When I asked friends who’d struggled with their weight what topics I should consider covering in this column, the subject that came up most often was definitely “emotional eating.” There’s a good reason for this – emotional eating, or eating for reasons other than hunger, is probably the biggest obstacle we face in weight loss and weight maintenance.
We’re often told that weight loss is a very simple equation – burn up more calories than you eat. Almost all of us who have struggled with our weight know exactly how many calories we’re supposed to eat daily to get to our goal weight. We also know how many calories are in that bagel or pudding cup, and how many calories we expend on our 30-minute walk. Most of us can add and subtract, so if that’s all it took, there would be no struggle.
It sounds so simple, but many of us have trouble doing it. Then we get down on ourselves for not being able to do something that sounds so simple. But obviously, if so many people struggle with it, it’s not that simple.
First off, why would we eat when we’re not hungry? Especially when we’re trying to lose weight? Psychologists call it secondary gain – even though it seems like self-sabotage, you’re getting some kind of reward for overeating.
I’ve heard clients list many reasons for turning to food, ranging from relieving boredom to distancing themselves from their partners. We eat to soften sadness, dull anger, and get instant gratification. In modern society, eating is probably the easiest thing we can do to make ourselves feel better quickly. I know that after a hard day working and parenting, I feel like I deserve a reward. Since taking nightly trips to Nordstrom is beyond my budget, I give myself some chocolate.
And then biology has to get involved, too. The first time we eat to deal with negative emotions, we get a surge of chemicals in the brain that feels pretty good. Unfortunately, that reinforces for us that food is an effective way to deal with emotions we don’t want to feel. Our brains also react much like they do to drugs – gradually the neurons need more and more of the chemical to get the same reaction. So where one bowl of cereal may have made us feel better after a tough day at work, if we keep that up, pretty soon we’re going to need 4 bowls of that cereal to get the same effect.
Only you can determine why you eat when you’re not hungry. It’s important to know exactly what you’re trying to avoid or trying to achieve when you use food for reasons other than nutrition.
Try this exercise adapted from Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology: First, EVERY time you eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10: 1 being uncomfortably hungry: “I’m so hungry I don’t care what I eat – feed me now or I will faint,” and 10 being uncomfortably stuffed: “I can’t eat another bite.” 5 would be pretty satisfied, neither hungry nor stuffed. If your hunger is 3 or below, you want to eat because you’re stomach is empty and you are actually hungry. (Ideally, you’d wait until you were about a 2-3 to eat, but we’ll get to that at another time).
If your hunger rating is above a 5 and you still want to eat, examine your mood. People who overeat (or have other addictions) often have trouble identifying their emotions precisely. In fact, not being able to articulate emotions is called alexythymia and it’s been shown to be related to binge eating in bulimics. Here’s a list of emotions to check out that will help you identify your moods more exactly.
Next, try to identify what led to that mood (the precipitant). What happened just prior to the feeling? Was it a phone conversation from a needy friend? An argument with your partner? An hour long struggle to get the kids in bed?
Third, think about what kind of feeling you hope to gain from eating that bowl of ice cream. Indulged? Taken care of? Distracted?
When I ask clients to do this exercise, I have them do the above for at least a week.
|Time||Hunger Rating||Food Desired||Current Mood||Precipitant||Result Hoped For|
Try this for a week. See what patterns emerge. What feelings are you trying to avoid by eating when you’re not hungry? Next week we’ll talk about how to avoid using overeating to mask emotions.