An excerpt from How to Lose Weight for the Last Time: Brain-Based Solutions for Permanent Weight Loss. Copyright © 2022 by Katrina Ubell. Reprinted with permission of Balance Publishing. All rights reserved.
“I just really like food.”
“Eating at a beautiful restaurant or tasting something different and special while traveling is one of the best parts of life!”
“Wine is my escape. My job is so stressful … I need it to relax at the end of the day.”
When I first heard the phrase “emotional eater,” I thought it didn’t apply to me. In my mind, an emotional eater was someone who was crying into her gallon of ice cream because she couldn’t handle the ins and outs of her life. I felt like my life was pretty good—overall, I had a happy family and a solid job, and I knew that I had nothing reasonable to complain about. Lots of people had it far worse than I did. I denied taking on the identity of an emotional eater and kept myself firmly planted in the “I just like food!” camp. Without realizing it, I was stunting my ability to understand my overeating struggles by brushing them off with this simple explanation.
But when a nutritionist I consulted advised me to read a book about emotional eating, it finally sank in: “emotional eating” doesn’t necessarily mean drowning your out-of-control emotions with food—it means eating food for any reason other than to provide fuel for your body. Thinking back over the countless times I had eaten when I wasn’t hungry, I immediately pivoted in my opinion. That day, I admitted to myself that indeed I was an emotional eater. And over time, I’ve come to find that almost every other human is too.
Let me be clear about that: anyone who eats for any reason other than physical hunger is an emotional eater, which includes the majority of people reading this book.
We’re so used to eating when we’re not hungry that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It just seems normal. I remember the first time I declined the offer of food from a friend, citing my lack of hunger. She responded with a chuckle, “What does hunger have to do with eating?” Over the years, I’ve had the same conversation many times. Through cultural and societal pressures, we’ve disconnected eating food from our bodies’ need for energy and believed that this was normal. If you decline a piece of cake at the office birthday party, you’re deemed a party pooper and no fun. The fact that nobody is taking into account whether they even want to eat right then is simply a testament to how far off track we’ve collectively become.
If we strictly ate as we’re designed to do—enough food to fuel our bodies and no more—none of us would have a weight problem, except in rare cases when something is medically wrong. But because our brains reward us with a dopamine boost, eating is designed to make us feel good, and there begins the issue.
There are plenty of other ways to get a dopamine boost, like fresh air, exercise, talking to a friend, relaxing with a good book … but food is one of the simplest, most accessible, and most socially acceptable ways we have. So whenever we experience any sort of emotion we don’t want to deal with or don’t know how to deal with (frustration, boredom, stress, excitement, anger, dissatisfaction, lack of control, jealousy, uncertainty, social awkwardness, etc.), many of us turn to the sure thing: food.
Trying to make a decision about whether to go to your colleague’s wedding even though you don’t know her very well and you’re not that comfortable with her socially? You grab a handful of chips while you’re thinking about it. Feeling like you have way too much on your to-do list in a day and too few hours to get it all done? You grab a Snickers bar so you don’t get “hangry” (effective marketing campaign!).
At the root of weight gain are a broad variety of undealt-with emo- tions that are kept at bay with food (and possibly alcohol).
And again: I’m not suggesting you must be depressed or struggling severely with your mental health. My physician clients who want to lose weight function at a very high level, yet they come to me with unprocessed emotions of all sorts. When I begin coaching doctors who want to lose weight, I send each of them an intake form where I ask several questions to determine how they feel about their lives and the issues they’re facing.
What I’ve consistently found is that most of the doctors who want coaching help feel like I did when I struggled with my weight: They weren’t feeling like their lives were completely out of control or like their problems were insurmountable. It wasn’t like the TV trope, wherein a woman turns to food because she’s alone and miserable and rejected by society—for the most part, the women who come to me for help losing weight aren’t clinically depressed or struggling to function normally in their lives. But they are stressed. They are dealing with a regular array of real-life challenges. They’re turning to food to suppress and neutralize their emotions. And many of them can point to specific causes of their weight struggle, or reasons they haven’t yet been successful in reaching their goals.
“My weight is the one thing I can’t get a handle on,” wrote Shaila, a client. “It bothers me that this is the one thing I can’t seem to do in my life. I want to lose weight, but even more than that, I want to stop having to think about it all the time. I just want to let it go.”
The best way to get to that place is to discover the emotions that are driving the behavior.
Katrina Ubell is a pediatrician and author of How to Lose Weight for the Last Time: Brain-Based Solutions for Permanent Weight Loss.
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