The holiday season has officially arrived. For many of us, that means family gatherings, parties with friends and co-workers, out-of-town travels—a season of food, festivities and more food.
If you struggle with overeating and are sick of the yo-yo diets and the emotional binges, this time of year can be particularly stressful and difficult. But don’t put off facing your unhealthy relationship with food into the new year.
Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, is the author of “Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five-Point Plan for Success” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, August 2018). Englander, a licensed psychotherapist for more than 20 years, trained at Columbia University and is currently in private practice in North Palm Beach, Florida, where she specializes in treating people coping with eating disorders, relationship issues, depression, anxiety, grief and stress (personal and work-related). Love Your Food® is her non-dieting, psychologically oriented program for compulsive overeaters in which clients learn to eat whatever they like but stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating.
Aside from her professional training and experience, Englander is also personally familiar with the issue of eating disorders because she is a former compulsive overeater.
24Life asked Englander to share her personal journey with food, some insights from her new book, and her tips for overeaters looking to change their relationship with food and take that first step.
24Life: What drew you to psychotherapy? Why did you go into that field?
Arlene B. Englander: My parents were always very giving, caring people who tried to help others whenever they could. Their kindness inspired me to try to do the same.
24Life: What inspired you to write this book? How much of this book was written based off your own experience overcoming overeating?
AE: As not only a licensed Columbia University–trained psychotherapist but also a former emotional overeater, I wanted to help others learn that food is to be loved and not feared and that true satisfaction can bring true control.
In my teens and early adulthood, I’d binged and fasted, then spent a number of years yo-yo dieting and obsessing about food. It’s wonderful to be free of that and to be able to savor my food and eat whatever I like yet stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating.
It’s also gratifying to help others do so, now more than ever given the acquisition of the book by Rowman & Littlefield, an international academic and scholarly publisher. They’re distributing it to a general readership, though, because they think it’s both entertaining and informative—and I hope they’re right. So far, the reviews have been excellent!
Much of the book is based on my own personal experiences, as well as anecdotes from clients and references from my professional training and professional readings.
24Life: Who did you write this book for, and who can benefit from reading it?
AE: This book is for anyone who’d like to move past a love/hate relationship with food yet be healthier, more fit, and enjoy life and food more. There’s an emphasis on handling stress effectively away from the table so that we can be free to eat what we like, relax, savor our food and stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating. It’s a skill that can be learned—and an enjoyable one.
24Life: What do you hope readers take from this book?
AE: I’d like readers to realize that there is hope. If they’ve struggled with eating issues throughout their lives, it is possible to move forward to a happier, healthier, more self-accepting life. But awareness is key in moving forward. A concept that is key is my definition of emotional overeating: eating neither for the satisfaction of hunger nor for enjoyment but to distract ourselves from painful thoughts and feelings. Becoming aware of that difference is step No. 1 in adopting some of the skills mentioned above and more.
24Life: Tell me about your experience with food as a former overeater—what circumstances or stressors created negative eating patterns and behaviors in your own life? How did you recognize and identify those?
AE: My parents were incredibly wise, wonderful and caring people, but my mother was a worrier, and my dad developed serious health issues in early adulthood, which contributed to mounting anxiety for both of them. He became an emotional overeater, which may have contributed to my adapting that defense. But as adults, as I stress in my book, it’s up to us to learn how to nurture ourselves and self-soothe rather than cling to reasons from the past for our behaviors. I’m so grateful for all my parents gave me in every way.
24Life: Why do you think people compulsively overeat—what are some of the major causes?
AE: It’s often unresolved stress. When we learn to be tuned in to our own characteristic “pain-producing” thoughts and to talk back to them in a compassionate yet logical way, we are able to soothe ourselves sans food, so that while loving food more than ever, other pleasures in life loom even larger.
24Life: What does your relationship with food look like now?
AE: I’m really a foodie. I love food, mostly healthy food. I eat 90 percent healthy food, 10 percent fun food, as most evolved nutritionists now advise. I savor small, sane portions of it, truly enjoying it while I eat, but enjoying my life too much to think very much about food unless I’m hungry.
24Life: What do you do when you accidentally overeat or “slip up”? What does your self-talk sound like, and how do you get back on track?
AE: I don’t “slip up” because I’ve adopted truly pleasurable habits to handle food and stress. I’m now eating in a much more “in the moment,” mindful and enjoyable way. There’s no deprivation involved, nor bingeing, as with dieting.
If it’s practical—as are all my suggestions—it can happen and eventually become habitual. If it’s pleasurable, again, as the pointers in “Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food” are, as well, it becomes permanent.
24Life: When it comes to eating healthfully, starting can be overwhelming. Where do you recommend people start first?
AE: They can start by being aware of how much pleasure they’re experiencing in their lives and with food. When are they really present, fully experiencing themselves and their lives? What can they do to experience this more?
24Life: How can family and friends care for and support their loved ones who may be struggling with overeating? What are some signs they can look for, and should they say something/help?
AE: Family and friends can be loving and supportive and let their loved ones know they are there for them, if they need company or to talk. Acceptance from others can help foster the self-acceptance needed to move forward.
24Life: On the opposite side of that, we often receive a lot of unsolicited advice from others when it comes to getting healthy, and those suggestions might be more destructive than constructive. How should someone struggling with overeating cope with that kind of input?
AE: By becoming aware of the “pain-producing” thoughts—the “should’s,” negative labeling, what-if’s—and answering back in a nurturing way, we can soothe ourselves far more effectively than desperately resorting to abusing food.
24Life: What’s next for you?
AE: I love my practice, writing and presenting Love Your Food® seminars. Life is good!
Photo credit: Ali Inay, Unsplash; Courtesy of Arlene Englander