No more emotional eating

Food is not enjoyable. It’s not even a life source. For me, food is a statement of emotions. I am an emotional eater. To be fair to food, I am an emotionally driven individual. I had a wonderful family but often felt scared or inadequate at home. I got excellent marks at school but lacked the smallest shred of confidence among my classmates. My mother was a home economics teacher, so the cupboard was always filled with ingredients. I grew up reaching for the top shelves to soothe the dread I seemed to be born with. Sultanas. Dates. Slivered almonds. Glacé cherries. Chocolate icing sugar, butter and sugar, rice cakes. When I ate from the top shelf, I ate to avoid being alone with my thoughts. The effect was instant but not lasting. However, the extra weight and the habits persisted.

Cut forward and I am newly married and working for myself. Both are daunting challenges and sweet biscuits have become my friends. One lunchtime, I was wallowing in front of daytime television, having just eaten a huge lunch of uninspiring food — plain rice, baked beans and microwaved vegies. I was stuffed full but I had mixed a bowl of chocolate icing and was spooning it into my mouth in front of Oprah Winfrey. Geneen Roth was promoting her new anti-dieting book, Women, Food and God. After I listened, I couldn’t get the book fast enough.

Geneen Roth had gained 36 kilos in two months when she decided she wanted to kill herself. “Crazed with self-loathing and shame, I vacillated between wanting to destroy myself and wanting to fix myself with the next best promise of losing 30 pounds in 30 days,” says Roth. Instead, she made a decision to stop dieting and eat what her body wanted. “It was slowly dawning on me that my relationship with food had affected every other aspect of my life.”

Until I heard Roth, I hadn’t put the pieces together. My issue wasn’t so much with dieting, because I was not that great at it. Dieting is bad but it was easy for me to get on that particular bandwagon when I spent the entire day thinking about where my next hit of food would come from. But my eating was definitely linked to my emotions, not to hunger.

When a boyfriend dumped me, I lost 15 kilos in two weeks; I also contemplated suicide. Back then, it was like my emotions were refusing to let me live, for the sin of being inadequate. Nowadays, I eat comfort food. Emotional eating still takes the place of emotional growth. I carry extra weight as a consequence. “Women turn to food when they are not hungry because they are hungry for something they cannot name: a connection to what is beyond the concerns of daily life,” says Roth. “Food is good and comfort is good. Except that when you are not hungry and you want comfort, food is only a temporary palliative. Why not address the discomfort directly?”

Roth proposes that, instead of eating for comfort, we stay with our emotions. For Roth, this is not merely physical, or psychological, but also spiritual. “Staying where you are with what you are feeling or seeing or sensing is the first step in ending the obsession with food,” she says. “It turns out that being with feelings is not the same as drowning in them.”

Dangerous diets

Unfortunately, most women diet — and are told to diet — to address their “weight issues”. Ironically, as we are slowly coming to understand, it is our culture that both promotes the pint-sized “ideal” weight and provides a steady stream of diets to achieve it.

Louise Adams, a clinical psychologist with Sydney practice Self Essentials, has worked in the area of emotional eating and body image for the past six years. She concurs that the diet culture is incredibly socially entrenched. “If we are not happy with our bodies, the logical conclusion is to go on a diet, right?” she asks. “But the number one pull for overeating is actually dieting,” says Adams, who describes the body as a survival machine. “The closer we get to (empty), the harder it is to overcome the biological urge to eat.”

Dieting switches on what Adams refers to as the deprivation effect, describing the Minnesota semi-starvation experiment as an example. In the experiment, conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War agreed to be put on a restrictive diet for six months instead of enlisting. The men became completely obsessed with food, replacing pictures of women with pictures of food and collecting recipes. As a result the men lost weight but showed increased levels of depression and anxiety. After the experiment, most men showed an increased food intake in general. “Psychologically, the deprivation effect is extremely damaging,” says Adams. “Bad things happen when we diet.”

Naomi Crafti, a counselling psychologist at Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV), sees a lot of worst-case scenarios. According to Crafti, not only can dieting lead to fatigue, headaches and muscle cramps, constipation, sleep disturbance, loss of bone density, bad breath and overeating, but dieting is the greatest risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. And if this isn’t motivation enough not to diet, EDV reports that 95 per cent of people who go on weight-loss diets regain everything they have lost, plus more, within two years. “We don’t recommend very restrictive, low-calorie diets, because they actually promote binge eating,” says Crafti. “We have a philosophy here of health at every size.”

If not dieting, then what?

Both dieting and overeating can be dangerous psychological breeding grounds, says Roth. “Overeating was my way to punish and shame myself; each time I gained weight, each time I failed at a diet, I proved to myself that my deepest fear was true: I was pathetic and doomed and didn’t deserve to live.” So where is the solution?

Roth promotes a kind of spiritual calmness, one that is forgiving of human imperfections, in which we can stop and be kind to ourselves. Dr Rick Kausman, author of groundbreaking weight-management book If Not Dieting, Then What?, has been a pioneer of a similar approach. “The important thing for us, as individuals, is to be a healthy and comfortable weight for us, not compared to anyone else,” writes Dr Kausman. “Evidence shows that it is healthy behaviours rather than the achievement of any particular weight that determines optimal health.”

Dr Kausman agrees that the methods we use to lose weight are usually damaging, often unnecessary, and completely futile. “If we had the same success rate for methods used for appendectomies that we do for weight-reducing diets and other such eating and exercise plans, we would have abandoned those methods years ago,” he says. “There is no single way of eating and no single exercise regime that is right for all of us.”

Instead of setting up diet rules and negative assessments of ourselves, Dr Kausman suggests simply understanding what we eat, when and why in a non-judgemental process. Kausman says that choosing the right goals — to be at a healthy, comfortable weight instead of reaching a number on a scale — is important, as well as setting up self-nurturing habits and self acceptance, and making allowances for getting off-track along the way.

But what about the weight? “I’ve been miserable weighing 80 pounds (36.3 kilograms) and wearing a size zero. And I’ve been happy wearing a size 18. It’s not about the weight. But it’s not not about the weight,” says Roth. “It is about the weight to the extent that weight gets in the way of basic function: of feeling, of doing, of moving, of being fully alive.” Neither Roth nor Kausman discourage weight loss but instead agree that, as a result of slowing down and addressing the key psychological and spiritual issues, rather than focussing on the excess weight that is merely a symptom, a person’s weight will usually fall off naturally.

Slow and steady

For a lot of people, though, especially women with families and jobs, whether that be in the corporate sector or in household management, “slowing down” sounds like a distant, utopian world easier coveted than achieved. Shane McIver, researcher and lecturer at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University, says that slowing down is necessary to connect with your mind and body. “We tend to distrust the process of slowing down — we think it’s going to rob us of the power and punch we need to get through the working week. It’s a revelation to find that the reverse is true,” says McIver, who recently co-authored a report entitled Overeating is Not About the Food, which followed 25 overweight and obese women (according to World Health Organization’s BMI ratings) as they undertook a 12-week yoga course, which included simple meditations on awareness and mindful eating.

While both food and exercise models were initially experienced as “unsettling” in their newness, the women gradually became connected with the ease of their new mindfulness. Some women were amazed at the ease of a non-forced model of exercise. Said one, “I realise that I treat exercise the same way as I do diets. Feast or famine. My exercise patterns are really very punishing.”

Initial anxiety gave way to feelings of being grounded and calm, made available through the process of slowing down. McIver runs weekend clinics for women, focussing on the practice of mindfulness. “Women who did the clinics stopped wanting sugar,” says McIver. “All the comfort food suddenly became uncomfortable,” he says. “Really, increased awareness is the pinnacle of everything.”

Hungry for change

Now that the perspective is better, what are the practical ways in which we can achieve a healthy and comfortable weight? The solution may simply be hunger itself. “I work with some people who never experience hunger because they’re always eating,” says Dr Kausman, who adds that many people eat without giving a lot of thought to whether or not they feel like it. If Not Dieting explores “non-hungry eating”, which covers emotional eating.

Dr Kausman proposes questions, such as, “I can have it if I want it. But do I really want it?” and, “Will I really enjoy it?” Dr Kausman says that, with practice, asking these questions can reduce non-hungry eating for a lot of people. “If we don’t [ask these questions], over a period of time, too often we end up eating more than we feel like and then it becomes difficult to achieve and maintain the most comfortable weight we can be,” says Kausman.

Denying yourself a particular food usually increases the level of desire for that food, which is counterproductive. “If we want to get into a pattern of eating we can continue forever, we need to allow ourselves to have something if we really want it,” says Kausman. The idea is that in slowing down and tuning into our bodies, we might be surprised at what we actually want.

Practically speaking, it is hunger itself that holds the key to our eating habits. Kausman and Adams agree that, over time, people forget what it’s like to feel hungry. “I list hunger on a scale of nought to seven, where nought might be ravenous and seven is uncomfortably full,” says Adams. “You’ve got to tune into those quieter hunger signals.”

Geneen Roth describes her students sitting mindfully with food and being asked to rate their level of hunger. After taking a few bites, the process is repeated. Some women leave meals unfinished — a first for many — which can be an emotional and uplifting process in itself. Adams promotes a similar process. “Mindful eating is about paying attention to the sensory experience of eating and not distracting yourself as you eat.” This includes — yes — turning off the TV, discarding books and newspapers and never eating on the run. Slow down to eat.”

“I’m trying to get people to eat from their bodies,” says Adams. Kausman suggests that keeping an eating awareness record — a diary of what you ate with a rating of how you felt before and after — to increase your understanding of not only what you eat but what hungry means. Dr Kausman includes feelings such as “a rumbling feeling in the stomach” and “a hollow feeling in the stomach” as commonly described feelings of hunger but also less obvious signs, such as “a feeling of nausea” or “difficulty in concentrating”.

I have found that the latter are symptoms of my hunger much more frequently. It has been a revelation. It feels like I am getting to know my body’s own language after a lifetime of overriding it with my own decisions. For me, the solution has been a physical, emotional and spiritual journey. “It’s about not judging yourself negatively,” says Adams. “I don’t call it spirituality but it’s about developing a better relationship with yourself so it’s not conditional upon how much you weigh.”

I have lost weight, yes, but I only noticed the weight loss this week. I have noticed a much greater difference in my perspectives. I do not adhere strictly to the points on a clock that, historically, have meant mealtimes (I have also taken the clock out of my work area). I have eaten a whole block of chocolate once only — and I did not give myself a hard time. I have connected with God in a lot stronger way, not just by praying but by noticing the gifts of life wherever they appear. If I am stressed, I often have some spiritual time instead of reaching for food. I’m starting to realise how much better it is to be connected with my life.

Mood Surfing

Louise Adams on how to deal with feelings as they come Feelings don’t last forever, you don’t have to eat them away. Here are four steps that will help you deal with feelings, instead of avoiding them.


  1. Notice that you’re having a feeling. Name it, “I am sad”. Research suggests that labelling feelings switches off the anxiety response. It will physiologically calm you down.
  2. Tell yourself that it’s okay. “I am sad, but it’s okay.” Don’t struggle with the feeling – accept it as part of coping.
  3. Agree not to act. “I’m not going to eat because I’m feeling sad.” Make a deal with yourself – you won’t eat now, but if you want to eat when the feeling is gone, go for it.
  4. Surf the feeling. Allow it to build up either way, let it come, let it be, and observe it as it runs away again.

Rebecca Butterworth is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Melbourne. She has one husband and one cat.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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