I WAS STUCK IN A SELF-DEFEATING CYCLE!
I felt out-of-control with food! I was either overeating
or dieting. In either mode, I felt I was never good enough. I had
willpower and stick-to-itiveness in many other areas in my life.
So why couldn't I apply that same resolve to my eating habits?
I WASTED SO MUCH TIME, ENERGY, AND MONEY!
I was obsessed with my weight. Living like that was miserable.
Today, I understand that weight was not my real problem. It was
actually a symptom. My real problem was that I was an
EMOTIONAL EATERS USE FOOD TO MANAGE FEELINGS
We use food to self-soothe. People who have struggled with it,
and the professionals who treat it, call it by many different
names; compulsive overeating, emotional eating, and food
addiction. No matter what it's called, people USE food
because food works!
1. FOOD WORKS AS A TENSION RELIEVER
Both eating and thinking about eating work as distractions
from uncomfortable feelings. Being food focused takes the
edge off any feeling that a person would rather not feel or
tolerate (boredom, stress, anxiety, anger, loneliness, etc.).
For example...You're feeling bored. Suddenly you find
yourself thinking about the ice cream in the freezer. As soon
as you start to think about the ice cream, you are no longer
focused on feeling bored.
Food and food thoughts can be used in reaction to and as a
defense against any intense feeling or stressful life
situation. The use of food to manage mood becomes a
self-reinforcing habit. (Today, scientists are also focused
on the biology and brain chemistry of overeating. There may
also be many physiological reasons why we keep turning to
food, even though it feels self-defeating to do so?)
2. EMOTIONAL EATING HAPPENS ON A CONTINUUM
Emotional eating is normal. We all celebrate with food.
When something sad occurs, friends and neighbors arrive with
cakes and casseroles. It's only when emotional eating begins
to have impact on one's emotional and/or physical well-being,
and it's used as a person's primary strategy for mood
regulation, that it becomes a problem.
When eating becomes a primary coping strategy, it greatly
impacts a person's quality of life. At the most extreme point
on the emotional eating continuum, there may be a
diagnosable eating disorder present - such as bulimia or
binge eating disorder - and often, clinical depression as
3. FOOD, AS A MOOD REGULATOR, ALWAYS BETRAYS US
First, an emotional eater experiences an uncomfortable
feeling. For example...You just had a fight with a family
member and you're feeling really angry!
Next, you have a FOOD THOUGHT; and you find yourself
reaching for a bag of chips. Note...you may or may not
be conscious of when or why you are having a food thought.)
Once you are focused on the chips, you are no longer focused
on how angry you feel. The use of food as a distraction
You eat the chips, warding off the anger for a little
while. Then, the anger comes back. Now, in addition to the
anger, an emotional overeater has to deal with the guilt and
shame he/she feels every time he or she eats chips (or any
other food that he or she has labeled "forbidden").
4. THIS FRUSTRATING CYCLE IS A TRAP FOR EMOTIONAL EATERS
Until you develop healthier coping strategies, the only way
to avoid the guilt and the shame that results from emotional
overeating--is more emotional overeating! Every time we swear
we'll be "good" on our diet today, and then turn back to
food for comfort, we feel like we have "failed". Then, to
"stuff down" our frustration, or anger, or desperation,
we turn back to food.
5. SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO IF EMOTIONAL EATING IS A PROBLEM?
Make a conscious effort to become more aware of how and why
you may be using food. Develop new skills for mood
regulation. If you need support to do so, find appropriate
professional help (find a class, hire a Coach or a Licensed
Psychotherapist). The focus should be on self-care and
improved emotional and physical well-being--eating well and
being fit--not on dieting and weight loss. Remember, dieting
is a trap for an emotional eater. Dieting just leads to more
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6 STRATEGIES TO COMBAT
Ellen Shuman, Executive Director, www.aweighout.com/
#1. ASK YOURSELF, "ARE YOU AN EMOTIONAL EATER?"
Emotional eating is the troublesome use of food to take
care of emotional needs (to manage stress, boredom, anxiety,
anger, loneliness, etc.). Here's how emotional eating
Food and "food thoughts" are used as distractions from
uncomfortable feelings. For example... you have a fight with
a family member or with your boss. Suddenly, you find
yourself thinking about the chocolate candy in the cupboard
or in the candy machine down the hall. As soon as you start
thinking about the chocolate, you are no longer focused on
how angry you feel. People use food thoughts and food because
doing so helps them manage their mood.
#2. RECOGNIZE "EMOTIONAL EATING"
When you reach for food, ask yourself, "Am I turning to food
to meet a physical need--am I really hungry? Or, am I focusing
on food to avoid feeling bored, stressed, angry, lonely,
#3. STOP DIETING AND STOP WEIGHING YOURSELF!
Diets don't work! Food restriction sets an emotional eater
up for more emotional eating... and the scale makes people
crazy! Why give a scale that kind of power. Get rid of it.
(If you absolutely must monitor your ups and downs, the fit of
your clothes will tell you everything you want to know.)
#4. EXPLORE WHY YOU ARE SO OBSESSED WITH WEIGHT
Does this sound familiar? "If I could just lose weight, I'd
Think about that. Is your life really that simple or one-
dimensional? Or, is it possible that your focus on your
weight gives you an illusion of control? Blaming all of
life's disappointments on weight, body shape or size, can
feel safer than taking a good, long, honest look at other
life issues-like your relationship skills, your feelings
about emotional and/or sexual intimacy, personal or career
#5. DEVELOP NEW SKILLS AND HEALTHIER COPING STRATEGIES
The use of food to manage mood is a self-reinforcing behavior.
Somewhere along the way (consciously or unconsciously), you
tried it and it worked. You learned that it worked;
therefore, it became a habit.
The good news is you can now consciously learn new, healthier
habits for emotional regulation (take a class, hire a coach,
or work with a counselor who specializes in emotional eating
and mood regulation issues).
#6. SHIFT YOUR FOCUS TO SELF-CARE
Develop an extensive Self-Care List. On it, list everything
you can think of that gives you pleasure. (If you can't think
of anything, explore new strategies. Ask other people what
they do to manage stress, to self-nurture, and to have fun.)
Carry the list around with you. Pull it out every time
you're tempted to use food to meet an emotional need.
Eventually, these new habits that you're developing will
begin to replace the old emotional eating habit and will
feel much better in both the short and long runs.
For lasting behavioral change to occur, the focus must
shift from dieting and weight loss--to self-care and a
desire for improved health, eating well and being fit.
Remember, dieting and deprivation are traps for an
emotional eater. Self-Care is the way out.
Ellen Shuman is the founder and Exec. Director of theWellCentered Eating Disorder Treatment Programs &www.aweighout.com, which conducts phone coaching &groups about Emotional Eating to people worldwide. A Peabody/Emmy Award winning journalist, Shumanentered the wellness field in 1992 following an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Today, she speaks nationally on the subjects of emotional eating, body image & size-ism.