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The Behavioral Side of Dieting
Emotional Eating
by Katrina Christie , MEd, LCPC

So, why do we eat? It should be for one of two reasons: We should eat to satisfy hunger or because we are following a programed eating plan (most people call this a DIET). However, the vast majority of our overweight clients eat to feel good and this is why most diets fail over the long run.

How We Train Our Pets
Let me review a really primitive concept for just a second. I know two dog owners who have trained their pets in distinctly different ways.

One rewards his dog for good deeds with an uplifting voice praising his pooch for good behavior while simultaneously demonstrating his approval by strokes and signs of affection. His pet is anxious to please his handler and relishes the attention. This pooch associates extra attention with feeling good.

The second rewards his dog with a doggie treat. After his pooch performs the required task, Fido cares little about his handlers praise and affection, and instead begins to salivate at the thought of the impending treat. Kind of Pavlovian. Pretty basic, this pooch has learned to associate FOOD with feeling GOOD.

How Our Parents Preconditioned Us
Most children at an early age associate sweets as pleasurable foods, and pleasure by its very nature means feeling good. Parents often bribe their children with treats if they eat all their vegetables, do their homework, or complete their chores.

Candy, cookies, deserts, and ice cream become rewards that we learned early in life make us feel good or comforted. Our taste buds told our minds that food was a good experience, and generated a sense of comfort that typically accompanies good experiences.

I think you get where I’m going.  Most of us were unintentionally rewarded the same way the second owner trained Fido. Getting primitive again, it is ingrained that we associate food with feeling good. Understanding the mechanism and accepting the concept is a huge step in weight control.

How We Cope
So, when a BAD FEELING hits us, instead of recognizing and developing an appropriate coping strategy we SELF-PLACATE with FOOD.

It’s not at all uncommon to use food as a coping tool to control unrecognized emotions.
Here are some of the common emotions that I see regularly with our clients: anger, anxiety, sadness or stress.

What We Should Do - 5 Essential Steps
The following are 5 strategies to begin conquering emotional eating.

1.    Identify your mood
Recognizing that much of your eating could be to squelch a negative emotion is a critical first step in conquering it. In order to overcome emotional eating, you need to get a clearer understanding of when it happens.

I recommend you start logging your food, and as you log your food make a note of your mood each time you eat. Keep a journal or simply write one word or draw a picture of the feeling. There may already be a mood tracking tool in the application you are currently using to log your food!  

Once you have a week or two of logs, it will help you identify patterns and triggers to emotional eating. If you are truly eating because of negative emotions, I can guarantee you that a sprig of broccoli won’t satisfy your appetite. If you haven’t yet done so read the article Mindful Eating by our Clinic Director Paul Kolaski.

2.     Don’t fight the feelings
Knowing that a bad feeling will subside is important. Learning to deal with the bad feeling without eating involves developing the ability to tolerate it.  

Emotions ebb and flow. Sometimes we feel really good and sometimes we feel not so good.  Emotional changes often occur in a matter of days or hours and can often happen in a matter of a few minutes.

Stop trying to prevent yourself from feeling.  Sounds hard huh!!!  Feelings are what define us as humans; feelings add spice to our lives. Just remember, bad feelings can be catastrophized so quickly when we fight them or attempt to bury them.

If you eat when feeling a negative emotion you are creating a distraction, which does not allow the feeling to run its course. I challenge you to just experience an overwhelming emotion and take no action to prevent it. Notice how it eventually loses steam.  

3.     Don’t empower food as a coping skill
By eating during a negative emotion, you are giving food a new power beyond just meeting your nutritional needs.  Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it even stronger.  You begin to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that you need food to get through bad feelings.  Here’s a shocker, you don’t need food....you need to believe in yourself and your ability to cope.

4.    Positive coping
Finding ways to cope with negative feelings is the key!  Eating causes more problems especially when the poor self-image that accompanies weight gain hits. When considering a new coping strategy, ask yourself: “Will doing this make me feel better or worse right now....and how about tomorrow and the next day?”  It makes no sense to sacrifice feeling better in the moment if it costs you tomorrow.

5.    Conquer the hard times for future success
Life is constantly throwing us curve balls.  That’s true for everyone!  One secret to weight loss and weight maintenance success is being able to keep a healthy lifestyle even in the midst of the chaos.  If you continue to eat every time life gets stressful, you will be heavier in the future. Your weight under this scenario has no place to go but higher. Challenge yourself to keep your healthy lifestyle going during stressful times. This will give you the confidence that you can do this no matter what difficulties come your way.  

So I've Lost the Weight Now What?
The hard part of any weight loss program is typically not losing weight - its maintaining the loss that often becomes the most difficult part. Turns out that weight loss and weight maintenance strategies should follow the same program. In a study conducted by the National Weight Control Registry members reported 2-5 year weight maintenance success by adhering closely to three principles:

1.    Maintaining high levels of physical activity
2.    Adherence to sensible eating regimes
3.    Controlling negative emotions

Katrina's Bio