Do You Suffer From Runaway Eating? by Nadine Taylor

Do you sometimes feel out of control around food? Does stress or depression make you head straight for the chocolate cake? Are you constantly thinking about food, diets or weight loss? Do you fast or force yourself to sweat through long sessions at the gym after a bout of overeating? Do you feel bad about yourself, your weight, or your relationship with food?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you, like millions of other women, are probably suffering from "Runaway Eating" a mild version of a clinically-defined eating disorder. Runaway Eating is a newly-defined condition that covers the vast gray area between healthy eating and outright anorexia, bulimia or Binge Eating disorder. For example, you may be a Runaway Eater if:

* You have an out-of-control food binge once or twice a month but that's not often enough to be considered Binge Eating Disorder.

* You fast a lot, or eat very, very little, but your weight isn't low enough for a diagnosis of anorexia.

* You binge and purge (induce vomiting, abuse laxatives or diuretics, or exercise excessively), but not often enough to be diagnosed with bulimia.

While problem eating behaviors have long been the province of teenage girls, in recent years, more women in midlife have developed similar issues. Since these eating problems aren't usually severe enough to be considered "eating disorders," those who suffer from mildly disordered eating or occasional symptoms typically have to go it alone. Often, they blame themselves for being undisciplined, weak or just plain lazy. But we've learned that in many cases, out of control eating behaviors are not character flaws. These problems are actually driven by anxiety, depression, perfectionism, menopausal symptoms, certain types of thinking and, especially, dieting. The solution to Runaway Eating, then, is not to go on another diet, but to ease anxiety and depression, control menopausal symptoms, change the way you think about yourself, diets and food, and re-establish a healthy relationship with food. Only then can you leave Runaway Eating behind for good.

Sound like a tall order? It can be, but it's worth every ounce of effort. A good place to start is by lowering your stress levels. If you're like most midlife women, you hold down a full-time job, raise children, care for aging parents, deal with the hormonal swings of menopause, and bear much of the brunt of big financial burdens like paying for college or weddings. You may also be dealing with marital troubles, divorce, or re entry into the dating world. Is it any wonder that midlife women are society's most stressed, anxious and depressed group? Or that they turn to eating or eating-related behaviors for relief?

Too much stress is only part of the problem. The Runaway Eater also suffers from low self-esteem and tries to increase her "worth" by getting slimmer. She may also be a perfectionist who sets the bar too high, ensuring that she will fail. She puts herself on a very rigid diet, aims to achieve an impractical weight and gives herself no leeway. In her mind, either she's perfect or she's a failure; either she follows the diet to the letter or she goes off of it with a vengeance. There is no middle ground.

With so much at stake, the Runaway Eater's anxiety levels soar and she's plagued by depression and self-doubt. Thoughts of food, diets and weight consume her, and inevitably, she ends up eating something that isn't on her diet. Then, she throws up her hands and says, "Well, now that I've blown it, I might as well just eat." Once she starts eating, she just can't stop herself and then feels absolutely disgusted with herself. Some Runaway Eaters then compensate for the binge by purging, fasting, or exercising for hours. The cycle is doomed to repeat itself as the weight loss cycle becomes even more elusive -- metabolism decreases and hunger increases in response to self-imposed "famine" conditions.

Runaway Eating is also a convenient way to avoid dealing with difficult life problems. Food, weight and diet obsessions take up a lot of time, concentration and energy - so much that it can be easy to ignore other issues. There are also some more immediate benefits from Runaway Eating behaviors: restricting can bring a sense of structure and control to an otherwise out-of-control life; bingeing can be comforting or soothing while purging can be a way to relieve anxiety after bingeing, or a way to express anger for those who keep their angry feelings to themselves.

Fortunately, you can conquer Runaway Eating. The secret is to figure out what's setting you off. Then eat regularly, replace unhealthy thoughts with healthier ones and attack the anxiety, depression and perfectionism that fuel your behaviors.

Nadine Taylor is the co-author of the new book "Runaway Eating" (Rodale; 2005), who has also written several other health books, including "Green Tea," "Natural Menopause Remedies," "Arthritis For Dummies" and "What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Hypertension." For more info, visit: