It’s a new year and everyone is jumping on the diet bandwagon to lose those extra holiday pounds. Perhaps your New Year’s resolutions include losing pounds accumulated throughout the entire year (the ones you started gaining after you abandoned your 2012 resolution to lose weight!) Whatever weight you want to lose this year, my unconventional wisdom is this: do not focus on diets, exercise, will power, weight, or food.
Sounds a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? After all, how does one lose weight without investing significant effort into shedding pounds? When one out of every three Americans is obese it would seem that overeating is the hardest habit to break (by far) and would seem to require waging a full-on war for any visible success.
The weight loss industry is a $60 billion industry and obesity rates are climbing by the day. There are currently 250,000 diet and exercise books being sold on Amazon.com and yet 98 percent of all diets fail, year in and year out.
So what’s the problem? It’s clearly not a lack of information about nutrition and proper exercise.
The problem is that people are eating more than their bodies can metabolize. Of course that’s not rocket science, but it needs to be said—people eat too much and they eat the wrong foods—in spite of what they know about what they “should” eat. Again, not exactly a revelation that their poor food choices cause weight gain and compromised health.
So let’s dig a little deeper…why do people eat too much? Why are they drawn to the ooey, gooey, chewy foods instead of the watery, green, leafy ones? Is it just because they taste better? They actually don’t necessarily, so there’s got to be more to it.
The reason people love sugar, carbs, and fat so much isn’t just because these things taste good, but because they relieve stress and anxiety and momentarily boost emotions.
People eat these foods (and in large quantities) because they help them feel better, which means they are eating to satisfy their emotions, not necessarily their hunger—which means they are emotional eaters.
Ta-da! Yes, this is the small, but critical, fact most people neglect when attempting to lose weight.
And no matter how much struggle and fight people put into losing weight, if they fail to address the issue of emotional eating, they will always gain the weight back again.
So exactly how do you handle emotional eating (before it handles you)?
The first way is to realize that the emotions we most often “treat” with food are stress, anxiety, and depression. Think about it: after a long, tiring day at work where you were putting out fires, managing projects, and juggling egos, you’re worn out—so worn out that you have no fight against temptation in the kitchen. Your favorite pie is sitting there just screaming to be eaten. Not only do you have no willpower to resist but you also reason that this is a just reward for all you’ve put up with throughout the day. One bite of pie and ice cream and you’re quickly forgetting your worries. Your body relaxes, your mood lightens, and suddenly you’re “feeling no pain.”
The same can be said for anxiety and depression. Starchy foods actually do boost serotonin levels in the brain, producing an immediate “feel-good” response. So when anxiety and depression descend, the pastas, breads, and cookies can provide immediate release from these terrible (and often terrifying) emotions. Of course, they then create more anxiety and depression after frequent binges cause our pants to get tight and leave us feeling more down and lethargic than ever.
There is a better way to handle life’s emotional roller coaster ride than with food and emotional eating. And it doesn’t include any of the diet tricks you’ve already exhausted.
Try these strategies instead:
1. Put “First Things First”
The reason most people are stressed out is because they have too many “high priority” items on their “to-do” list every day, and usually none of them includes their health. They also don’t include downtime, connection with loved ones, or spiritual nourishment, yet these are the things that bring happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of peace. So check your priorities and see where the most enriching aspects of life fall. Even though you want these things to get top billing, if, after being honest with yourself, they are low on your list, it’s time to re-prioritize.
- What task can wait or be done by someone else so you have more time to spend with your kids?
- What strictly “fun” activities can you incorporate into your week?
- In which ways can you make spiritual seeking a more common practice in your life?
Rearranging your priorities will mitigate the negative effects of stress, anxiety and depression, and ultimately support you in losing weight better than any diet can. That is why, at The Nelson Center, this is one of the first things we support people in doing when they come to us for help.
2. Self-Care Not Self-Control
This is one of my favorite things we tell our clients because it doesn’t come easily to any of us. When we think of weight loss we think of exerting control over what we eat. Yet that usually doesn’t work. In fact, if we really had any kind of self-control, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to gain weight in the first place. So instead of muscling through your weight loss journey, instead focus your efforts on self-care. Self-care can (and should) include sleeping more, taking your vitamins daily, drinking less alcohol and more water, taking more walks, guarding your time by not overcommitting to others’ requests, asking for more collaboration and not shouldering the responsibility of projects on your own, scheduling regular vacations, taking naps, stopping exercise when injured, practicing meditation, buying new underwear, and the list goes on and on!
The point is that it’s easy to neglect ourselves when we’re busy caring for others. And when we don’t practice proper self-care, our energy falls and we spiral into a negative cycle of eating on the run, snacking on junk food and indulging in a ménage à trois with Ben and Jerry!
3. Say It Don’t Stuff It
Most people don’t realize that much of the emotional eating they do comes from “stuffing” emotions that really need to be expressed. In our 25 years of working with people who struggle with food and weight we have observed that the Number One correlated problem is “people-pleasing.” That means that they often don’t say what’s really on their mind and instead act as if everything is “just fine.” They also do things they don’t want to do simply for the feeling of validation they’ll receive in return. The problem is that when they don’t get the desired effect, they are hurt and resentful. They then bury these emotions with more food. They rarely come out with it. This is a perilous resolve, as the cost of not speaking up and expressing one’s emotions is not only weight gain, but often depression, insomnia, and even cancer.
One UCLA study noted that: “people who have repressive styles tend to be more prone to illness, particularly immune system-related diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, infections, and cancers. The concept is of unexpressed anger; if one doesn’t let it out, it could have adverse consequences.”
So begin speaking your mind in a responsible manner and notice the difference. If this seems like a daunting task, remember this, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.” When you communicate your feelings and needs you will be better equipped to release the grip of negative feelings and begin to feel closer to those around you.
4. Connect the Dots
The most important thing anyone can do to prevent emotional eating is to begin noticing the relationship between their emotions and their eating habits. Reading this article is probably already beginning to help with this. We have all eaten in an unconscious way, believing that we “just like food.” But when you look a little more closely, you will see that you often react to difficult emotions by eating.
If this still sounds unlikely to you, I challenge you to watch yourself over the next week. How many times do you snack on something when you’re not actually hungry? Notice why you’re doing that; backtrack a bit to see if there’s something making you nervous or stressed that a handful of nuts or M&M’s seems to settle right down. Keep track of these instances throughout the week, and see what you find. If the only thing you find is that you eat out of boredom, then look a little more closely. Often “boredom” appears when one is uncomfortable with sitting still, and that can be a mask for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that sitting still reveals.
The bottom line is that everyone eats emotionally. Some do it more than others, and they carry excess weight as a result. Since 98 percent of all diets fail, perhaps a new approach to weight loss is in order. At the very least, following the above prescription will help you feel happier, healthier, and more fulfilled in your life. And who wouldn’t want a second helping of that?