Do you feel as if you have no control over food? Maybe you make promises to yourself every day, vowing to “be good” with eating, and sometimes you do well for a day, a week, or longer.

Eventually, your willpower fails and you end up bingeing and gaining back all the weight you lost. Or you eat healthily all day, but you can’t stay out of the kitchen at night. You feel as if you have no willpower or control.

Yet bingeing is not about control. It’s not about willpower. And here’s the truth: it’s not even about food.

There are three reasons we binge: 

  1. If we don’t eat enough during the day, we may end up getting so ravenous that once we start eating, it’s hard to stop, and it’s hard to know we’re full until we’ve actually eaten too much. 
  2. We may eat for the wrong reasons, such as to calm down when we’re upset or to get energy when we’re tired. 
  3. We may eat as a way of coping with difficult and uncomfortable situations, conflicts, and emotions. 

Bingeing makes us feel out of control, but to create lasting change, it’s important to look at why we’re turning to food instead of focusing on what we’re eating.

When we’re constantly overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with all the demands of work, family, and other commitments, it can feel like everything is spinning out of control. Often, we focus on feeling powerless over food instead of looking at areas in our lives that aren’t working.

For example, Ginger recently went through a painful time in her marriage. After discovering her husband’s gambling problem, she felt as if she were in a tailspin.

“I had no idea what was going on,” she said. She only found out about his gambling addiction after he lost a significant amount of their hard-earned savings.

She shared how upset she was about this, and then she stopped herself. She took a moment and when she spoke, this is what she said. Ginger said, “You know what? I’m so mad at myself because I can’t stop eating chips. I’m out of control with food.”

She felt powerless over the situation with her husband. Yet, instead of recognizing how mad she was at him for hiding his gambling problem and losing so much money, Ginger turned against herself by focusing on her lack of control over food.

This is called displacement. Experiencing stress, anxiety, or a sense of powerlessness in some areas of our lives leads us to focus instead on food, diet, and weight, which we supposedly can control. Feeling out of control in those parts of our lives gets displaced into feeling out of control with food.

Remember this: You have the power to change your life

When life feels as if it’s spinning out of control, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That sense of powerlessness is amplified when life throws you a curveball. Like Ginger, life sometimes throws curveballs. We find ourselves facing unexpected obstacles: illness, job loss, relationship difficulties, or other situations. We all know what it was like to face a worldwide pandemic that upended our lives.

Even without a significant and unexpected stressor, our everyday lives can also feel chaotic. From the demands of work and family to our own expectations of ourselves, just getting through the day can feel like an uphill battle.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to regain a sense of control over our lives. When we are more empowered, we are less likely to use food for comfort or distraction from what’s bothering us or making us feel helpless or disempowered. 

The power is in your hands (even if it doesn’t feel like it)

Often we talk about wanting to be “in control” and that can mean different things to different people. The definition of being in control means having the power to make decisions that impact your life, both in the present and in the future.

Feeling a sense of agency gives us the strength to hang in there when we’re challenged by the messiness of life. With that sense of control comes greater ease.

To have control in your life also means having confidence in yourself, trusting your decisions, and believing in yourself, even when you’re going through difficult times. 

And, taking back the reins of your life is possible–with the right guidance. 

The first step in cultivating a sense of control in your life is coming to terms with the reality that you cannot change some situations and people. The only thing you have power over is yourself.

What does that mean? Your attitudes, effort, and decisions about how you spend your time or how you choose to respond to various situations are completely up to you. 

That doesn’t mean you have control over your emotions. Our emotions are reactions to situations. We can’t decide not to be upset. But we absolutely CAN choose how to respond when we’re upset. 

For example, Ginger was furious and disappointed in her husband. When she realized she had turned those emotions against herself, getting angry and frustrated with herself for bingeing, she still felt at a loss.

“I don’t want to get mad at my husband and scream and yell and throw things,” she said. “That won’t help the situation. It won’t get my money back.”

Ginger was conflating the reaction of anger with certain behaviors. She equated getting angry with yelling, screaming, and throwing things. That happened when her mom and stepdad fought, and she didn’t want any part of that.

In fact, she never expressed any kind of anger or frustration–except toward herself.

Yet, the experience of anger is just that–a reaction. The behavioral expression of that emotion is what we can control. 

Ginger didn’t realize she could feel angry and disappointed without losing her temper and throwing things. She learned there are different ways of expressing anger, and communicating with words is one of them. She took steps to share with her husband about how she felt, and together they made a plan to deal with his addiction.

Also, Ginger initially said there was no point in sharing her feelings because it wouldn’t change the situation. It wouldn’t put money back in the bank.

We don’t express our feelings to change the situation. We express ourselves to change the way we feel about a situation. For example, when someone passes away, we don’t grieve so they’ll come back to life. We go through a grieving process so that we can come to terms with the loss.

Also, when faced with situations that are out of your control, such as the behavior of other people, it’s easy to feel helpless, as if someone is doing something to us and we have no choice. Converting helplessness over situations to helplessness about food only makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Remember that although some aspects of life are beyond our influence, there is almost always something we can do to empower ourselves. We can find new ways to adapt to or manage people and situations, including situations around food.

Dieting and the false promise of control & change

The $60 billion dollar diet industry sells us the illusion that by controlling our weight we can control our lives. The idea is by losing weight, we can make other people like us more. By losing weight, we will be more in control of our bodies and by extension, our lives.

Imagine what a fantastic superpower it would be if we could manage aspects of our lives, including other people, simply by changing the number on the scale. What power! What control!

Yet, this is a lie. It’s an idea pedaled by the diet and wellness industry so that people keep dieting.

Dieting is inherently about some kind of deprivation. When we restrict certain types of food or food groups, that creates a sense of deprivation which leads to a preoccupation with all the foods we are denying ourselves.

Over time, these cravings can become more intense and challenging to resist, leading to loss of control and bingeing. Deprivation also leads to anxiety, which makes us more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort or relief.

Also, restricting foods leads to increased hunger. That makes us more likely to lose control and overeat or binge when we finally allow ourselves to eat. This leads to guilt and shame around food. By eating food we consider “bad” or off limits, we feel as if we’ve failed and can be vulnerable to self-criticism. That often leads to turning to food and bingeing as a way of managing guilt and shame, and the cycle continues.

Dieting itself can be stressful and anxiety-provoking. When we constantly think about what we can and can’t eat, we feel stressed and upset. Sometimes, turning to food is a way of relieving this stress. Therefore, there are many ways in which deprivation and restriction leads to being out of control with food.

The truest sense of empowerment comes from making choices about aspects of our lives, not from changing our weight. To feel more empowered, focus on situations where you have a choice about how you respond. Realizing what is actually in your control helps you decide most effectively how to use your time and energy.

When we come to terms with those aspects of life we cannot control and simultaneously become more intentional about those areas we can control, we feel more empowered.

For Ginger, that meant taking steps to regain a sense of efficacy over certain parts of her life. Setting financial boundaries with her husband was one of the things she did, along with taking piano lessons, which she’d always wanted to do. She also focused on self-care. She felt more empowered and stopped using food for solace and distraction.

In addition to those steps, Ginger sought support and joined a group of people whose significant others had a gambling addiction. Talking to others in a similar situation was incredibly helpful. She felt less alone and more understood and got a lot out of the group. 

If you feel as if you lack control over food, concentrate on areas where you feel empowered. Instead of thinking about your weight, food, or instances where you feel powerless, focus your mind on those areas where you have choices. By doing this, practicing self-care and setting boundaries, you will feel more of a sense of agency and control.

Ready to break free from binge eating? Here are some powerful strategies to empower you:

Set new goals

When we feel like our lives are off-course, it’s easy to feel as if nothing will ever work out. By pivoting and creating new goals and taking steps to meet them, we feel a sense of purpose and direction.

Setting weight loss goals or intentions that involve stopping certain behaviors (like binge eating) or restricting foods usually leads to disappointment. Instead, set goals that will create more dimension and add interest to your life. 

These goals might be practicing more self care, learning something new (like Ginger’s piano lessons), or taking up a new hobby, all of which contribute to a sense of purpose and well-being.

Identify the aspects of your life that you can control. 

These may be your thoughts, actions, and choices. This can help you feel more empowered and give you a sense of direction.

One effective way to get clarity and perspective is journaling. Keeping a journal helps you track your progress over time and also is a way to identify patterns in your life. Writing gives you an outlet for expressing difficult emotions so that you can express them in words instead of trying to ignore them, drop them, positive-think them away, or symbolically stuff them down with food.

Setting boundaries is also empowering. That means understanding your limits and not allowing other people to overstep those limits. For example, if someone makes a comment or asks you to do something you don’t want to do, give yourself the opportunity to speak up.

Master the art of saying “no”.

There’s a lot of talk about the word “boundaries” lately (Jonah Hill used “boundaries” to justify his attempts to control his fiance’s Instagram account). 

Boundaries are essential but many people cringe at the idea of setting boundaries. They want to keep everyone happy and the idea of setting boundaries feels like a confrontation or an anxiety-producing interaction, so they don’t set boundaries and instead end up feeling drained, overstretched, or even resentful. 

What exactly are boundaries? Boundaries are like the invisible lines we draw around ourselves to protect our physical and emotional. Think of them as the rules and guidelines we set for ourselves and others and they reference behavior that is acceptable or not.

Setting healthy boundaries can significantly improve our relationships and overall well-being, including our relationship with ourselves. Here are some practical steps to learn how to set boundaries: 

1. Identify Your Limits: The first step is to understand what you can tolerate and accept and what potentially makes you feel uncomfortable. 

2. Listen to Your Feelings: If you’re upset or anxious, it might be a sign that your boundaries are being crossed. Take these feelings seriously. They are like an emotional compass pointing you in the direction of self-care and self-protection.

3. Communicate Your Boundaries: Clearly articulate your boundaries to others. Remember, people are not mind readers, so it’s up to you to let them know where your line is. 

As an example, Jackson was getting upset because he was often expected to work overtime. He wasn’t getting paid for this overtime; it was part of his job. 

At first, he told himself he was being a team player and it was a good thing to show up whenever he was asked. But he was eating pretzels and getting mad at himself for not having control over food. He was ignoring his anger about the job situation and taking it out on himself.

Instead of silently suffering and growing resentful, Jackson learned to articulate his boundaries. He said something to his supervisor:

“Hey, I want to talk about my work schedule.”

He said he’d been working a lot of overtime and was taking over my life. He understood that there may be times when working late is necessary, but he needed to make sure this doesn’t become a regular expectation. 

He told his boss, “From now on, I’ll need to leave at 6 p.m. on most days unless there’s a critical situation. This is going to help me maintain a work-life balance and also make sure that I’m at my most productive when I’m here.”

Jackson communicated in a clear, respectful, and assertive way. He explained your position, set the limit (leaving at 6 p.m.), and also highlighted how this change would also benefit his productivity. He let them know where the line was. 

Initially his supervisor was not happy about this, but Jackson held his ground and he got his work-life balance back. 

4. Practice Assertiveness: It’s one thing to set boundaries, and it’s another to enforce them. If someone crosses a boundary, politely but firmly let them know. That’s what Jackson did; he was assertive but not angry. He got his point across and he did not back down.

5. Take Care of Yourself: Self-care is a crucial part of setting boundaries. Recognize that your needs and feelings are important and deserve to be honored. There’s a saying, “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.” That’s a good rule to live by. You matter, too.

Remember, setting boundaries doesn’t make you selfish or rude. It’s about having self-respect and creating mutual respect in your relationships. You have every right to set boundaries for yourself and hold people accountable for respecting them. 

Saying ‘no’ is empowering, and so is saying “yes” in situations when you choose to say yes. When you give yourself the right to have rights, instead of always accommodating other people or protecting them, it’s easier to set boundaries.

6. Seek support from supportive people. We often believe we should be able to figure everything out on our own, as if seeking help makes us weak, or a burden to others.

Yet, connecting with other people can make all the difference. Not only do we benefit, it gives them the opportunity to be there for us, which can be a good feeling for them. 

Online communities are great for that, such as my Dr. Nina’s Food for Thought Community on Facebook. No matter what your situation, there are always people who can relate to you and offer guidance, support, and perspective.

Master fear with your mind 

When life feels out of control, it’s easy to be anxious and fear the worst. Fears about the future often lead to anxiety in the present about situations that have not happened and may not happen. If you don’t have a reliable way to manage your anxiety, you might turn to food to cope.

Instead of focusing on areas where you feel anxious, afraid, or powerless, and worrying about what may happen, stay with “what is” which is reality and what you know to be true in the present.

By focusing on the areas of life we can control, we can develop a sense of agency that helps us overcome feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. 

While there will always be things in life that are beyond our control, it is possible to take action and cultivate a greater sense of control over our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. In this way, we move towards greater well-being and fulfillment. 

When we feel a sense of contentment in our lives, we also have a sense of empowerment with food.

Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Binge Cure with Dr. Nina on VoiceAmerica’s Health & Wellness channel.