I was recently interviewed by Janice Bremis, founder of Eating Disorders Resource Services, to discuss my new book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens. I’m posting our discussion in the hopes of reaching any teens, parents and health professionals who might benefit from this resource. Please help spread the word by forwarding or sharing this interview on social media.
Janice: What sparked the idea for this book?
Andrea: Overeating, binge eating and body hatred are epidemic in our culture, and I’m passionate about trying to help people who are struggling with these painful issues. I began hating my body as a teen and was given the only tips the crazy culture had up its sleeve: diet and exercise. These were definitely not the solutions I needed, and like millions of others, I began a downward spiral of overeating, bingeing, sneak eating and yo-yo weight fluctuations, not to mention decades of body obsession and self-hatred.
I also know how important early prevention is; helping someone dismantle their unhealthy beliefs about food, fitness and feelings when they’ve been struggling for a few years (as opposed to a few decades) is likely to be that much more successful. While there’s always hope for change regardless of how long a pattern has gone on, guiding someone onto a healthier path in their teens, rather than starting when they are more entrenched in their beliefs and behaviors, can really make a difference, both in prognosis as well as quality of life.
Janice: Who is the target audience for your book?
Andrea: The book was written for adolescents who struggle with overeating, binge eating and body image. It can also help parents and health professionals to better understand and guide the kids they are concerned about.
Janice: Can you clarify for me and our readers, the difference between overeating and binge eating?
Andrea: Yes, this is a very common question. Overeating is when you eat more than your body needs. It’s important to know that even people who have a totally healthy relationship with food will overeat on occasion. It only becomes problematic if they do it too often or if it has negative consequences.
Binge eating is when someone eats a large amount of food in a short amount of time. They usually eat fast, and until they are stuffed and ashamed. And they usually eat over painful emotions and thoughts, rather than true physical hunger. Someone who binge eats can also be considered an overeater but someone can struggle with overeating and not necessarily binge on large amounts of food.
Janice: In your introduction, you describe the importance of building a “Stable table.” Can you explain this concept?
Andrea: The book is divided into four sections that each represent one leg of a metaphorical table: feelings, thoughts, body, and filling up. The idea is that in order to get over overeating (to have a “stable table”), all four areas need to be addressed. Building only one leg, which is what most diets do, results in an “unstable table.” So, for example, when someone focuses solely on eating less and exercising more but doesn’t learn how to identify and cope with the emotions they are eating over, they will likely turn to overeating in an attempt to soothe their intolerable emotions and unmet needs. Or if someone is trying to do more fulfilling things in their life but is filled with unkind thoughts and an internal soundtrack of self-hatred (what I call the “unkind mind”), they are likely to pick up extra food in an attempt to quiet that mind, get a break from it, or confirm its critical messages. If someone goes to therapy to get help with their emotions but does nothing to address their restricting and overeating habits, they are not likely to feel better in their body. So working on all four areas—feelings, thoughts, body and filling up—which the book addresses in detail, is how someone can get over overeating and gain so many more necessary life skills in the process.
Janice: Can you tell us a little bit about each of the four sections of the book?
Andrea: Gladly! Section one is what I call “Healing What You're Feeling.” In the same way our culture teaches us that there are acceptable and unacceptable foods, many of us are also taught that there are acceptable and unacceptable emotions. Namely, happy is good; sad, mad and scared are not so good. I think this is a large part of why our culture is more depressed, anxious, addicted and medicated than ever. So this section helps teens learn everything they need to know about emotions: where they live inside of us, how to name them, what their purpose is, what to do with them, and how to welcome and tolerate them rather than eat over them. I write that "we either deal with the feelings we are eating over or we deal with the feelings we have from overeating." Personally, I always wished there was a door number three, but no such luck. As they say, “The only way out is through!” So section one arms readers with many tools that will help them not only get over overeating but also with life in general. Over the years, I've received many calls and emails from clients who originally came to me for eating and body issues in their teens. They report back from college or adulthood that they feel so much more equipped to deal with stress, emotional ups and downs, and relationship issues as a result of the early work they did.
Section two is about our thinking. I call it “Pay No Mind to Your Unkind Mind.” An overeating problem is, in large part, a thinking problem. Most overeaters have a very strong internal program running (the unkind mind). Unkind thoughts lead us to have painful feelings, and painful feelings lead many people to crave extra food in order to comfort themselves or numb out. So learning how to challenge our unkind minds and upgrade to kinder ones is a huge part of getting over overeating. This section of the book, in large part, uses teen-friendly language to teach mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Section three is titled “Befriending Your Body.” I liken it to taking care of your electronic gadgets. You don't want to overcharge them, and you don't want to run them down too low. So I encourage readers to "take care of their body battery," and this section teaches them many ways to do this. Readers will learn about the ineffectiveness of dieting and how restricting (either in reality or mentality) most often leads to rebelling. (I call it “diet or riot.”) They can learn how to access an intuitive inner voice that will help them make their food choices and step off the diet/riot roller coaster. Other related topics include “Finding Your Natural Weight in a Natural Way” and “Beating the Body Image Blues.”
Finally, the fourth section is what I call “Filling Up Without Feeling Down.” It’s filled with stories, teachings and tips about how to nurture the deeper parts of ourselves. Teen readers will learn many ways that they can get support, connect with their own innate intuition and feel truly filled up without feeling bloated and ashamed afterward.
Janice: I noticed that out of the forty activities in your book, only five are actually about food. Can you say something about this?
Andrea: While overeating is certainly about healing one’s relationship with food, it’s also about so much more: learning how to cope with painful emotions; communicate difficult thoughts, feelings and needs; quiet your mind; treat your body with respect; and find more sweetness and comfort in life, just to name a few. The reason traditional diets have such a high failure rate is that they usually neglect to address all the important underlying issues that need to be revealed and healed. Once people understand and resolve the deeper issues that caused them to turn to excess food and diets in the first place, they’ll no longer need to use food and body obsession as distractions or numbing agents. Food can take its proper place and serve the purpose nature intended it to: nutrition and pleasure. Then new healthy coping skills can replace unhealthy over- and undereating.
Janice: How does a parent, counselor or doctor touch on such sensitive topics like overeating and body image if they want to recommend your book to a teen they are concerned about?
Andrea: Very compassionately, very nonjudgmentally—and definitely not while the teen is eating! You are right; eating, weight, body image and exercise can all be extremely sensitive and charged topics for anyone who is struggling with these areas. Our culture bombards us with so many messages about how we are supposed to look and what we are supposed to eat and how we are supposed to exercise that it’s no wonder eating disorders and body obsession are rampant. If a teenager has previously shared their body or eating distress with their parent, that could be a good lead-in for the parent to open the topic. For example, “You’ve mentioned lately that you’ve been struggling with your body image and wanting to go on a diet. I recently heard about this book for teens who are dealing with dieting, overeating and body image. Are you are interested in taking a look at it?” (This could be spoken or written, by the way. Sometimes a note or an email can give teens a little time to process a sensitive topic.) If the parent has similar issues, that can be another good way to start. For example, “You know that I’ve been struggling with dieting and overeating since I was a teenager. I know that you’ve said that you are too. It’s so hard, and I know that strict dieting is not the answer, and neither is overeating and feeling bad about ourselves. I heard about this book and wonder how you would feel about reading it together, or reading it on your own if you prefer? I’m going to work on this stuff too and I thought it might be cool if we did it together.”
Although it sometimes reduces shame when a parent who has similar struggles lets their child know this, it’s important not to get too into your own issues, eliciting the classic glazed-over eyes that often follow the classic "When I was your age…” line! Keeping it brief and planting a seed is ideal. Counselors, dietitians and nutritionists who are working with an individual (or a group) might consider recommending the book or offering a no-obligation invitation for the teen to share anything they write or learn from it. You could also consider going through one activity each time you meet. I often let my young clients know that I’m recommending the book to several other clients as well, in the hopes of diminishing shame and letting them know they aren’t the only ones who are struggling in this area. Doctors and other health professionals who want to recommend the book to teens and parents might let them know that they work with many teenagers who struggle with overeating, that strict dieting is not the answer, and that there is hope and help for anyone struggling with food or body-image issues. Hopefully you can see a theme here: being kind and nonjudgmental, and trying to remain neutral about whether they read it, steering you clear of the ever-so-popular parental power struggle!
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of Getting Over Overeating for Teens. She is also co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell and The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook. An inspirational counselor, author and speaker, Andrea uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, her Huffington Post blogs, or other services, please visit www.andreawachter.com
Janice Bremis is the founding member and Executive Director of the Eating Disorders Resource Center (EDRC). She graduated from San Jose State University with a BA in Liberal Arts and has worked in the healthcare community for most of her career. She was diagnosed with an eating disorder in 1975 and is well aware of the stigma associated with the disease, as well as the importance of emotional support and access to quality treatment. She is very passionate about advocating for people who have eating disorders. For more information, visit: www.edrcsv.org