I enjoy reading your nutrition columns. I am a middle-aged woman, married, with three teenage children. I cook healthy meals and exercise regularly. Despite all the exercise and healthy foods prepared, I struggle with my weight. Unfortunately, I have an emotional eating problem. If it were not for this issue, I would be trim and thin. I manage to stay in control all day with my eating and then something triggers me and I’m suddenly bingeing. I go for sweet, salty and crunchy foods. Of course, afterwards I’m angry at myself for blowing my diet. In the past you’ve written about emotional eating. Could you give me some advice regarding how to control the urge?
Dear Emotional Binger,
I can understand your frustration. Given that you prepare healthy foods and exercise regularly, you would think weight control would be easy. Unfortunately, emotional eating can cause havoc on weight-loss and maintenance diets. There are many reasons for emotional eating behaviors and bingeing. Emotional eating is a learned behavior, it is self-soothing and is habit-forming. If you understand the trigger(s), then it’s possible to control the behavior. Let’s explore!
The Psychology of Eating
By making better food choices, you may be able to manage compulsive eating behaviors and weight gain. You can also experience feelings of calmness, high energy levels or alertness from the foods you eat. Being in control feels good and is good for your health.
What is the psychology of eating?
What we eat affects how we feel. Food should make us feel good. It tastes great and nourishes our bodies. If you eat too little or eat too much, your health and quality of life could be affected. This can result in negative feelings toward food.
You can learn to make better food selections, control appetite, and keep health in check.
Below are some benefits of “getting a grip” on emotional eating:
Increased energy level and alertness.
A more positive relationship with food.
Improved body image.
While we often have the best intentions to eat healthier, this is often a challenging task.
What Factors Influence Our Eating Behaviors?
There are many factors that influence our feelings about food and our eating behaviors. These factors include:
Many people use food as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings of stress, boredom, anxiety, and even to prolong feelings of joy. In the short term it may seem helpful, but eating to soothe and ease feelings often leads to regret, guilt and negative feelings. Emotional eating does not really deal with the problems causing the stress. Furthermore, self-image may suffer as you gain weight or experience other undesired effects such as elevated blood sugars, cholesterol levels or blood pressure.
What Role Does Psychology Play in Weight Management?
Psychology is the science of behavior. It is the study of how and why people do what they do. Psychology addresses:
Behavior: Treatment involves identifying eating patterns and finding ways to change eating behaviors.
Cognition (thinking): Therapy focuses on identifying self-defeating thinking patterns that contribute to weight management problems.
What Treatments Are Used for Weight Management?
Cognitive behavioral therapy is the approach used most often. It deals with both thinking patterns and behavior. Some areas that are addressed include:
Determining the person’s readiness for change: This involves an awareness of what needs to be done to achieve your goal(s) and then making a commitment to do it.
Learning how to self-monitor: Self-monitoring helps you become more aware of your triggers and more mindful of food choices and portions. It also helps you stay focused on achieving long-term progress.
Breaking linkages: The focus here is on stimulus regulation, such as not eating in certain settings, and not keeping unhealthy food choices in your home. Cognitive behavioral treatment also teaches distraction—replacing eating with healthier alternatives—as a skill for coping with stress. Positive reinforcement, rehearsal/problem-solving, finding social support and changing eating habits are specific techniques used to break linkages.
What Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Involve?
Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses how you think about food. It helps you recognize self-defeating patterns of thinking that can undermine your success in eating healthier and managing your weight/weight loss. It also helps you learn and practice using positive coping self-statements.
Examples of Self-Defeating Thoughts Include:
“This is too hard. I can’t do it.”
“If I don’t make it to my target weight, I’ve failed.”
“Now that I’ve lost weight, I can go back to eating any way I want.”
Examples of Positive Coping Self-Statements Include:
“I realize that I am overeating. I need to think about how I can stop this pattern of behavior.”
“I need to understand what triggered my overeating so I can create a plan to cope with it if I encounter the trigger again.”
“Am I really hungry, is this just craving? I will wait to see if this feeling passes.”
What Strategies Will Help Me Manage My Weight?
To lose weight, it’s helpful to CHANGE your thinking. Weight management is about making a lifestyle change. It’s not going to happen if you rely on a short-term diet after diet to lose weight. Also referred to as “yo-yo dieting.”
To be successful, be aware of the role that eating plays in your life and learn how to use positive thinking and behavioral coping strategies to manage your eating and weight.
Tips for Healthy Eating and Management of Weight:
Don’t skip meals.
Plan meals and snacks ahead of time.
Keep track of your eating habits. (See food diary below.)
Limit night eating.
Drink plenty of water.
Delay/distract yourself when experiencing cravings.
Exercise instead of eating when you are bored.
Be attentive when you eat. Don’t eat while watching TV, working, driving or standing.
Eat only in certain settings (kitchen table).
Watch your portion sizes.
Allow yourself to eat a range of foods without forbidding yourself a particular food.
Give yourself encouragement.
Find a support person to help you stay motivated and accountable.
Be gentle with yourself! Try not to beat yourself up when you lapse.
Think of eating healthfully as a lifestyle change.
Use the scale mindfully. Weigh yourself no more than once a week.
Make healthy food choices.
Using a Food Diary
A food diary is a tool to record in detail:
What foods are eaten.
When you eat.
How you feel when you’re eating.
What you do (if anything) while you are eating.
The diary can help you get a better understanding of what you eat and why you eat it. It also can help your doctor, therapist or dietitian work with you to make the necessary changes for successful weight management.
Equation: Adjust mind frame + cognitive behavioral techniques = long-term success and goal achievement.
Emotional eating is a complicated human behavior associated with feelings and is a food-related disorder. It negatively impacts weight, health and body image. Emotional eating represents an unhealthy relationship with food. Using food as a mechanism for comfort does not solve any problems and leads to further emotional upset.
Does food have power over you? Do you believe food can be good or bad? If you do, you are wrong. Learn to control emotional eating and appetite. For more information and help with weight, health, body image and emotional eating, call Nutrition Transformations.
Give us a call today. Weight-loss medication available as necessary.
Yours in good health,
By Jenn Chapler MS RD CDN