How To Have More Control Over Food

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Do you feel as if you have no control over food? Maybe you make promises to yourself every day, vowing to “be good” with eating, and sometimes you do well for a day, a week, or longer.

Eventually, your willpower fails, and you end up bingeing and gaining back all the weight you lost. Or you eat healthily all day, but you can’t stay out of the kitchen at night. You feel as if you have no willpower or control.

Yet bingeing is not about control. It’s not about willpower. And here’s the truth: it’s not even about food.

control over food

Bingeing is a way of coping with difficult and uncomfortable situations, conflicts, and emotions. When we’re constantly overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with all the demands of work, family, and other commitments, it can feel as if everything is spinning out of control. We often focus on feeling powerless over food instead of looking at areas in our lives that aren’t working.

For example, Ginger recently went through a painful time in her marriage. After discovering her husband’s gambling problem, she felt like she was in a tailspin.

“I had no idea what was going on,” she said. Only after her husband lost a significant amount of their hard-earned savings had she found out about his gambling addiction.

A moment later, Ginger added, “I’m so mad at myself because I can’t stop eating chips. I’m out of control with food.”

She felt powerless over the situation with her husband. Yet, instead of recognizing how mad she was at him for hiding his gambling problem and losing so much money, Ginger turned against herself by focusing on her lack of control over food.

This is called displacement. Experiencing stress, anxiety, or a sense of powerlessness in some areas of our lives leads us to focus instead on food, diet, and weight, which we supposedly can control. Feeling out of control in those parts of our lives gets displaced into feeling out of control with food.

You have the power to change your life

When life feels as if it’s spinning out of control, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That sense of powerlessness is amplified when life throws you a curveball. Like Ginger, life sometimes throws curveballs. We find ourselves facing unexpected obstacles: illness, job loss, relationship difficulties, or other situations. We all know what it was like to face a worldwide pandemic that upended our lives.

Even without a significant and unexpected stressor, our normal daily lives can also feel chaotic. From the demands of work and family to our own expectations of ourselves, just getting through the day can feel like an uphill battle.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to regain a sense of control over our lives. When we are more empowered, we are less likely to use food for comfort or distraction from what’s bothering us or making us feel helpless or disempowered. 

You have the power to decide

Often we talk about wanting to be “in control,” and that can mean different things to different people. The definition of being in control means having the power to make decisions that impact your life, both in the present and in the future.

Feeling a sense of agency gives us the strength we need to hang in there when we’re challenged by the messiness of life. With that sense of control comes greater ease.

To have control in your life also means having confidence in yourself, trusting your decisions, and believing in yourself, even when you’re going through difficult times. 

And, taking back the reins of your life is possible–with the right guidance. 

The first step in cultivating a sense of control in your life is coming to terms with the reality that you cannot change some situations and people. The only thing you have power over is yourself.

What does that mean? Your attitude, effort, and decisions about how you spend your time or how you choose to respond to various situations are completely up to you. That doesn’t mean you have control over your emotions. Our emotions are simply reactions to situations. We can decide how to respond to those emotions.

For example, Ginger was very angry and disappointed in her husband. When she realized that she had turned those emotions on herself, getting angry and frustrated with herself for bingeing, she still felt at a loss.

“I don’t want to get mad at my husband and scream and yell and throw things,” she said. “That won’t help.”

Ginger was conflating the reaction of anger with certain behaviors. She equated getting angry with yelling, screaming, and throwing things. That’s what happened when her mom and stepdad fought, and she didn’t want any part of that.

Yet, the experience of anger is just that–a reaction. The behavioral expression of that emotion is what we can control. Ginger realized that she could feel angry and disappointed without losing her temper. She took steps to communicate with her husband about how she felt, and together they made a plan to deal with his addiction.

When faced with situations that are out of your control, such as the behavior of other people, it’s easy to feel helpless, as if someone is doing something to us and we have no choice.

Remember that although some aspects of life are beyond our influence, there is almost always something we can do to empower ourselves. We can find new ways to adapt to or manage people and situations, including situations around food.

Control and dieting

The $60 billion dollar diet industry sells us the illusion that by controlling our weight, we can control our lives. The idea is by losing weight, we can make other people like us more. By losing weight, we will be more in control of our bodies and, by extension, our lives.

Imagine what an amazing superpower it would be if we could manage aspects of our lives, including other people, simply by changing the number on the scale. What power! What control!

Yet, this is a lie. It’s an idea pedaled by the diet and wellness industry so that people keep dieting.

Dieting is inherently about some kind of deprivation. 

When we restrict certain types of food or food groups, that creates a sense of deprivation which leads to a preoccupation with all the foods we are denying ourselves.

Over time, these cravings can become more intense and difficult to resist, leading to loss of control and bingeing. Deprivation also leads to anxiety, which makes us more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort or relief.

Also, restricting foods leads to increased hunger. That makes us more likely to lose control and overeat or binge when we finally allow ourselves to eat. This leads to guilt and shame around food. By eating food we consider to be “bad” or off limits, we feel as if we’ve failed and can be vulnerable to self-criticism. That often leads to turning to food and bingeing as a way of managing guilt and shame, and the cycle continues.

Dieting itself can be stressful and anxiety-provoking. When we constantly think about what we can and can’t eat, we feel stressed and upset. Sometimes, turning to food is a way of relieving this stress. Therefore, there are many ways in which deprivation and restriction leads to being out of control with food.

The truest sense of empowerment comes from making choices about aspects of our lives, not from changing our weight. To feel more empowered, focus on situations where you have a choice about how you respond. Realizing what is actually in your control helps you decide most effectively how to use your time and energy.

When we come to terms with those aspects of life we cannot control and simultaneously become more intentional about those areas we can control, we feel more empowered.

For Ginger, that meant taking steps to regain a sense of efficacy over certain parts of her life. Setting financial boundaries with her husband was one of the things she did, along with taking piano lessons and focusing on self-care. She felt more empowered and stopped using food for solace and distraction.

She also sought support and joined a group of other people whose significant others had a gambling addiction. Talking to others in a similar situation can be incredibly helpful.

If you feel as if you lack control over food, concentrate on areas where you feel empowered. Instead of thinking about your weight, food, or instances where you feel powerless, focus your mind on those areas where you have choices. By doing this, along with practicing self-care and setting boundaries, you will feel more of a sense of agency and control.

Here are some strategies to help facilitate that sense of control in life:

Set new goals

When we feel like our lives are off-course, it’s easy to feel as if nothing will ever work out. By pivoting and creating new goals and taking steps to meet them, we feel a sense of purpose and direction.

Setting weight loss goals or intentions that involve stopping certain behaviors (like binge eating) or restricting foods usually leads to disappointment. Instead, set goals that will create more dimension and add interest to your life. These goals might be practicing more self-care, learning something new, or taking up a new hobby, all of which contribute to a sense of purpose and well-being.

Identify the aspects of your life that you can control. These may be your thoughts, actions, and choices. This can help you feel more empowered and also give you a sense of direction.

One effective way to get clarity and perspective is journaling. Keeping a journal helps you track your progress over time and also is a way to identify patterns in your life. Writing gives you an outlet for expressing difficult emotions so that you can express them in words instead of trying to ignore them, drop them, positive-think them away, or symbolically stuff them down with food.

Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is also empowering.That means understanding your limits and not allowing other people to overstep those limits. For example, if someone makes a comment or asks you to do something you don’t want to do, give yourself the opportunity to speak up.

You have every right to set boundaries for yourself and hold people accountable for respecting them. Saying ‘no’ when appropriate empowers you, as does saying “yes” in situations that you choose. When you give yourself the right to have those rights, instead of accommodating other people or protecting them, it’s easier to set boundaries.

Seek support

Seek support from supportive people. We often believe we should figure everything out on our own. We think seeking out help makes us weak or a burden to others.

Yet, connecting with friends and family members can make all the difference. Not only do we benefit, it gives them the opportunity to be there for us, which can be a good feeling. And don’t forget the power of online communities too. No matter what your situation, there are always people who can relate to you and offer guidance and support.

Facts over fears

When life feels out of control, it’s easy to be anxious and fear the worst. Fears about the future often lead to anxiety in the present about situations that have not happened and may not happen. Instead of focusing on areas where you feel anxious, afraid, or powerless and worry about what may happen, stay with “what is,” which is reality and what you know to be true in the present.

By focusing on the areas of life that we can control, we can develop a sense of agency that helps us overcome feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. While there will always be things in life that are beyond our control, it is possible to take action and cultivate a greater sense of control over our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. In this way, we move towards greater well-being and fulfillment. When we feel a sense of contentment in our lives, we also have a sense of empowerment with food.

 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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