Angry + lonely = ice cream. Hurt = chocolate. Bored + cookies = guilt. We’ve all let our feelings overrule our appetites and then regretted it. Fitness expert Bob Greene offers some healthy advice.
Many of us have, at one time or another, eaten beyond our hunger—and I don’t just mean at Thanksgiving. Millions of people regularly turn to food during times of stress, sadness, anger or frustration. They eat in response to their emotions instead of their appetites. And once they get used to dealing with their feelings in this way, they find it almost impossible to remember what true hunger feels like.
In fact, I’ve found that only about one in ten emotional eaters succeeds in changing his or her behavior for longer than five years. The problem is that those who eat (or deprive themselves) in response to external circumstances think they just need to be (or are being) more disciplined, better organized and so on. They may not realize that to break their self-destructive habit, they need to be aware of more than what they put in their mouths. They must also figure out why they’re choosing to eat at those particular moments. Otherwise, every time they’re faced with a stressful situation or feel unfulfilled, they’ll find their resolve weakening and turn to their best friend: food.
When I first meet with a client who appears to have some issues with food, I ask her to draw a circle with eight slices—a pie chart. I tell her to write the name of an important area of her life in each segment. To get her started, I reel off a few examples such as health and fitness, family, friends, career, spirituality. Then I ask her to cross off the areas she feels are going pretty well. That’s a big key for me. The slices that aren’t crossed off represent the parts of her life in which she might be feeling unfulfilled—I call this dissatisfaction or emptiness the void. And no matter how much fried chicken and how many hot-fudge sundaes a person gulps down, food won’t fill the void.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy eating (though emotional eaters rarely do). We are really off track if we try to minimize how important food is in our lives. A meal can represent a joyful social gathering, a source of energy and nutrition, or a truly sensuous experience. Overcoming emotional eating isn’t about depriving yourself; it’s about comforting yourself in a way that helps relieve the real problem.
Women of all shapes and sizes, including O readers, admit to emotional eating.
“I love to get together with friends, and when we celebrate or get excited about something, we go out to eat. My weaknesses are sweets—especially milk shakes—and anything fried.” —Michelle Burroughs
Many women, such as Michelle Burroughs, are social eaters: They overeat when they get together with friends. They talk and laugh and order lots of food. Now, I wouldn’t suggest that social overeaters deny themselves conversation and laughter. Instead, I would encourage them to get together with friends and emphasize friendship rather than food. After all, what social overeaters usually want is the camaraderie; at some point in their past, that love of being together was expressed through food. Maybe the family bonded at the dinner table, over heaping platters of turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes. As adults, these women need to separate the fun of hanging out from the meal itself.
Of course it’s even easier to overeat or eat badly when you’re alone. For women who travel a lot on business, as Jane McIlwaine does, that’s much of the time.
“I travel every week for business. Sitting alone in hotel rooms, I often eat junk food. I know I could go downstairs to the gym, but I get bored and just end up snacking instead.” —Jane McIlwaine
After a long day of meetings, she’s tired and it’s easy for her to buy Chips Ahoy! or Oreos from the hotel snack machine when she stays in at night. McIlwaine knows she’d be better off visiting the hotel gym but says she feels so bored sitting alone in her room that she doesn’t want to move. I know what a drag it can be to schlep down to the StairMaster, but is that the only option? Are there letters she could write? Could she meet with friends (or friends of friends) in the towns she travels to? Could she explore the city’s opera house or the nearest multiplex? Boredom is a surface emotion: Sometimes it means you’re just not aware of or willing to do the work necessary to maintain a balanced life. I promise you, the more active you are, the less you’ll be satisfied spending your time with a couple of cookies.
The other extreme—having too much to do—also inspires bouts of emotional eating. On particularly stressful days at work, Ericka Guthrie Dorsey copes by indulging in elaborate meals of potato chips and candy (she keeps a stash in her desk drawer along with a jar of goodies on her desk).
“I know it’s not great for my health, but on those days when work gets really frantic, I opt for junk food (like the candy or chips and salsa I keep in my desk) instead of eating a proper meal.” —Ericka Guthrie Dorsey
Joy Y. Baltimore was working full-time during the day while studying at night to become a chiropractor. She says that during the school year she would come home, sit down in front of the computer and eat a half gallon of ice cream without even realizing it.
“When I was in night school studying to be a chiropractor and working full-time during the day, I would come home and eat a half gallon of ice cream without even realizing it. I’ve been on a weight- loss program and I’m trying to make healthier choices, but it’s hard.” —Joy Y. Baltimore
These women are all making the same mistake—it’s one of the most common I see: They’ve put one aspect of their lives ahead of every other. They’ve convinced themselves that in order to be successful at that one thing, another aspect of their lives—such as their health—might have to suffer. In the cases of Dorsey and Baltimore, it’s their careers; for other women, it may be their husbands’ needs that take precedence. Oprah found herself in a similar situation: Not until she put her talk show in second place for a while was she able to gain a measure of control over her emotional eating.
Some women, like Julie Katz and Oprah’s friend (and O editor-at-large) Gayle King, stop eating when they’re stressed or overwhelmed.
“When I’m busy at work, I might skip lunch or dinner. And when I’m stressed in my personal life, I get knots in my stomach and then I can’t even force myself to eat.” —Julie Katz
This may sound like a totally different problem, but it’s not. They also let their emotional states override their appetites (and often overeat after depriving themselves). This response to stress will make you simply ignore the hunger signals, but when you can better manage these feelings, you can tune in to what your body really needs in terms of food.
“I crave carbohydrates—spaghetti, pasta, bread—when I’m down. When I start overeating, I say to myself, ‘I’m going to stop,’ but it’s as if I’m possessed, and I can’t.” —Diane Gavares
Recognizing the triggers is often difficult, as women such as Diane Gavares, Nadine Cremo, Susan Raisch and Jane D’Emic have realized. “I know I’m not a stupid person,” says Gavares. “I know that if I overeat, I’m going to be even more upset later, but I just can’t stop.”
“When I’m upset, I crave sweets and fatty things like bagels with cream cheese or butter. I’m aware of what I’m doing, but right then, I feel so far over the edge, I can’t seem to get a grip.”—Nadine Cremo
Cremo is flummoxed because she feels she has an enviable life—with three beautiful children and a wonderful husband—yet she is often unhappy and feels her eating is out of control. D’Emic has seen her cholesterol rise in the past few years. While she’d like to eat more healthfully, she turns to chocolate during stressful moments.
“I have always eaten chocolate or candy when I’m upset. I never gained weight until I had a child ten years ago—and my cholesterol skyrocketed. Now I worry about my health, but I can’t seem to get a handle on my stress-related cravings.” —Jane D’Emic
I would encourage these women to look more closely at their lives—past, present and future. Some will discover that they are using food to deal with painful memories (say, feeling neglected as a child or having a negative self-image based on teen awkwardness). Others acknowledge that they’re not happy being single, they’ve gotten stuck in a rut at work or they’ve sunk into full-blown depression. If they can’t figure out the root of that unhappiness, I may suggest they seek professional counseling to explore this issue further.
“I find sweets comforting when I’m stressed or bored. I’ve gotten better at managing some of my food issues, but on bad days, I’ll have ice cream for dinner. It’s something that has gone on awhile.” —Susan Raisch
With all my clients, once they’ve had a lightbulb moment—the instant they find out what is fueling their emotional eating—that’s when the hard work begins. Everybody says it’s tough to exercise and eat right, but that’s nothing. Eliminating what is driving your cravings means you need to make some often difficult decisions. One of my clients, despite successfully sticking to a workout schedule, found herself bingeing and unable to lose an extra 30 pounds. She couldn’t figure it out. She was happy with her job, had no family issues and was married to a great guy. After a few months, it became clear that while she loved her husband, he wasn’t the right man for her. She wanted children; he did not. They parted amicably, and she has since met someone else. She now leads a truly fulfilled life. On the other hand, I have clients who’ve figured out that what’s upsetting them is a lack of intimacy with their spouses. After fixing their relationships, they have little desire to binge.
Even after deciding how you want to change your life, you may still make bad choices. For instance, you can say, “I’m not going to stick my head in a bowl of ice cream the next time I have an awful blind date,” and adhere to it for a while before slipping back into your old habits. Sometimes a slipup is a result of “happiness anxiety.” I’ve seen so many clients reach one of their goals—and then clean out the refrigerator. Other women aren’t ready to deal with what achieving that goal means: Perhaps they don’t know how to accept attention from the opposite sex. Or deep down they feel they don’t deserve to be happy, so every time they experience joy, they turn back to food—which only reinforces in their minds that they are weak or unworthy. When I see these kinds of slipups, I know to ask my clients to look at what is behind their minor setbacks. Once they see the connection between getting close to their goals and bingeing, they are often able to get back on track. Others use the opportunity to explore these issues with a professional therapist.
What you have to remember is that changing your eating habits is a process of recommitting to your goals each and every day. Anytime you lose sight of that and start focusing on what’s going wrong, you’ll take yourself away from the life you want to lead. The key to overcoming your eating problem is to remind yourself that at least you’re taking today (or this afternoon or this hour) to move toward your goal. And that’s the trick of the 10 percent of those who manage to overcome this problem.
Emotional eating is a powerful and unhealthy coping mechanism, but you can overcome your tendency to binge when stressed, angry or frustrated. If you can recognize what’s missing in your life and work toward a more fulfilling future, you’ll find it so much easier to make the right choices when it comes to food. Even if you slip and polish off a box of Fig Newtons after a hectic day at work, try to learn from the experience. Why did you need them so much? As I tell my clients, you have an unlimited number of ways to improve your life—and unlimited opportunities to go backward. It helps to remember that every time you put something in your mouth, you are making a decision about the way you want to treat yourself. Your aim is to be good to yourself and to know what fulfills you—not simply what fills you up.