You may have heard the term “emotional eating,” when people turn to food to distract themselves from problems or when they feel rejected, lonely, sad, or even angry. Emotional eating is tied to weight gain. But our emotions come into play whenever we choose what to eat, not just when it’s obvious, says Marc Kiviniemi, PhD, an associate professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions. That means a successful dieting strategy will account for your emotions.
Emotional eaters often have too few pleasures, frequently let themselves get tired and hungry, and hate their bodies, says psychologist Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD. “I’ve often asked people what they would have to feel if they did not binge or overeat and the common answer is, ‘I would have nothing to look forward to,’” she says. You can change that if you try. Letting yourself get overtired and hungry is putting extra pressure on your will-power. Body-hatred tends to make people give up on treating themselves well.
When dieting, make your resolutions sync with your tastes. If you decide to eat more vegetables, pick vegetables you like and associate with good feelings, Kiviniemi advises. You might also pause when you reach into the store refrigerator for a drink, for example, and notice the emotion pulling you towards the soda rather than water.
Weight-loss programs that teach dieters ways to manage emotions or thoughts have a pretty good record: on average, people lose 18 pounds over 6 months. But after that point they begin to regain, as most people do after diets. In this kind of program, participants learn to recognize a “negative thought,” stop it, and replace it with a positive thought. A negative thought might be “My husband doesn’t care how I look anyway.” You might change that thought to, “My husband accepts me at my current weight.” You would typically learn relaxation techniques and pleasurable activities you can do when you are upset instead of eating.
Another approach focuses on ways to “accept” unwanted thoughts and emotions rather than “change” or “control” them. Your teacher might bring a bag of potato chips or a chocolate cake into the room, and show you how to tolerate the desire or any sadness, anger, or frustration you experience. You might also practice techniques borrowed from meditation, for example, imagining your thoughts as leaves in a stream floating by. The group might discuss tolerating unpleasant physical states, such as hunger, fatigue, or hot weather. This kind of program has shown more promise with emotional eaters. In a small study, participants lost an average of 26 pounds over six months and had kept the weight off three months later. A larger study to measure the benefit of adding acceptance training to the standard instruction is underway now.
Beyond managing emotions that lead to overeating, most overweight people need to increase their fitness with exercise. Some evidence suggests that you can lose just as much weight through dieting without exercise for three or six months. But by a year or a year and half, exercisers do much better.
July 13, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA