Food hypercontrol: when controlling your food turns into an obsession

In small doses, paying attention to your diet is not bad. This encourages us, for example, to take an interest in the content of our plate and the quality of food.
In excess, or when we are in food hypercontrol, this type of behavior becomes harmful for our physical and mental health. Ophélie Reisler, clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders (TCA) sheds light on the subject.

SHE at the table. Could you define what food hypercontrol is?

Ophelie Reisler. Generally, it is characterized by excessive worry about food. We are thus going to worry enormously about the quantities, to the point of obsession, the nutritional values ​​of foods, but also their origin. From then on, each meal, each bite is scrutinized and analyzed. We can therefore speak of food hypercontrol.

EAT. Where does this need to “scrutinize” our plate with a magnifying glass come from?

GOLD. The need for control is a defense mechanism. It often stems from a desire to protect oneself emotionally and affectively. For this, we try to adopt preventive and defensive behaviors. Controlling the events around you thus gives the illusion that everything is fine, since it is we who decide. However, it must be realized that this also generates a lot of stress and tension. You can feel a real physical and nervous fatigue, trying to master everything. This type of operation is often found in people who are very demanding of themselves, in a permanent quest for perfection.

Coming back to food, we have to put things in context. Today we have a lot of information about nutrition. Surely too much. Therefore, when we look for it, we rarely find satisfactory answers to our questions. There is everything and its opposite, which is extremely disturbing for our brain. Watching your plate thus seems reassuring, since we follow our own, precisely defined rules. Also, when we question people who suffer from it, there is often, at the origin, a diet to lose weight. These also present increased risks of suffering from TCA, following the alternation between restrictive phases, and phases of “cracking”, which occur sooner or later. In any case, we always come back to this desire to control our diet.
Another external factor to take into account is the profusion of food in the store. Having to choose between thirty brands of yoghurt, for example, can arouse anxieties, which make us want to regain control.

EAT. Hypercontrol would therefore be a recent evil? Related to our current way of life?

GOLD. It depends on what we’re talking about. TCAs are very old. The first recorded cases of anorexia nervosa date back to the 13th century.and century. However, the obsession with healthy and eating well, with the idea that certain foods are good or bad, is relatively recent. In 1997, Steve Bratman, an American doctor, was the first to put a name and a diagnosis on this phenomenon taken to the extreme: orthorexia. It would thus be linked to the food overabundance in which we live, and to the multiplication of dietary trends.

EAT. These days, “watching your diet” is a fairly widespread habit. It’s something we all do more or less. But when do we switch into hypercontrol?

GOLD. Let’s say it’s the next step. When you constantly think about how you eat and constantly control yourself. When you spend several hours a day, thinking about what’s on your plate, planning it days in advance, it starts to become a problem. Also, if you eat more according to the nutritional values ​​of foods, than in relation to your personal tastes, you have to wonder.
Finally, food hypercontrol is also characterized when it encroaches on other aspects of our life such as our social life, and the slightest outing becomes a source of anxiety, because the situation is beyond our control. Impossible, indeed, to know how many tablespoons of oil were added in the preparation of this dish at the restaurant or at friends’, or what is the grammage of the food. For someone in hypercontrol, this generates so much stress, that he/she prefers to avoid confronting this type of event. At this stage, we begin to observe a withdrawal into ourselves.

EAT. In addition to social isolation, are there other signs to recognize food hypercontrol, in oneself or in another?

GOLD. At first, it is very difficult to realize this, because “paying attention” is something socially acceptable. In addition, we often feel valued, at first, by the weight loss that this generates, and the compliments collected. This feeling of reward is also felt when the person has eaten in a satisfactory way, in the “controlled” sense. Conversely, eating foods considered forbidden or bad creates guilt. Compensatory behaviors, such as voluntarily depriving oneself of food, in anticipation or after a gap, are then put in place.
These, as well as a change in weight, are signs that one is in advanced hypercontrol, and that one is drifting towards deeper eating disorders. Above all, they are not to be neglected.

EAT. If the problem is not treated in time, can it lead to more serious problems?

GOLD. In reality, hypercontrol is both an intermediate step towards an ED, like orthorexia and anorexia, and one of their symptoms. Especially with regard to orthorexia, moreover, because it is an obsession with the healthy, and a need for hypercontrol, pushed to the extreme.

EAT. In this case, what are the solutions?

GOLD. Each person has a relationship to nutrition that is unique to him, there is no magic solution. But especially when suffering from an ED, the first step may be to seek medical and/or psychological help from a professional.
Then, you have to allow yourself time, because changing your relationship to food does not happen overnight. When we try to cure eating disorders, we enter a learning phase, with new mechanisms to integrate, to develop a benevolent diet and let go. We must thus relearn to listen to each other, to feel things. This is far from obvious, however, and the process is not always linear. There are bound to be periods of doubt. But in any case, we must understand that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and that we must agree to ask for and receive help, which will always be benevolent.

Thanks to Ophelie Reisler.
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