Overeating Since Moving to College

By December 18, 2012

I’m 20 years old. My height is 5’9″ and I don’t know how much I weigh—last I checked about ***. I recently made a few big changes in my life, a huge move (away from family and friends to attend school), and a decision to become vegan. I’m writing to this specific panel because I find myself overeating since my move—out of boredom or depression; I’m not sure. I feel as though other areas of my life are not being fulfilled and that is what has led to this bad habit. However, I’ve always struggled with my weight and eating habits, and I desperately want to be in better shape, to be thin, to get rid of a flabby belly that I’ve had my entire life. But I am never able to develop good eating or exercise habits that I can commit to for more than a few months. I’m a student, so I don’t have a lot of money, but I want to be healthy, physically and mentally. This is one of my number one priorities in life—and will be throughout. But I don’t know where to start. Where should I seek help? Should I seek help at all? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Hi K.,

I am glad that you chose to write us. Your letter clearly shows your frustration and pain, and I understand those feelings. Having a body that is healthy and capable of being active is very important, and I will give you some ideas (from a psychological perspective) to move in that direction. However, I need to point out some very important issues first.

Although I am not a registered dietitian and there are many factors involved in calculating a healthy body weight, a simple review of your BMI (Body Mass Index) suggests that you are just around the top end of the healthy normal range. Although losing a few pounds and getting in shape can be a goal, it is important to look at the underlying reasons for wanting to lose losing weight. I applaud the terms you use, “I want to be healthy, physically and mentally.” Healthy is the real goal for exercise and eating reasonably, but for many young ladies your age, the goal is to develop a body that is as close as possible to what the media and certain parts of our society pass off as the ideal – which is neither ideal nor healthy.

You have to differentiate goals from methods. A goal is what you really want; the method is what you believe you need to do in order to obtain that goal. Seeking to fulfill a good goal with the wrong method can be a disaster. If a person wants to be happy (a goal) and believes that being rich (a method) is the solution, that person is likely headed for a downfall. Several recent studies have shown that after a person moves above the poverty level, money adds very little to the person’s sense of well-being. People often lose sight of the original goal (being happy) and the method becomes a goal that comes to possess them (i.e., making a lot of money becomes a goal that dominates their lives).

This happens with eating disorders: “I want to feel accepted and good about myself” (goal) “so I will lose weight” (method). Soon self-acceptance and feeling good (the original goals) are completely buried beneath the tyranny of calorie counting, scales and feeling fat regardless of how thin the person becomes. Weight becomes a goal in and of itself. This happens because there are aspects of our lives that cannot be fulfilled by physical appearance, except in the short-term. If body image were truly a major source of happiness, celebrity substance abuse rehabilitation programs would go out of business.

Although I am not certain, the sense I get from your email is that you are not happy with who you are, and that relationships in your past and/or current ones have been disappointing and unfulfilling. Wanting to feel good about who you are and wanting good peer relationships, as well as perhaps a relationship with a boyfriend, are good goals, but I am concerned that the method is desperately wanting to “…be in better shape, to be thin, [and] to get rid of a flabby belly that I’ve had my entire life.”

Even if you get in better shape, become thin and get rid a flabby belly, it will not resolve the underlying problems. Achieving those goals may bring temporary relief, but it won’t last. I strongly recommend therapy or counseling. Often, colleges have counselors on staff or they have contracts with counselors in the community who will see their students for low fees. Or perhaps your parents could help pay for some counseling if those resources are not available. If you belong to a church, they also may have counseling. Make sure the counselors don’t simply tell you to get your act together, but are able and willing to explore your issues in a non-judgmental manner and move towards healing.

All of this isn’t to say you should not work on getting into healthy shape (not thin – but healthy). You can do that in addition to seeking counseling; the one does not eliminate the other. You will find that the counseling will actually help you control your eating. Here’s why.

Your statement “I feel as though other areas of my life are not being fulfilled and that is what has led to this bad habit…” is both accurate and important. The unfulfilled areas and even boredom create feelings that are unpleasant. These unpleasant feelings create a drive within you to do something that will stop those feelings. Food is easy, quick and available – and it can reduce those unpleasant feelings almost instantly, even the boredom.

When you eat, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is associated with gratification and pleasure, and is released, not only by food, but many other behaviors that result in pleasure – some good (music) some not so good (drugs like cocaine). You will be especially vulnerable to emotional eating as a means of trying to feel better as long as those unfulfilled areas of your life have not been dealt with, whether or not you get in shape.

This isn’t just psychological but physiological. As you work on the issues that create the unpleasant feelings and find other sources of fulfillment in your daily life, you will be much less vulnerable to food. To use an analogy, if you were taking too many Tylenol pills every night because you always had a headache, getting rid of the headaches would automatically lower your need for Tylenol. As you deal with the problems and wounds (past and current) you lower the need for emotional eating. Exercise is good when it is not excessive or compulsive (i.e., you have to exercise to feel okay about yourself). You will also likely find that – as you deal with your emotional issues – you have more energy, which will help you exercise more.

My guess is you are also dealing with shame issues, but again I cannot be sure. If this does not apply to you, please forgive my inserting it here, but just in case, this is an area that I want to cover. If you try to control your eating and exercise regularly to lower shame that is already there, then fail to live up to the goals you set for yourself, the shame is waiting in the lurch to spring up with a slew of self-deprecatory thoughts. “I’ll never be able to do this; I will always be this way.” Shame never leads to long-term healthy behaviors. Like a parent who uses shame to get a child to “do what’s right,” so you will use shame on yourself to motivate exercise and to control your eating. Children controlled by shame eventually learn that they can never be good enough to please the parent – and so they give up, or they go to extremes to please the parent by going way beyond. If the parent shames the child for being lazy – the child will never allow him or herself to rest.

In the same way, if you use shame on yourself, you will say “What’s the use? I might as well not exercise at all – or I might as well overeat, because I am so undisciplined and weak willed I will never be able to do it.” You can end up hating yourself and at the very same time pitying yourself. Neither is good. You will be especially vulnerable to this if you are using food-control and exercise to achieve goals such as improved self-esteem, healthy peer relations and confidence. In your mind, when you fail, the stakes are extremely high – you are not just failing to get into shape – you are robbing yourself of having a happy life. The other problem with shame is that it tends to be perfectionist; if you are eating more than you want – or miss a few exercise times – you feel like a complete failure.

Exercise and eat well with the right goal in mind – to be in-shape and to feel good about your body. If you have to be thin to feel good about your body it is a huge red flag that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with quickly. Actually, feeling good about your body doesn’t have to relate to weight at all, people who are overweight can feel good about their body and happier than thin people who cannot think about anything else.

The answer is grace. If you miss exercising or you eat too much, demonstrate grace to yourself. Just as if you were taking care of a sensitive child who didn’t do something the way she wanted – “that’s okay, tomorrow is another day.” The Lord’s mercy is new every morning. This response is far more likely to result in long-term change than high pressure and shame.

Here are some other tips that are not related to the psychological issues. I list these only with the thought that you will move on the deeper issues:

  • When you exercise, start with a level that doesn’t leave you tired or uncomfortable. If you are really tired and uncomfortable there will be a natural and healthy aversion to doing it again. As you continue to exercise you will improve your physiological functioning (cardio-vascular capacity). Because you are in better shape – you will be able to exercise to a point that would have exhausted you when you first started. Make it fun and feeling good, if you want to make it a habit.
  • Eat several times throughout the day. Don’t let yourself be hungry when you are most vulnerable to overeating.
  • Don’t eat fewer calories than what you need to maintain a healthy weight. If you do, your body will think it is starving and will slow your metabolism down, making it even harder.
  • College is a busy time. You do not have to exercise all at once. You can exercise with a 10 minute walk, then a 15 minute walk later on, then maybe some other activity after that. Breaking it up will prevent the all-or-none feeling as well. 

It is also important to work to develop a strong peer group whose values are more substantial than being overly concerned with appearance, gossiping about others, being exclusive, involved with clicks, etc. God did not intend for us to be alone. If you have problems in social groups, this is another area where counseling or mentoring can help. God bless you. Let me leave you with a Scripture that is a constant reminder to me – and that I have come to love:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Isaiah 55:1-2

David Wall, PhD