees: “Not knowing how to stop. I eat mindfully and then get anxious/compulsive and keep going.” Katherine said, “In the past I have been able to be mindful regarding fullness however, currently I eat past and am not aware of if or when I am full.

Dina describes it like this: “Chronic overeating!!! Not wanting to stop eating at meals, eating too much while preparing meals, just eating to eat.”

Annette says she has trouble “stopping when I’m full and not going for a second helping because the food is really tasty.”

Where do I invest my energy?

This particular question is a little trickier. Most people think of spending energy on exercise, but it also includes how you invest in your body, mind, heart, and spirit. Some examples:

Body

Lindsey says, “I feel crappy when I go to bed or wake up early because my stomach is upset.”

Mind

Mina notices, “I keep thinking of food even for several hours after a meal.”

Heart

Susan struggles with “not berating myself for being a failure when I have a run of not eating mindfully.”

Spirit

Carolyn said, “My main goal is to find something else, something better to become my coping mechanism. I decided to start listening to music every time I decided I want to binge eat. Also, listening to my body, knowing what foods I really want, and if I really want to eat. Food was always on my mind so now I’m thinking about other things and not overthinking about when I eat.”

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