When we want to lose weight, we find an eating plan that makes sense to us. We learn the principles, commit to the strategies, eat according to plan and lose weight. This should be the end of the story. But it’s not. For over 99% of people the story does not end there. What happens?
In short, LIFE happens. We get additional pressure from work. We have a fight with our spouse. Our eight year old goes through a”a stage”. Our mother-in-law comes to visit. Any one of a million possible scenarios happens that causes additional stress in our lives, and has us reaching for a chocolate bar. Before we know it, we’ve regained that 5 kg’s we lost and another 2 kg has come to join it.
This is the yoyo effect emotional eating can have on our weight loss attempts. Everyone has stress in their lives, problems to solve and negative emotions to deal with, but not everyone eats in response to these common aspects of the human condition in the modern age. Emotional eating is a learned response – a learned way of dealing with unpleasant emotions. And as such, it can be unlearned.
First of all, what is emotional eating? The most helpful definition is that it’s when you eat in order to control your emotions and you do so in conflict with your true intentions. If your intention is to enjoy yourself at a party without regard to your weight or health and you eat and drink to your heart’s content, it’s not emotional eating. But if you’re overweight, or have a health problem you know is related to what you eat, and you want to lose weight and improve your health by eating healthy food, but you eat food you know is not good for you because you’re bored, that is emotional eating.
When people eat for emotional reasons they often describe feelings of powerlessness, both in relation to their eating and their lives. Although these feelings are completely incorrect and false, people will believe them so much that they think they must eat to get rid of that feeling. There is a strong sense of compulsion to eat certain foods because the feeling of powerlessness is close to the source of panic.
However, using food as a solution is both temporary and illusionary. It doesn’t help you to actually deal with any of life’s problems. In reality, we are using food to avoid dealing with life’s problems. We’ve become hooked on a short cut to feeling better through food in the same way that an alcoholic or drug addict tries to feel better through alcohol, drugs or smoking.
The problem is that the population is under increasing levels of stress in relation to the complexity of modern life, and hence we see increasing levels of obesity and food-related diseases. This situation is not going to change any time soon. So we need to find a way to break the habit of using food to feel better and learn new ways of dealing with life’s problems.
We need to develop an attitude that is:
Not overly sensitive
Not judgemental of ourselves or others
And we need to learn how to take a problem, break it down into its parts and then find a successful solution. In order to do this it can sometimes help to talk with others – friends, family or even a professional. Talking can help us to put words to our feelings and problems, sort out our thoughts and (most importantly) come to some conclusions about the situation.
Take an example of a stressful situation where your boss is angry and yells at you. You could just go out and smother your feelings with a doughnut (or six), or you could process your problems either on your own or with someone you trust by going through a series of questions like these:
What really went on?
Why did my boss yell?
Was it something I did?
Was he in a bad mood?
Is this something I need to sort out with him?
Did he really yell, or was I being overly sensitive?
Is there something else going on in my life that could be causing me to misinterpret his behaviour?
Approaching life’s problems in this way, instead of going straight for food, is likely to lead to real and longer lasting solutions. Where-as food will actually stop your problem solving conversations in the same way alcohol does, as you forget about your problems with a temporary “high”. Unfortunately, instead of really solving your problems, this way of behaving actually creates even more problems.
There are always going to be bumps on the road of life. But if we can develop a sense that we are the agent of our own life, and that if something happens, we can take care of it, there will be no need to turn to food as a method of dealing with it. For those who feel unskilled in this area, using the services of a therapist or health coach can help us navigate our problems with emotional eating instead of letting our emotions control our weight, health and lives.