Whether you want to shed 15 pounds or 215 pounds, if you want to be successful at long-term weight loss, you must examine your attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors around food. Otherwise, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll backslide into old eating patterns at the first sign of emotional stress.
Theoretically, losing weight is one of the easiest things to do—you simply expend more energy (measured in calories) than you take in. But as you probably know from experience, the process is not that straightforward in practice.
The combination of poor discipline and inadequate support is a disastrous one for weight loss. By support I mean that co-workers, friends, and family help reinforce you in the process of weight loss or whatever personal goal you are trying to reach.
Sadly, many overweight individuals lack support, often from the time they were children. They usually come from families where achieving was more important than being, and where there was little acceptance of the children as they were. Their parents let them know in one way or another that they didn’t measure up.
But the truth is that too much pressure, for adults or children, only tempts people to rebel or to loathe their shortcomings, and consequently themselves. What they need more than anything is acceptance and encouragement.
For people who are chronically overweight, food becomes a vehicle with which to block uncomfortable emotions—usually anger, fear, shame, frustration, guilt, loneliness, and sadness. In their book Overcoming Overeating (Random House, 1998), Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter distinguish between “stomach hunger” (when you eat to fill your body because your stomach is empty) and “mouth hunger” (when you’re reaching for something to put in your mouth because you’re experiencing a difficult emotion).
People who eat from stomach hunger have a healthy relationship with food, whereas those eating from mouth hunger do not.
Some of you may find yourself doing both at different times, but it’s an important detail to acknowledge. For many of us, it’s hard to take in love but easy to take in food. So in a cruel irony, we can be physically full, yet emotionally starved.
The fact that obesity is rising in the United States means that we all must have something in common when it comes to abusing food…and yes, that’s a strong statement, but I believe many of us do abuse food.
Get a Handle on What’s Eating You
To help understand what role emotions may play in your eating patterns, ask yourself some tough questions:
- Have you ever found yourself looking for something to eat within an hour or two of eating?
- Do you sometimes overeat?
- Do you feel guilty or have thoughts of self recrimination after eating?
- Do you overeat to "treat" yourself after a long, hard day?
- Do you feel less anxious after eating?
- Do you rush through meals, not even tasting the food?
- Do you need to have large helpings of food to feel full?
- When you dine with loved ones, are you more concerned about the food than the company and surroundings?
- Is food replacing something that's missing in your life?
- Do you make excuses for being overweight?
- Do you know that you'll feel better (calmer, more relaxed, more energetic?) after you eat?
If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, you may eat to deal with problematic emotions—at least sometimes. If so, then you need to take an honest look at your relationship with food.
To help uncover your own unconscious drives, I suggest writing out answers to the following questions:
- Am I able to take in love from my partner? My children? Family? Friends? Or do I keep certain thoughts and feelings to myself to avoid possible rejection?
- When in pain, do I turn toward loved ones for support, or do I push them away and isolate myself? Why do I react this way?
- Am I getting something out of being overweight? Does it get me off the hook for sexual intimacy? Is it an excuse not to be more active? Does it get me help and sympathy from others?
If you’ve identified that emotions are ruling your eating, then you can start to change the way you think. This is what needs to be done at every turn. Especially when you get the urge to dig into your favorite comfort food. Stop and ask yourself what’s really going on.
Writing about it for a minute or two is even better. If you keep a journal like this for a few weeks, patterns will start to emerge, and I think you’ll be happily surprised at the insights you gain.