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Emotional Eating and Dietings

Many of us have tried multiple diets, plans, and suggestions trying to lose weight. They often work and we do lose some unwanted pounds, but before you know it the weight comes right back. Emotional eating might be the culprit behind this for you, as it is for a lot of people that experience the same thing. If you can figure out your own triggers and take steps to avoid emotional eating, you can get right to the root of the problem and help yourself keep those pounds off for good.

First of all, what do I mean by “emotional eating?”

This means that instead of eating because you are hungry and your body needs nutritious food, you eat to soothe uncomfortable emotions such as boredom, anger, sadness, depression, or lonliness. These are only a few examples, but are the most common emotions that I have heard my clients and acquaintances say cause them to reach for chips, ice cream, a candy bar, or whatever is handy in the refrigerator or pantry.

Emotional eating can become a problem in managing your weight in a subtle way. There are two common reasons for this. One, a person doesn’t typically just start eating to soothe painful emotions on a given day. What happens is that you learn over time that you can feel better (temporarily!) if you eat when something is bothering you. Each time you were feeling stressed and a nice meal or your favorite snack made you feel happy for a while, this reinforced it. The second most common reason is that many of us have been socialized to look at food as something that is soothing, either through television and movies, or by growing up in a family in which food was part of the atmosphere when problems were solved. If you ever went to Grandma’s house for comfort after the family dog died and she made chocolate chip cookies to help you feel better, you know exactly what I mean.

After years of this these influences, picture yourself after a day at work in which your boss informed you that you have new responsibilities you will have to learn how to do without taking away any of the existing responsibilities you have, and you had a disagreement with a co-worker that didn’t end well. You arrive at home feeling tired, angry, worried you won’t have time to manage all your work, and wondering if the disagreement you had will change your relationship with your co-worker in a negative way. You grab a bag of pretzels to munch on while you think about what to have for dinner, and then notice there is only a little cheese left in its package so you finish that off, and a few chocolates from the bowl on the table taste good … and you can imagine that by now you already you feel better, and you haven’t even decided what to have for dinner.

Times of stress make us vulnerable. And each person’s pattern is different. You may eat more than you know you should at a meal, snack in between meals, discover that you’ve eaten an entire bag of chips while you were reading that novel, or something else.

If any of this sounds familiar, then the tips to avoid emotional eating I’ve listed below can help.

1) The first step is to identify the type of events and emotions that trigger emotional eating for you. When you can identify the most common situations that lead to emotional eating, you are more aware so you can consciously decide not to let that situation lead to overeating and you can prepare and plan alternatives to emotional eating such as planning a week’s worth of menus or taking healthy snacks to work with you. A food diary may help you identify the events and emotions if you use the diary to record a brief summary of daily events, emotions, and be sure to write down everything you eat. After a few weeks, you are likely to see some patterns.

2) Are there underlying problems? Long standing emotional issues, past traumatic experiences, depression, losses, or other issues can sabotage the best intentions in managing your weight. Counseling can help by assisting you in coping with problems in a healthy way.

3) Take care of yourself. Of course, it is important to take care of the basics of eating healthy, getting some exercise, and getting enough sleep each night. But what I mean by taking care of yourself is more about self-care, or making sure you have some time to relax and do activities you enjoy. Every day. This is particularly important during times of stress, even though this is when you are least likely to have time for yourself.

If you are interested in reading more about emotional eating, a good reference is Geneen Roth’s Breaking Free From Emotional Eating.