Emotional Eating

By: Collins Hodges, PsyD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Experts in health psychology agree that the majority of bariatric patients turn to food as a maladaptive coping response to negative emotions. In other words, for one reason or another, people struggling with their weight often have not found healthy ways to deal with stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without thinking about what you’re doing. Food also serves as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or stewing over a conflict, for example, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation. Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same. Because emotions are by definition transitory states, the short-term suppression of the negative feeling invariable returns, and then you are left to bear the additional burden of guilt of jeopardizing weight loss goals. This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle – your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad, and you overeat again.

There are specific principles to remember when trying to put an end to emotional eating:

Practice “riding out” negative emotions

Negative emotions come and go. They ebb and flow like the tide of the ocean. Although it may sound counterintuitive to many people, the biggest mistake people make is trying to either avoid negative emotions or fight them. Negative emotions actually become stronger when people do this. Rather, the key to gaining some control over them is choosing to invite them in and allowing yourself to feel. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. Approach your feelings with curiosity. This will allow for greater insight into your emotional world. Knowing that a bad feeling will subside is important, because learning to deal with it without eating involves developing the ability to deal with it. For example, this concept of overcoming negative emotions is utilized when working with patients with specific phobias. Let’s say we have a patient with a phobia of snakes. The treatment, of course, is not to advise the patient to simply avoid snakes or fight the emotion when around them. Rather, sessions are organized during which patients are gradually exposed to snakes over a period of time (in vivo exposure). The idea is that if you experience fear without doing anything to escape it, the fear will go away.

Keep a food diary

Perhaps the most empowering practice to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the mood-food dynamic is to keep a food diary. As you begin to identify emotional eating and attempt to overcome it, start logging your mood each time you eat. This will allow you to identify episodes of emotional eating. You will begin to see a pattern highlighting the times when you eat in bad moods and which foods are chosen.

Strip your junk food of its power

Each time you use comfort food as a way to cope with negative emotions, you empower the food itself. Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need food to get through bad feelings. Incidentally, studies have shown that eating high-fat and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the areas of the brain that manage stress, thereby reinforcing your reliance on eating in response to stress (Dallman et al, 2011).

Develop adaptive coping strategies

It will be important to find ways to cope with negative emotions that do not exacerbate the problem. In other words, what are some coping strategies that will help you deal with these feelings and not jeopardize your weight loss goals? Some examples may include aerobic exercise, weight resistance training, yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, joining a support group, talking with a trusted friend, getting involved with community programs of interest to you, etc.

Set yourself up for success

Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Instead, fill your refrigerator and pantry with healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, sources of lean protein, and high fiber/low fat products.

Are you really hungry?

Listen to your body and learn what your physical symptoms of hunger are. Although they will vary from person to person, recognize which of the following apply to you: 1) feelings of emptiness in the stomach, 2) gurgling, rumbling, or growling in the stomach, 3) dizziness, faintness, or light-headedness, 4) headache, 5) irritability, 6) lack of concentration, or 7) nausea. Make it a practice to assess your body’s signals. Are these signals reflective of true physical symptoms of hunger?

Obesity and Self-Acceptance

Collins Hodges, PsyD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist

At one time or another, all of us who have struggled with obesity fall victim to the voice of self-doubt and insecurity. This voice takes the form of seemingly automatic and negative self-talk that can be persistent, loud, discouraging, and predictably destructive to our efforts. In order to develop the self-awareness necessary to effect change in our approach to weight loss, it may be helpful to explore how our self-esteem has been shaped and influenced in our lives.

Feedback and comments about our weight begin almost immediately following birth. You can almost hear the well-meaning and platitudinal commentary from loving family members along the corridors of a birth and delivery ward: “What a big, beautiful baby girl!” Over time, the developing child becomes highly attuned to the feedback from family members and others. Young children become very adept at internalizing praise and criticism. Criticism, in particular, is absorbed deeply inside our psyche. Over time, young children become aware of just how important it is to meet the expectations of others. They seek out from others cues to their self-worth and acceptability. Therefore, self-esteem is developed from feedback from the world around us and our interpretation of it.

Abraham Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation (Maslow, 2013) describes the hierarchy of human needs as the following, from most important to least important: physiological needs (food, sleep, sex, shelter), safety needs (security of body, employment, health, property), belonging (love, affection, family, friendship, sexual intimacy), esteem (achievement, confidence, position in a group, status), and self-actualization (achieving individual potential). The psychological needs (i.e., belonging and esteem) are of primary interest when exploring the emotional health of those on a weight-loss journey. Not only do children crave love, affection, warmth, and caring, but they also actively seek out approval, recognition, and affirmation. This is what shapes and molds our self-esteem. As a developing child’s social sphere is ever-widening over time from family to school to community groups to employment, the feedback and comments come and go. Unfortunately, the feedback and comments are often uninvited.

We become more aware of the feedback, both positive and negative, as we grow older and mature. The more positive feedback we receive and internalize, the more secure in ourselves we feel. The more negative the feedback, the more insecure we feel. We can begin to build a wall around ourselves to shield us from excessive criticism or labeling. Because we internalize the negative feedback and it affects our notion of self-worth, many people who struggle with their weight begin to hate themselves.

Although we cannot control the often pervasive, unsolicited comments from others, we can control how we respond to these emotional and psychological experiences. Traditional cognitive behavioral interventions highlight the importance of emotion (and thought) regulation as a precursor to effective action. For example, obese patients often spend the vast majority of their time in bariatric counseling addressing the urgency of reframing negative, depressogenic (or at the very least, unhelpful) thinking into more positive, ego-serving, helpful self-statements. While on the face of it this sounds reasonable, focusing primarily on the structure and content of internal experiences leaves little psychological and behavioral space to address adaptive behavior change consistent with one’s goals and values. In other words, theoretically the therapeutic premise would resemble, “To do X will require that I think or feel something differently than I am thinking or feeling right now.”

Second generation behavior therapies call into question the very notion that an effective weight loss program (or effective weight loss management protocol following surgery) is predicated upon the control and management of internal experiences. Rather, psychologists approaching psychotherapy from this perspective point to the illusion of control over our thoughts and feelings. Efforts to suppress unpleasant thoughts and feelings often serve to simply reinforce themselves on a feedback loop. Paradoxically, the first step towards healthy emotional regulation is letting go of our attempts to control them. A posture of radical acceptance of unpleasant emotions places us in a much more strategically empowering position to effectively respond to them. People are often pleasantly surprised to learn that by giving up their efforts to gain control over their thoughts and feelings, they actually reported feeling stronger and more in control. Not to be confused with “giving up,” acceptance reflects an openness and willingness to make contact with thoughts, emotions, and life experiences fully and without defense. Only in doing so can one fully embrace activities that are deemed important and meaningful outside of one’s preoccupation with evaluative language (from self and others).

Self-acceptance requires making a shift in your perspective. You are asked to move from a judgmental stance to a more neutral, objective stance. For example, being overweight brings with it a host of self-evaluative language, most of which only serves to punish ourselves and inhibit our ability to move in a purposeful, values-based direction toward meaningful change. In order to free yourself from the burden of self-evaluative language, one must make a concerted effort to assess dispassionately the workability of weight loss solutions. Objectively speaking, making behavioral changes consistent with your value of physical health is goal-oriented and calculated. Of course, many patients will inevitably find in their history a fusion of unworkable solutions to weight loss and self-evaluative, self-critical language. Moving forward, a more objective perspective would acknowledge one’s self-perceived weakness as it relates to weight loss yet, thankfully and in accordance with reasoned thought, fall well short of extrapolating that to self-hatred and self-loathing. In other words, self-acceptance will invariably be an ongoing, active process. Learning to love yourself, and therefore demonstrating an openness and acknowledgment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, requires a willingness to connect with who we are as a whole person. Accept who you are, entirely and completely. Only then will you be ready to identify aspects of yourself and make value-driven changes consistent with your goals.

There are certain ways to cope with obesity and proactively address your emotional health:

Talk to a therapist

Obesity treatment is best managed by promoting psychological and experiential flexibility and moving patients in the direction of values-based action. Consequently, the therapist and patient will work together to loosen the dominance of verbal and evaluative forms of behavior while at the same time weakening experiential avoidance and patients’ efforts to reduce or control negative thought and emotions.

Make a list of reasons you don’t feel worthy of self-love

Be honest and write an exhaustive list. This activity alone will help you become more self-aware of the ways in which you are treating yourself so unfairly.

Which items could you realistically change? Which items cannot be changed or altered?

Make a separate list for each.

Of the items you could realistically change, write down one small change you could make, for each, to move yourself in the right direction

For example, you may simply park your car in the parking lot of the gym for a few minutes every few days. Continue to make small, incremental changes in the right direction.

For the items that cannot be changed or altered, what would it take to accept this aspect of yourself or your life?

Self-acceptance involves compassion and forgiveness. Self-rejection only creates hopelessness and depression and fuels emotional eating.

Practice self-affirming thoughts every day

You may want to make a habit of saying to yourself on a regular basis self-affirming thoughts such as, “I am worthy of loving self-care,” “I can reach my goals one step at a time,” and “I trust myself to follow through until I meet my goals.,” and “I love and accept myself as a person, and I also accept this difficult journey to lose weight.”

Practice gratitude

Focus on what is “right” in your life. Be thankful for all that you have.

Maslow, A.H. (2013). A Theory of Human Motivation. New York, NY: Start Publishing, LLC.