We used to think of overeating as an isolated behavior divorced from the rest of personality—she can’t say no chocolate, he never met a burger he didn’t like—but science is connecting the dots between saying “no” to food and other self-regulatory malfunctions. Consider hoarding, an inability to deny yourself new items and let go of old ones, which is a disorder of sufficiency, a glitch in the felt sense of enough. It’s obvious what this condition has in common with overeating.
When we cannot turn from or throw away food when we’re stuffed, we are making choices from faulty wiring in our brain. Our mouths water in anticipation whether we are hungry or not; we are so attached that we cannot stop eating although another mouthful is clearly not in our best interest. Why is that? Are we merely weak-minded and a little crazy? Studies on hoarding tell a different story: the brains of hoarders react differently to shredding papers they don’t want to part with than do the brains of people who don’t have a similar attachment to printed material. It’s a short leap to wonder if the brain of an overeater might not show a different charge than that of a “normal” eater when saying “no” to a craved food.
People who don’t understand compulsive eating attribute the inability to refuse food to poor self-discipline, not realizing how profoundly physical the process is. Saying “no” is waving goodbye to a loved one at the station, never knowing if you’ll ever see your beloved again, a small death that reverberates in the heart, a tug so strong that it feels as if you have lost all governing power over yourself. Perhaps this intense magnetism is due, in part, to how our brains react to letting go of food. You can actually feel a spike of intensity throughout your body in that surreal moment when you finally yank yourself away from what you’re eating or grab onto the word “no” that is flitting through your mind and anchor it to the behavior of stopping eating.
We say “yes” to overeating so automatically that we may not recognize these feelings in any conscious way: all we know is that we believe we literally cannot bear to say “no.” Whatever follows the word is too intolerable to contemplate, too terrible to endure. Understanding that this irrational thought is only a brain malfunction, a perception of reality rather than reality itself, may help you let go. Every time you say “no” when you’re full or not hungry, you’re resetting the mechanism in your brain, rewiring it so that it will work more functionally the next time you’re faced with an eating decision. Next time your brain screams “no” to food, give a little smile and wave a firm goodbye.
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