I’ve overcome over eating and depression several times in my life. I want to share with you now how I did it and how you can use my experience to break free from food obsessions, sugar cravings, overeating and depression for good.
What causes depression
Many things can cause depression. Doctors will tell it’s caused by a chemical imbalance. Others may suggest it’s because you’ve had an unhappy childhood. Sometimes, people will suggest the cause is a major life crisis, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. A grieving period is absolutely normal but how about an enduring depression?
I believe depression can be caused by several factors, but most result from the kind of thoughts you keep in your head all day and the intensity of emotions attached to those thoughts. For example, if you think that your life will always be disappointing and painful and you attach feelings of hurt and despair to it, you have a good chance of experiencing depression after some time… Thoughts like: “ I can’t go on.”, “I’ll never be happy again.”, “The same thing always happens to me. I can’t get out.”…. are thoughts likely to cause depression. They are general thoughts, leaving no room for improvement or hope.
I went through depression several times in the past, and each time I completely ceased to see a happy future in my life. When I thought of the future, all I could see was darkness.
I used to overeat when I was depressed. I’d eat till I was so stuffed, the only thing I could do was sleep.
Can Depression Cause Overeating
When I look back at my own life, I can clearly see that I started overeating only during a prolonged mild depression. Severe depression tended to cause me to stop eating altogether.
My family was vegetarian, so I knew what healthy food was. The problem was, I felt like I had to eat until all the food was gone.
Sometimes I made myself throw up because I felt so panicked about the amount I’d just eaten.
I never had any professional help. The only time I talked about it was when I cried to friends at parties.
They’d say, “You’re slim, so what’s the problem?”
And I get it. On the outside, I looked sorted. But for me, eating was a constant obsession.
I’d try to rein it in by counting calories. Or I’d plan to only have one or two helpings, but I’d always cave in and eat everything.
It went on for years.
It was my normal.
But it reached an all-time low in my final year at college.
In the past, I’d overeat in the evening and then sleep off my food coma at night; but now I was binging and sleeping during the day as well when I should have been studying for final exams.
It was the most miserable time.
Every morning I’d head out to the campus library, with a packed lunch in my rucksack, and a plan to read all day.
But in the library, I’d be bored. By 10:00, I’d eat the sandwiches. Then I’d want more. So by lunchtime, I’d head home with a bagful of groceries.
And eat. A lot.
Then, when I was completely, utterly, totally, abysmally full, I’d crawl into bed.
I’d wake up when it was dark. I’d hear my housemates joking together. They seemed to be having a normal college experience!
I hated my body for making me eat. I hated how fat and sobbed out I felt.
At those times, I felt completely overwhelmed, incapable of facing my responsibilities and having to try very hard just to deal with my day-to-day life. I was numbing or exacerbating my emotions with food, movies or other activities.
I also started eating cookies and chocolates daily in order to get some sense of satisfaction or pleasure in my life. I was functioning. I could work, but I was really unhappy.
I’m not sure if I really remembered what it felt to feel loved, powerful, cherished and important. Most of the time I felt worthless, unwanted, not good enough; incapable of taking care of myself, facing my fears and doing the things that mattered. Those were dark days and I didn’t want to admit it. More importantly, I felt trapped. I couldn’t see a better future for myself so I was putting up with the one I thought was mine.
All I had to help me were TV shows, some movies and a lot of chocolates & cookies. I was doing everything I could to avoid my feelings. If I hadn’t denied them, maybe I would have been forced to admit that I needed help, that I was losing all my self-esteem. But I thought that was all I was worth, I thought I could never be better, do better or have better, so I should cling on to what I had. Who would want to help such a dumb person as me?
This is my story. Yours is probably different. I don’t think all emotional eaters are necessarily depressed, but they tend to share similar beliefs, like “ I have no other choice” or “ I’m not good enough” or “I can’t have what I want in life”. These are negative thoughts even if they don’t lead to severe depression.
In other words, depression can sometimes cause overeating, but not all overeaters are suffering from severe depression.
Can Fatty Foods and Sugar Make Depression Worse
A researcher concluded in his study that “In addition to causing obesity, rich foods can actually cause chemical reactions in the brain in a similar way to illicit drugs, ultimately leading to depression.
I’ve certainly experienced a strong tie between mild depression and sugar cravings. The more sugar I ate, the less I was taking action to make my life better. This made me feel trapped and unhappy and I ate more sugar to alleviate that pain.
So, in case you’re struggling with food yourself, here are some mind-shifts that completely ended my overeating.
1. Tell yourself you’re not broken.
It’s easy to feel ashamed for having a problem when everyone around you makes eating look easy.
You know what you should be doing, and you can’t. It feels like there must be something wrong with you.
But there’s not!
When we’re in a fix, it’s perfectly natural to reach for something. At some point in the past, the food was the best solution you could come up with.
Well done, you!
Just because overeating doesn’t serve you now, doesn’t mean you were stupid or wrong for taking that approach then.
Your eating may look crazy, but that’s how your unconscious mind waves a red flag, telling you something is up on a deeper level.
Your inner wisdom is alive! That’s very much a sign you’re not broken!
2. Ditch guilt and self-punishment.
I used to feel like the temptation to overeat was this big weakness that won every time.
I’d plan to be strong, but then I’d think, “One last time won’t hurt.”
Then I’d overeat, panic that I’d done it again, and lay on the guilt. I thought, “If I hate myself hard enough, I’ll teach myself such a lesson I’ll never do it again.”
But I still slipped up, and my self-hate grew.
Over time, guilt completely sapped my confidence. I felt like a criminal. That I didn’t deserve to ever be normal.
But there’s nothing morally wrong with overeating. It’s not bad.
You’re not bad. You’re allowed to make mistakes.
When you stop feeling guilty, you can continue your journey, praise yourself for caring, come up with new creative ways forward, and get to know yourself better.
3. Make a no-rules pledge.
Do you have a lot of ideas about what you should and shouldn’t eat?
I didn’t realize I had food rules in my head because I never dieted.
But I always made promises to myself. I tried to be healthy (“No more fast-food.”) Or ethical (“I’m vegetarian.”) Or well-informed (“I’ll try being gluten free.”)
I restricted myself, like a dieter.
It’s a natural mistake to try to get ‘good at’ eating by following rules and plans.
It’s not that sticking to plans is bad—it’s great for getting things done, budgeting for a holiday, and not randomly adding grapefruit segments to a birthday cake recipe (sorry, Mum).
But when it comes to your body and emotions, you need a more intuitive approach.
Rules and restrictions are an invitation to your inner rebel to go ape.
You break your rule, you fail.
Failure is a killer because you can’t build progress. You just stop! You give yourself a hard time. You start over. It’s a huge drain on your energy and morale.
So stop making rules.
Instead, give yourself permission.
You can choose a vegetarian option if you want to; you might cook a meal from scratch if you feel like it, and you might pick foods that give you energy if that’s what you feel like.
4. Slow down and enjoy your food.
If you’re overeating as I was, you might think that “enjoying food more” is the opposite of what you need!
But (weird thought coming up…)
… maybe you don’t enjoy eating enough!
As an overeater, sure, I’d think about food all day. But while I was actually eating, I’d be completely zoned out.
Learning to eat slowly, and concentrate, made it easier to switch off about food between meals.
It also redirected all the worry about what I was eating, into a more relaxing focus on how I was eating.
Plus, when I slowed down everything tasted yummier! Even a sweaty boiled egg from a lunch box was really good.
The more you enjoy the eating experience, the more your cravings settle down. And one day, you notice you’re full: satisfied, but not stuffed.
I was blown away when it happened to me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the potatoes I left on my plate. I just sat staring at them.
They were just potatoes. They didn’t have any power over me.
5. Move your body.
I used to dread sports.
I thought it was all about counting things and competing. And I felt like I never measured up.
The only good feelings I got after exercise were from knowing how many calories I’d burnt.
At college, my friends went for a run, but I couldn’t join in. I felt embarrassed that I could only run for …
So I went to the park secretly, to shuffle around with my headphones.
One minute was almost pointless… but not quite. Because after I did that a few times, I found I liked my body a tiny bit more.
I felt refreshed. I wasn’t judging my body from the outside, I was feeling good inside instead.
There’s a lovely word for that: embodiment.
I started to have fun.
I joined my friends. They liked to go running in nature, with fresh air and flowers. They’d speed off, and I’d just boogie to my walkman
You can move your body, even if you’re not good at it. You don’t need to be head to toe in lycra. You don’t have to think about calories or try to do a bit more each time. It doesn’t have to look like exercise at all!
It can look like messing around with a hula hoop.
When you embody, your self-criticism about your body calms down. And that helps to eat become natural and easy.
6. Let your desires lead you.
When I overate, I used to feel possessed by urges.
I thought cravings were evil forces that wanted to ruin my life, and that eating to the point of self-disgust was the only way to silence them.
But now, when I look back at those binges, they make perfect sense: My body was starving for carbs!
“Lo-carb” was a fashionable way to eat around that time, and my housemates didn’t buy bread or pasta, so I’d slipped into it too.
So our appetite isn’t evil after all! It guides us to what our bodies need.
When I realized that, I saw that I didn’t accept my other fits of hunger either.
Your desires make you, you. When you enjoy what nobody loves quite as crazily as you, you’re living out your life purpose.
Blue cheese was created by the universe. And then it needed someone to go nuts about it.
That’s what I’m here for. 😉
7. Redirect your energy where it counts in the world.
When eating is an obsession, it takes over your day.
All that brainpower spent on eating doesn’t leave much for things that matter to you. The things that make life fun.
By the end of college, I couldn’t see the point of studying literature anymore. I didn’t want to admit that my degree was a big, expensive, mistake. Hibernating under a duvet was easier.
But I also didn’t dare own up to what I really wanted: to illustrate and write and perform. To communicate and belong and connect.
I always thought, “First I’ll fix my eating and get a better body shape, and then I’ll go for it.”
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we used all that energy to love our people and do our thing?
Straight away, not later when we’re ‘perfect’?
Beneath my food challenge was another, bigger challenge that I was avoiding: to do what I cared about.
It’s ongoing, but it’s worth it.
The more I stop worrying about my eating, the more room I have to throw at it.